Chaotic collections at Calke

On the finally day of our Trusty holiday we were getting closer to home, for me at least, visiting some local properties that I had not been to visit before. So the next property on our trip was Calke Abbey.IMAG0880

I had been to Calke before for a meeting but not got the chance to have a look around the house, and it is a very unusual Trust property. Calke’s tagline is ‘The un-stately home’ and for a very good reason, the House is a collectors dream, and an obsessive organiser’s nightmare!


In my line of work it usually helps to be very organised, liking things in their proper place, set out straight, clean and tidy, and I do tend to be rather fond of clean and tidy. However I feel like if I went to work at Calke it might just drive me mad.


To start with we were allowed in to the ground floor before free-flow opening. I’m still not sure whether this was a tour or sneak peek. We were allowed to wander about the Entrance Hall, then we were chaperoned from there to the second room, lectured at and the moved on into the last room downstairs where we were again allowed to look at our leisure.


This final room was brilliant, full of items that had been moved down from the collections store so visitors can see them. There was the front skirt of an amazing ball gown, decorated with iridescent beetle wings, which you could get a closer look at with a magnifying glass. There was also this beautifully detailed jacket, really fine embroidery.


There was also a lot of information about conservation in this room, which I thoroughly approve of. They have a brilliant example of pest damage, a jar a fluff that used to be a duck! Poor thing.


After our taster we had a walk around the gardens. These are much more orderly than inside the house, with lovely colourful flowers and a secret tunnel leading back toward the house and out near this amazing grotto in the gardens.



There is also a church in the grounds. Some days they have Gravediggers in the church yard, unfortunately there weren’t any there when we went, but it was lovely weather so the stained glass looked fab.



After our walk around the ground we headed back to the house, and it is huge, there just seemed to be room after room and there was just so much stuff! The first room of the Entrance Hall was full of taxidermy, which I did not like. I cannot understand why anyone would want to fill their home full of angry-looking dead things. * shudder *


The room we were dragged into by the eager volunteer earlier is called the ‘Caricature Room’ because the walls are covered in caricatures from newspapers. The walls are bright blue, not a colour you expect to find in your typical Trust property. Honestly, I think the room is quite hideous, but it did have a rather lovely clock tucked at the back.



All the rooms in the house seem to have their own style, the Dining Room is almost Robert Adams-esque, which I love.


The Saloon is very impressive, stuffed full of interesting items in museum cases. I liked the geological artifacts, the gems and shells, but again there were more stuffed dead things which I do not like.



The gorgeous golden wall paper of the Drawing Room manages to shine out even amongst more chairs than any one family could ever possibly need. The chairs had very fine embroidery on the seats though so i can understand the reason for collection them.



I really enjoyed walking through the attics, this is where I felt Calke’s character the most. The rooms were really dilapidated and pile high with random pieces of furniture. In some ways they were quite creepy, but definitely atmospheric.



There is a lovely large doll’s house in the school room.


The house just seems to go on and on, it is huge! Near the end of the tour there is a lovely surprise, a beautiful bed. I remember reading about the bed but forgot it was at Calke. It was found in a trunk never having been a gift never put on display.



The bed is stunning, Chinese silk and gold work and silk embroidery decorating. It is so pretty, birds fly through trees and flowers. The colours are still so vivid because it had never been exposed to light or dirt. When the Trust erected the bed they put it in a darkened room, behind glass to preserve it as is. It is so nice to see such a fantastic piece of furniture in such great condition.


At the end of tour, once we were through the abandoned looking kitchens, we got the chance to go through a tunnel where beer would have been delivered to the house. The tunnel was very cool, and they even have their own skeleton, found in the Courtyard and laid back to rest there.


Calke is a very unique property, they didn’t even get electricity until 1962! The Harper Crewe family were a family of collectors, so that is how the house came to be so full of such an amazing and varied collection. When Calke came to the Trust in 1985 they decided to treat it in a way the respects its individual nature.


It was decided that the house would be preserved in the state it was left in. While most of the collection didn’t really appeal to me I do love the fact the Calke is so different to other Trust properties. I can’t say that I liked everything about the house, or even most things, but I did really enjoy my day out there. I liked the atmosphere of the attics and how interesting the house and its collection are, I would go back and take friends to visit with me, I bet you would see more and more every time you visit.

Conservation Week

We Chaps have been taking a break this week from both the Summer and Winter clean works programs to educate and entertain the public with what exactly it means to be a Conservation Assistant at Hardwick Hall. Last weekend I went back to Huddersfield for a catch up with college friends, we realised that the last time all of us had been together would have been about four years ago! A lot has changed in that time. Instead of talking about teachers, A-Level results and University we were talking jobs, salaries and weddings! Very odd. Once again I got asked the very familiar question of  ‘So what is it you actually do?’.


