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.