Don’t Shoot the Volunteer

I have been volunteering as a room guide at the English Heritage property at Wrest Park gardens in Bedfordshire now for nearly four years and still find it an enjoyable way of satisfying a need to do something in the voluntary sector (a bug caught at the 2012 Olympics) and trying to drive some excitement in people about their heritage. Wrest in an interesting place; the importance of the site is the formal gardens which or more or less unique in the UK. Most gardens of this sort were swept away in the Eighteenth century to be replaced by Capability Brown style naturalistic landscapes (mostly by Capability Brown of course, although the man’s work is so ubiquitous the lovely Wife and I always joke that it was a franchise operation). The De Grey family who owned Wrest however decided to buck the trend and hung onto their formal parterres and woodland vistas and left us with something rather beautiful.

It is a bit of a shame that many people who visit the site do not really get how special it is and are often disappointed by what they see (or do not see) in the mansion.

Many people seem fixated on the house on a site like this as being the most important thing, when it often is not. The house at Wrest only dates from 1839 and is not rally of any historical importance. It is pretty and certainly quirky – Thomas De Grey designed it himself and created something that looks most like an Eighteenth century French Chateaux but is actually a Victorian English house. It fits the gardens perfectly and this is probably the point as they were here first. The tail is wagging the dog.

All the contents were dispersed when the family sold the estate in 1917. For much of the period since then the site was an agricultural college and many of the rooms converted to offices and teaching facilities and many of those offices are still in use with a number of small firms. The main state rooms though have been restored and are pretty impressive, if empty.

My role is within the house to explain how it came to be like it is and the history of the site, and there are plenty of interesting stories to tell to those who want to listen. Thankfully, there are plenty of people for me to indulge my extrovert nature on and regale them with some of the stories you pick up if you do this role for any length of time. I see it as important to help fill in the gaps that the lack of furnishings has left.

Which is why any shift is a mixture of delight and frustration. This is because while four out five people want to enjoy themselves and their visit the fifth one just wants to grump about something. Maybe it is that they cannot go upstairs, even if they are told repeatedly that it is institutionalised offices and nothing to see. Some complain about the lack of furnishings, although the reality is the cost of restoring the rooms to anything like their original furnished appearance would be prohibitive and impractical; at the moment the kids can run through the rooms freely in their own fantasies (the small ones particularly like to roll on the floor looking at the decorative ceilings) if they were furnished it would be a National Trust style setup with ropes and volunteers needed in every room.

One of the other reasons the house is unfurnished is to allow a flexible space for weddings and functions which is an essential income stream even if it is frustrating for the volunteers as they have to close those rooms off – and you can guess what kinds of abuse that invokes in some people (I’ve had one bloke look as though he was going to punch me up to the point his heartily embarrassed wife made him stand down). But the reality is that the charity needs the money (especially now that there is no regular Government funding) not so much to maintain Wrest but to pay for the upkeep of the hundreds of ruins and monuments that bring in no income at all. And the closures are advertised on the website and you are told at entry so while it is a shame if you have a come a long way there is no need to take it out on the volunteers – especially as if they do not give up the time it would never be open at all.

But thankfully the majority of people are a pleasure to serve – so I am not handing my uniform in just yet.


(Unusual) Birds Of A Feather

On the BBC website today was a story about a Golden Eagle that has apparently made a bid for freedom not far from where I live. The police are warning people not to approach the bird, although why anyone would want to go near a bird with a six foot wingspan and talons like sharp kitchen knives is beyond me. That said, ‘staying inside’, also part of the instruction does summon up the image of a Harryhausen-esque beast swooping down and carrying off a cow or something. Though if we did have a small dog then perhaps it would be safer to keep that indoors lest the last thing you hear is a surprised yelp and the sound of great flapping wings.

I would not be surprised if Eddie (shall we call him that?) flaps his way over here. I have previous with escaped birds, even from childhood. Maybe it was something inherited from my mother. I do not know anyone else who found a canary in the street and had it jump onto her hand. So she brought it home where it happily lived out the rest of its days in our old budgie cage. We always wondered why it did not sing, thinking perhaps it was a little on the traumatised side from its obvious escape from a cage or aviary somewhere nearby. The mystery was solved eventually when it suddenly laid an egg one year. Only the males sing you see.

We used to go as a family down to Allendale in Durham for picnics when I was small, where I would proceed to build (thankfully unsuccessful) dams out of the stones while my parents soaked up the sun (in my head if not reality it always seems sunny, I know that seems unlikely to anyone with knowledge of the North East but it was the 1970s so maybe it really was true). Anyway, one such baking hot afternoon, as I was engaged in my latest aquatic construction project, my mother was heard to ask my father:

‘Is that a pelican?’

My father assured my mother that it was not, in fact, a pelican, as on the whole these are not common on riverbanks in Northern England.

Despite the further protestations of my mother that the bird she had spied on the far river bank was not actually ‘just an ugly swan’ my father was adamant and anyway by that point the point of contention had flown off.

You can see where this is going, can’t you?

On the local news that evening it was reported that a pelican has escaped from a local zoological park and was at large in the Durham area.

My mother, being the person she was, said nothing at all, but if you can radiate smugness that evening she was glowing.

My similar experience came on the M3 some years ago now, when the Lovely Wife was driving us down to the West Country. Idly looking out at the verge (sometimes you get the odd muntjac at the side of the road) I was somewhat taken aback by the large black vulture pecking at some less fortunate creature on the hard shoulder. I was sure it was a vulture, but at this point a sensible part of my brain is screaming not to be stupid. Obviously it was just a very big, very ugly crow. My general approach to bird watching is that if there is a boring mundane identification possibility for any bird then that is likely to be the correct one (usually a pigeon).  The Lovely Wife also saw it briefly and made things worse by agreeing with me.

