Friday, December 29, 2006

If You'd Like to Leave Your Name and Number After the Tone...

The stilted female voice speaks:

You. Have. Five. New. Messages

To listen to your messages -

I stab the appropriate number on the keypad and listen, rapt, pen poised, for the messages to follow.

First. New. Message. Received. Today. At. One. Thirty. Eight. P. M.

“…[thud]...bloody thing…no, I don’t know…something about –“

Second. New. Message. Received. Today. At. One. Forty. Nine. P. M.

“ – no one ever bloody answers the phone…[rustle]…”

And. So. On.

What is this strange problem that so many people seem to have with answerphones? On any given day, when I pick up my messages, I can be sure of at least one, often more, consisting of ambient background noise and a distant voice moaning about the fact that it's an answerphone. Often the information they seek is contained within my outgoing message, which gives details of our opening times and an alternative number to call should my office be unstaffed. Sadly, human nature being what it is, it appears that as soon as they hear my dulcet tones explaining that “I’m sorry, but there’s no one here to take your call at the moment” they launch into the “it’s a sodding answerphone” tirade, and miss all the salient information. The tail ends of these grumblings are often captured as amusing and entertaining answerphone messages for me to replay and enjoy later.

Some of my volunteers are equally as unwilling to commit their voices to my telephonic recording device. Many’s the time I have answered the phone to be met with “At last! An actual person! I’ve been phoning and phoning and all I ever get is that blasted answerphone!”

“Oh,” I reply, “you should have left a message, and I’d have called you back”.

But, no. They don’t like talking to those things. Rather than brave it with a few choice words – “It’s Derek, can you call me back?” - they instead call a dozen times, becoming increasingly frustrated and annoyed at my failure to sit by the phone 24/7 and then berate me when they finally do get the pleasure of my company.

The absolute mistress of the craft is my mother, though. She will listen to my entire outgoing message and wait for the beep, just to leave a disappointed sigh on my answerphone. It is most eloquent.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Post Christmas Boredom

There are 12 things by Christmas that this place gave to me:

12 cows escaping

11 mince pie mountains

10 ducks debauching

9 bad pics published

8 days of drinking

7 ramblers daily

6 vats of cheap red

5 full bins

4 falling trees

3 dead sheep

2 destroyed marquees

And a cat who got stuck up a tree

Saturday, December 23, 2006

So Here It Is...

Pretty much, anyway.

Yesterday was the last official day at work for a goodly while (though, of course, as I am in residence in the house, I am still on duty throughout the festive season) and to celebrate we held a little lunch time gathering.

I left a poster pinned to the filing cabinet in the main office, inviting everyone along for an end of term mince-pie-and-wine-fest, knowing that it was unlikely the majority would bother. Some people prefer to spend their last few days before Christmas doing some shopping, or travelling, or even sorting out a few last minute bits of work before they leave for the week. To me, resisting the offer of free food and drink is unfathomable. Still, I always invite everyone, as I am a sociable sort.

As usual, only McColleague and Lovely Warden turned up, which was fine, as that was who I had expected and catered for. Darling Daughter and Young Warden were also in attendance, but as they live here they had limited choice. Not that they would turn down the offer of food and drink, being so young and voracious.

I piled the table high with mince pies, and, as predicted, there they remained, untouched. The mince pies are now for decorative purposes only it seems. The wine went very well though. So well we decided it would be a Good Idea to melt a whole camembert to make fondue. Which, actually, was a pretty good idea, even in the cold light of sobriety a day later. It shouldn't have worked, yet it did. I love it when that happens.

So, here I am, pretty much ready for the whole onslaught of festivity. The turkey was delivered this morning by my Boss. He raises free range turkeys all year and then spends a frenzied couple of weeks in December getting them ready for the oven and delivered to all those who ordered one. I mentioned my Boss and his turkeys to my Best Friend earlier this week.

"Oh, right, " she said. She is very kind to all living creatures and does not eat turkeys herself. "And is he nice to his turkeys?"

"Um...well, yes, up to about a week or so before Christmas. Then he isn't as nice to them, I suppose".