I get this question all the time, from family and friends who know I work for the National Trust, but don’t really know more than that. And the usual response I get when I tell people I am a Conservation Assistant is ‘ a what?’. Explaining exactly what I do is not that easy either, my job is so varied. I either burble on about all the different things I do, or try to sum it up and end up really underselling it. When people do have an idea of what we do it is either a bit of an under-estimation ‘Oh, so you’re a cleaner then?’ or we get a brilliant promotion without the pay-rise ‘You restore the tapestries!’.

This is one of the reasons I love having this blog, if people are really interested I point them in this direction and they can see for themselves what I get up to, I find the pictures help. It is also one of the main aims of Conservation week, showing the public what our jobs entail and just how much work goes in to looking after these magnificent places! The feedback we get is fantastic.WP_000804 (2)

People are often really shocked by how much work we do, how careful we have to be and how much detail we go into. Often these responses are accompanied by people commenting on how rewarding it must be (it really is!) and even the occasional appreciative remark. I love seeing the shock on people’s faces when we talk about everything we do, it makes me realise how hard we work everyday and I feel really accomplished. It is also really lovely to hear people tell us to ‘keep us the good work’ or comment on the standard of the Hall.

Education people about what we do will also hopefully help them to realise what is achievable and why something are they way they are, like the comment about ‘dusty textiles’. It is really difficult for us to hear criticism like this when we spend each and every day working hard, and we care so much about the Hall and collection. Weeks like this will help inform people, so they can rest assured that whatever it looks like we definitely do not neglect the collection.

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I really love talking to the public about my job, and sharing all the interesting things I get to do, so I have really enjoyed this week. We have been running Conservation Tours this week and I back-stopped one on thursday. Hearing the volunteer leading it tell the visitors about my job was really quite cool. Their reactions reminded me yet again how lucky I am to work here, and talking about the things that are now second nature to me showed how much we are responsible for on a day-to-day basis.

The Conservation Team had a table set up in the Long Gallery all week, where we invited visitors to come and meet us, and have a chat. All week we have been telling people about what we do, daily, weekly and on an annual basis. We have also been offering advice to people with antiques of their own in need of TLC. The main topics of conversation have been the rush matting, pests and the tapestries. I collected a few sample pests for the visitors to have a look at, and think I may have weirded out one or two people with my passion for pests!

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All through-out the week we have been delivering talks about various elements of conservation. I have been giving a talk on the Gideon Tapestries in the Long Gallery. I can’t believe how much I enjoy writing and giving talks and tours now, when only a few years ago doing the same at uni was practically torture and I was always so nervous. Today you struggle to get me to shut up once I start going on about something conservation related! Which you may have noticed in these long rambly blog posts.

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Hopefully this week will have enlightened a few visitors to what conservation means, and how much work goes on behind the scenes at Trust properties. Conservation is such a prominent issue at Hardwick; there are always textiles away in workshops and the issue is getting more pressing with increasing visitor numbers. If we can inform our visitors more about the issues it will make our jobs much easier, and more understanding will hopefully lead to more opportunities for us too. I hope a few people will go away looking at heritage properties differently now, and will be more informed about why certain decisions are made. Even is not, we have had a lovely week out on the front lines, and are looking forward to doing it all again in September!

Benthall Hall

On the 1st August me and Naomi, the other Long Term Volunteer here at Powis, had the opportunity to shadow Samantha Taylor, the National Trust regional conservator for our area. She was doing a property visit to Benthall hall, a small house owned by the trust near Iron Bridge. She was doing one of her regular property visit to establish what conservation tasks needed doing in the property, and to prioritize them. This is called a Preventative Conservation Audit and should be done at every property annually. She took me and Naomi with her to help with some other tasks that also needed doing. The property is short-staffed and extra man power for a few days here and there will make all the difference in denting the properties ‘To Do list’.

Benthall Hall

Benthall Hall has been in Trust ownership as long as Powis Castle but the donor family have only recently moved out of permanent residence there, giving the Trust more rooms and more leeway. Therefore the combination of a small team and limited access mean there were aspects of the property’s management that did not align with Trust standards in other properties. This included their Integrated Pest Management system.

Sam tasked me and Naomi with establishing what Pest monitoring they had in place and then to instate a new plan using what we had learned on the IMP training day earlier that week. What I am enjoying so much about working for the Trust is the way we are not babied in any way, we are shown how to do something and then the next time we do it, we are trusted to do it alone. People are always there to ask questions and help out but it is really nice to feel that the team think we are capable enough to do this.

