Although we love people visiting Hardwick there is a danger it can get too much! From a conservation point of view we could do without 500+ people coming through the Hall everyday, because the more visitors we have the more dust and dirt and wear and tear we expose our lovely collection too! However the whole reason we care for the Hall and collection is so that people can come in a visit, and we love sharing it with you. Also from a very boring, practical point of view it is our visitors that pay our wages and fund our conservation work! So we will always let people in, but we have to work on making people aware of the challenges we face by doing so, and the biggest challenge at the moment for Hardwick is our poor floor!
The High Great Chamber
I have always loved the fact that the floors at Hardwick are, for the most part, covered in rush matting. This is what Bess would have covered the floors in so it is very authentic and I love that the Hall is keeping that tradition alive. The smell and textures, and the look of a new rush mat floor, are fantastic. However in Bess’ day she did not get anywhere near the number of visitors we do today. Even at its peak of use before it came to the Trust the Hall never got anywhere near the numbers of visitors we do, and we are at a peak number of visitors for the Trust too! I was told at Powis that for every one year the Trust open a property, it is equivalent to the wear of at least 25 years domestic use! At the moment we are getting at least 500 people through the Hall everyday, not to mention how much we staff are back and forth, so I would say it could be even more. I don’t know how much extra wear the House Team’s activity creates on the floors but it’s certainly enough to wear me out!
Because of this our rush matting is disintegrating, especially in areas of high traffic, like outside of Bess’ bedroom where people walk back and forth on one narrow strip. The matting is costly to replace, which means we have to take care of it and try to get the matting to last as long as possible. We do this in several ways.
Firstly our brilliant volunteers come in a water the matting once a week. This involves taking a watering can and sprinkling a mist of water over the areas of the floor that having matting on them. Keeping the matting waters increases int’s durability, as dry matting would become brittle and break apart under people’s feet much more readily. The second thing we do it put rugs down in areas that may get a lot of activity, like in-front of our children’s activity stations. The rug protects the floor underneath, and keeps the area nice and tidy for the kids.
We also patch any areas where the rushes have broken and created a hole in the matting. This can take up a lot of our time, and does not look brilliant, but will prevent any holes from getting bigger, and elongate the life of the matting as well. This process is done in several steps. First we find the hole in the matting. These are created when the individual rushed in the plait of the matting wear away and break, causing the plait to come undone. Once the hole has started the action of people walking over it exacerbates the problem further, causing more of the rushes to break and the hole gets bigger.
The broken rushed are trimmed to create a neat edge to work with, and one that is easier the tape down.
The first layer of strong white tape is the put over the hole. We make sure that the whole and any worn areas immediately next to it are covered.
Then brown parcel tape is put on top of the white tape. This firstly disguises the taped area a little more, as the brown blends in to the matting better than the white. It also provides a second layer of cover over the hole.
Lastly to neaten the edges of the taped area strips of brown tape are places the opposite way over the first strips, to try to keep the patch stuck down.
A lot of the taping we do on a weekly basis is re-taping patches that already exist, as the action of people walking over the top peels the tape off the matting and we need to stick it down again. It is time-consuming, and has to be re-done regularly, but looks much better when it has been done.
If a strip of matting is really damaged, or a small area consisting of a couple of strips, we can take these out and replace them with other strips we keep spare. This works best in narrow areas, such as when I helped replace the strips in the corridor by the Blue Bedroom, as it is a time-consuming effort. The strip has to be unpicked and removed and the new strips then cut to size and put in place. These are then sewn in by hand, with a large curved needle usually used for leather work. This is back-breaking work as we are hunched over making sure the strips are sewn securely, and that the stitches will keep the floor together under the pressure of the flow of traffic.
We have a couple of problem areas, like near Bess’ Bedroom, but the one that is plaguing us the most at the moment, when it shouldn’t be, is the matting in the High Great Chamber. We have hoped to replace this matting entirely last month however last year’s rubbish summer meant there was a problem with the rushed harvested. As the summer was so wet the rushed were much more likely to go mouldy, something we’re very keen to keep out of the Hall as it could then spread to the objects in the collection. So it was decided that we would wait for the next harvest this summer and use the rushes currently growing for our new matting.
The turn-around from harvesting, through drying and then plaiting is surprisingly quick and we are now expecting to be putting in our new flooring in September. Until then we just have to keep patching the matting and explaining to people why there is tape on the floor. It is far from ideal but what else can we do. Managing a historic property is a constant juggling act so it is not surprising there will always be less-than-perfect areas, especially when the weather is against us as well! Watch this space for what happens in September and how fabulous our new matting is going to look!