Again – it turns out that we were correct. It was a black vulture, which went by the name of Barney. Barney, bless him, had escaped from Bird world in Surrey that morning and was enjoying a short lived culinary holiday munching through the ample roadkill available off the M3. He was later recaptured unharmed by all accounts but in a way that was a shame – the many Red Kites we see now are impressive enough and perform this same clean up role, but vultures would certainly provide some interest in the inevitable motorway jams.

I am looking out of the window now and all I can see are a family of goldfinches. But there is still time…

Dream On

I find dreams fascinating.

Not my own dreams though. I mean they might be quite interesting. In fact they could be amazingly exciting and prophetic or something. I just do not know, because rarely do I wake up with even the slightest remembrance of what the dream might have been about, never mind what might have transpired within it. I feel faintly cheated much of the time, as I know many people, including those very close to me, who seem to have a different experience of the matter, retaining at least some of what has been going on in their heads during sleep well into the period of wakefulness – sometimes even in quite a lot of detail. But I may have invented the solution for the World’s energy problems in my fantasy dreamscape, only to lose it again with the literal rude awakening of morning.

Sadly the only dreams I seem to recall are the ones with negative connotations – for example ones that are associated with occasional bouts of sleep paralysis, or ones that leave me deeply sad, the feeling leaching over even into wakefulness. For example, when I dream of late mother, and then realise once I wake up that she is indeed no longer with us. I recall the ‘falling’ kind of nightmares, although it is fair to say I have never knowingly dreamt about being naked in some public situation – although those of you how know me well will know that has been reality once or twice and therefore probably does not register on the humiliation feelings that allegedly this sort of dream is supposed to be about.

And in that last sentence is another question. As well as whether you remember your dreams or not, are they actually ‘about’ anything? Instinctively I feel there is a reason for them, as very little about our bodies and minds have no function at all. For some of course there is meaning in dreams – even profound meaning – but as I do not remember mine I will have to duck those arguments. What rather more fascinates me is the nature of the biology here, with the complexity of our brains and the way that data is processed and interpreted. My sleep paralysis incidents, for example, where I reach semi wakefulness without muscle control leads inevitably to feelings of dread and oppression, leading to the terror of something leaning over you, something you brain interprets as a threat that you cannot do anything about (because you are temporarily paralysed). The actual period of stress is only a few seconds, but it seems like an age. Now, the biology is clear enough; but the way my brain interprets the situation is out of my own lurid imagination. I do not find it hard to believe that in normal dreaming (if there is such a thing) a lot is to do with the way an individual tends to see and interpret the world and how, therefore, interprets the slightly odd inputs that it is receiving during sleep – because our bodies do not ‘switch off’ we are receiving input all the time, even if we are not aware of them consciously. Add that to the processing probably going on in the higher centres of the brain and that is a heady cocktail for some unusual fantasy scenarios. As I said at the start, it is fascinating.

Maybe I am lucky in not remembering most of my dreams. It is entirely possible that most of them are pretty negative and the conscious part of my brain does not want to remember. But then again; sometimes I feel it is a little bit of a shame to think that I might just have had the most fun (if weird) adventure and never remember just how good it was; I’m prepared to cope with a few bad dreams for that.

Artificial Joy

Last week was an odd one at work, with a number of changes that have been in motion for months now coming to fruition. For me not a lot changes, bar once more losing a lot of good work friends and making me feel a little bit like the boy stood on the burning deck (and yes, I did look up ‘Casabianca’ by Felicia Dorothea Hemans, because I needed to convince myself that was actually a real poem and not just a playground joke).

Anyway, I do not want to moan about work. No I’m actually in a positive mood after a weekend of fine beer at the St Albans Beer Festival which is an annual delight (although where we are going to put all those commemorative beer glasses is an increasing problem as they are starting to try and break out of the cabinet we keep them in as though our glassware had become possessed and is trying to escape, possibly because it feared that it may be forced to carry poor quality lager (guys – relax, no danger of that). Even better than the beer though was something last week that transported me instantly back to my childhood.

At the site celebration that marked the major changes here, among several other nice things to make the transition easier there were ice cream vans. Serving effectively unlimited ice cream, with a 99 flake… And not only a flake but they had flavoured sauce too. I of course went for raspberry, a lurid sugary thing of beauty adorning the white cone of ice cream. I do not think I have sampled this gloriously artificial delight (let’s be honest – we know that no fruit were hurt in the making of this product) for maybe twenty years. It was marvellous and tasted just as it should – i.e. like sweet red syrup should taste. I had to avoid the van for the rest of the afternoon to avoid a potential overdose.

It mad we wonder why some things just delight you, particularly things that were a treat as a child. My dear departed grandmother, in her final years, had largely given up on eating anything and as such was fading away before our eyes. But there were exceptions, things that she could still be tempted with. The things were aware of was the slightly conflicting mixture of treats formed of strawberries and the Christmas cake made by the Lovely Wife. The latter would keep her company for some weeks as she gradually worked her way through it to accompany the copious amounts of tea. I think that it is fairly certain that both these represent treats very rarely available in a hard and poor North East childhood – picked wild blackberries, if you could get to them first at least, would have bene the best you could hope for rather than something as exotic as strawberries. The richness of a Christmas cake is also something that even apart from the seasonal nature of it, would have been a rare delicacy. The little girl that she once was would have never passed up the possibility of a strawberry and neither did the dear lady that she became.

I really do not care about the additives in the raspberry sauce. It is such a rare occurrence for me to come into the company of the stuff that I think I will take the risk. It was a childhood treat and, as noted last week, sometimes I need to feel like a child, especially when some things may be hurting elsewhere in life.