There were pest traps placed around the building but there was usually onely one in each room, and non in the rooms recently acquired by the Trust. It was like a treasure hunt, going into the room not knowing is there would be a trap in there, let alone any idea where it would be located. However most treasure hunts have better prizes than dead bugs at the end! Me and Naomi worked together, recording what pests were in the old traps, and this was a good way to put into practice what we had learnt with Bob on the training day. I enjoy looking at the traps and identifying the pests there, it really makes me feel like I have learnt a useful  skill! Then we were deciding where to place the new traps.

An example of a pest trap used by the Trust

We decided to place the traps after the training day had raised our awareness of the reasons pests come inside a building (heat/ dark/ damp/ to breed/ to eat) and how they enter a property (gaps/ windows/ chimneys). Taking these factors into account we placed two or three pest traps in each room and recorded their locations on a map. The we wrote the traps onto a   paper copy of the new Trust standard record forms. This should hopefully set up the system in a simple way that allows the property staff to look at what we have done and be able to pick up recording from where we have left off.

This was a really good experience, something amazing to put on the CV and talk about in interview ect, which is really what this experience is about, gaining skills to increase my employability. It was also really interesting to do. It did however make me want to go back to the property and help them out with some of the pest problems we identified on our visit, I don’t like starting something and not seeing it through to the end.

Sam was also really good at the end of the day, asking us what we were particularly interested in ( a difficult decision to narrow it down) and telling us about upcoming projects she can hopefully get us involved in and other properties with small house teams that could use help now and then. This is very exciting and fantastic of her, to help us hopefully gain more experience and visit even more Trust owned properties. It is all very exciting, and really rewarding to know that while we get an amazing experience out of it we are also helping the Trust!

The link to the National Trust Webpages for the Property:

Integrated Pest Management

One thing I really never thought I would enjoy doing before entering into the world of preventative conservation was getting anywhere near bugs, however I have come to find it really fascinating, maybe even . . . enjoyable . . .

On the 30th July Powis hosted the Integrated Pest Management Training, a course designed to teach house staff about potential pest problems, how to monitor, how to avoid them and if anything should happen how to treat it.

A Woolly Bear – Carpet Beetle larvae

The day began with a practical session led by Bob Child, the founder of Historyonics a company that supplies the National Trust and other historic companies with tools to combat pest problems. He invented Constrain, a solution used to stop pest infestations. It is sprayed on infected objects and is lethal to insects. Throughout the morning’s talk it seemed that Bob has worked at every major museum in Britain and he is the pest specialist of the National Trust as well, that makes him a little bit of a rock star in my book, I would love to have such an in-depth knowledge of one area, like pests, and use that information to take me to all these different, amazing, interesting locations. It would be amazing to be the person the National Trust went to for advice on a specific subject area.

The morning talk was about the different types of pests, how they get into properties, why they come in, what to look out for and the different ways to monitor and tackle pest activity. We were shown various different types of pest traps used to monitor activity. Bob was a really good speaker, making the topic interesting and even, in some places, funny. The cases he told us about were interesting too, if a little horrifying listening to the damage that can be done.

Wood Worm Larvae and the damage they do

The afternoon consisted of a session with Bob looking at examples of pests so we could get our eye in for the second part of the afternoon. He also told us about each species, what they look like, what they eat and how to tackle them. This was interesting to see clear examples of all the different pests and they damage they could do. I have never really seen examples of any serious damage done by pests, so this was very interesting to see, and much better seeing it like this than in an actual infestation. He also showed us different insecticides and talked us through when and how to use them.

Next we were walked around the castle looking at the pest traps and identifying what was in each. Catherine Harris and Sam Taylor led this part of the day. We were given maps so I led the group around the castle and stood back from the identifying, as I had already seen all the traps when I have been recording them. This was a really good exercise because as Catherine said, pests will not always be as clear to identify as Bob’s nicely preserved specimens.

Furniture Beetle – Adult Wood Worm

Then we went back to the Old Kitchens and were talked through the spread sheets used to record the pests. Now that most of the Trust properties are using the same format of recording it makes it easier for central office to keep an eye on what problems are occurring where, and keep a detailed record of pest activity. The day was really interesting and it was enjoyable to meet many other Trust employes from different properties in the surrounding areas.

I do find this area fascinating, and enjoy identifying the different species in the traps. Though I will admit, I’m more likely to run a mile from a spider than try to catch it, thought that’s ok as they’re not technically pests.

(Pictures included throughout from