Note: the following is purely my personal view and should not be taken as any kind of official policy or attitude of organisations mentioned…
Once a month I try and fit into that hectic thing called life a volunteer session at Wrest Park Gardens in Bedfordshire, an English Heritage property. Please visit it sometime if you’re nearby.
Typically for me, on a site that is rightly famous for its gardens – the tulips were magnificent at the weekend – I like being in the mansion, a marvellous confection that looks like an Eighteenth century French chateau but was actually designed and built by Thomas, 2nd Earl De Grey between 1834 and 1839. It is largely unfurnished due to the family having sold it in 1917 and spending most of the last century as Silsoe Agricultural Institute who moved out eventually in 2007. Since them EH have progressively been turning the site into one of their most major properties in the South and it looks much the better for it.
I love room guiding, but I appreciate it is something that suits people who like talking and don’t mind repeating yourself constantly and answering all the same questions. “Is it the Earl Grey who invented the tea?” Is my favourite one at the moment (it is not the same – the tea man was former Prime Minister the 2nd Earl Grey, and he lived up in the North east of England. He invented the tea because the hard water up there made the normal stuff taste so dreadful). But it’s a great question and it warms my heart because people are showing interest.
What also can amuse me are some fundamental aspects of human nature that come across a lot. The big one is curiosity. We are an infinitely curious species. If there is a shut door people want to be on the other side. I recognise this in several people I know well to whom a shut door is not enough unless it is actually locked. People always want to know why they cannot go upstairs in the house. In fact there is nothing really to see (bar two examples of wonderful original wallpaper that are so fragile they can only be viewed on monthly tours) as years as a business and then a college means the bedrooms are offices and most features there may have been are long gone, but people still can often react as though you’ve cheated them somehow when you tell them that. In the end we are lucky to have the house at all to enjoy. The fact most of the rooms you can access are unfurnished also gets commented on. I don’t know what the official reason for not trying to reinstate interiors actually is (well, apart from the fact that the gardens are more important nationally than the house so that is where the money goes) but from an entirely personal point of view to fill these huge rooms with knick knacks would (1) cost a fortune (2) detract from the magnificent architecture – and decoration and most importantly for me – stop the kids from being able to run around the rooms like mad things filling them with the far more impressive room contents generated in their imaginations.
That said, the Staircase hall at Wrest is stunning; something that still makes me smile was watching a girl of five or six looking up at the ceiling of the hall, many feet above her and just uttering a simple, quiet, “wow”.
Or another little girl who was over the moon to find that one of the previous owners of the house was, like her, called Jemima (and a fine lady she was too, the 2nd Marchioness Grey was a supporter of the great David Garrick and a lady of letters and must have been quite an unusual lady for her time).
These are the kind of moments that make a 3-4 hour shift fly by.
Like the evocative ruins that decorate out countryside so wonderfully it really is sometimes better to have less than more when you are a child, and it is the children who will hopefully remember the day spent cavorting through grand rooms and running amok through the magic gardens far more than their parents probably will – and hopefully those children will bring their own offspring in time.
It’s a balancing act of course to manage any historic site, but as someone who was a fan of places like this throughout my childhood this is the side of the fence I prefer to land on.
And as I sometimes tell them, I’m not a guard; rather I’m a guide (together with a host of other wonderful, enthusiastic volunteers). I want to tell them the stories I’ve learned, and show them the cleverness of the design so that they can see the place in a different light, and connect with it better. So they can get all nostalgic.
Ah, the nostalgia revellers. Now that’s an entire different class of wonderful visitor at Wrest Park, but a topic for another day.
The house has just closed you see… Yes, you were told it closed at five, sir.
I’m terribly sorry, do come again and next time I’ll show you the drama I believe is played out in the decoration of the Countess’ sitting room… Don’t worry – it has a happy ending…