Anyway, my turkey - who had a very nice time until quite recently, when he stopped having any kind of time at all - is now taking up a lot of space in the pantry (too big for the fridge). As that's the only drawback to ordering a turkey from the Boss. No matter what you ask for, what you will receive is something the size of a small dog and so heavy you have to transport it on a sack trolley. Luckily I am fond of turkey sandwiches. For a while. After a day or two I can see myself having to offload them onto anyone who strays my way. My "Excuse me..." conversations will have a twist, where I end by saying "and please accept this complimentary turkey bap and mince pie as you climb back over the gate".

Monday, December 18, 2006

What a Performance

My recent events and, as it turns out, positive experiences with performers led to a bit of retrospective musing on encounters past. In this business we hire lots of professional people for everything from in house training courses to open air theatre productions and every manner of workshop and activity in between.

I’ve had lots of wonderful experiences with some very talented people. Re-enactors, for example, are excellent company, enthusiastic about what they do and always keen to share a tankard or two around the camp fire of an evening. They also tend to have guns and fun costumes to play with. I shall be writing much more about them as we progress through the year.

Three of the best less-than-professional performances are:

The Outdoor Theatre Production

During an outdoor production of Peter Pan the lead actor became vexed that some of the children in the audience were not sitting still, rapt by his performance. They were running about, playing, and pretty much ignoring his theatrics. My best friend and colleague was stood at the back of the audience, on duty. When an opportune moment arose he strode over to her and hissed his displeasure at the situation. Couldn’t she do something to control this unruly crowd of toddlers? She gazed back steadily at Peter Pan and retorted, “Oh grow up”.

He did not laugh like I did, it has to be said.

Paper Hat Maker

I can’t even remember now why we thought this would be a fun thing to do. How specialised an entertainer you must be, to corner the paper hat making business. So, he spent the afternoon making cardboard bonnets with the public, getting a little bit narky if you didn’t take his craft seriously and put too many curly ribbons on your creation, and trying, very hard, to persuade my best friend and colleague to come up and see his collection of paper headgear some time. This situation led to a humorous reworking of that Beatles classic “Paperback Writer” (Paper Hat Maker) that I have yet to tire of.

Trainer Trash

Hired to deliver a series of training days, Trainer Trash had the appearance of a gameshow host and exuded sleaze. He was another one who could not resist wrecking his precarious dignity on the rocks of female attraction, ie my best friend and colleague. To be fair, she is gorgeous and funny and being attracted to her demonstrates excellent taste. There was a strange irrational optimism prompting Paper Hat Maker and Trainer Trash to make their respective moves, though. A blind belief that, despite all we know of the laws of attraction and selection, this lovely young girl would want to hook up with a married man with bouffant ginger hair and shiny slacks. Or one who makes and wears bonnets constructed from coloured tissue paper and glue. Still, I digress. Trainer Trash had finished his session and was relaxing in that laid back, legs crossed pose, while we girlies went to put the kettle on for a post-learning cup of tea. Myself and another, older female colleague were in the kitchen while our lovely young colleague took Trainer Trash his brew. We listened in wonder at the kitchen door as he attempting to lure her back to his hotel for dinner. As she made her excuses we couldn’t resist opening the door and walking into the room, with matching questioning smiles. At this point Trainer Trash was forced into extending his offer to all three of us, making out that was at he’d meant all along, of course. It was delightful. He had to retrieve his monogrammed hanky from his top pocket to mop his brow while we pretended to seriously consider the offer. You could almost hear his inner anguish. I think I could smell it. Finally we relented. Regretfully we declined his kind offer of dinner. I like to think he may have been genuinely pleased to go home to his wife that night.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Who'll Eat all the Pies?

I am all festived out. Three consecutive weekends of Christmas themed events has left me with a mince pie disorder and the ability to sweat essence of cloves.

Last night’s event was excellent. An evening extravaganza of candlelight and costume, music and mayhem. Well, some of my elderly visitors became a little giddy on the mulled wine and had a second sausage roll, and that qualifies for mayhem round here.

I had a couple of musicians in full Tudor dress to play authentic period music on authentic period instruments. I had not heard them in action prior to their performance here, but half of the duo was an ex-colleague of mine who had offered to play for free. This was all the recommendation I needed at the time, though subsequently I did wonder if I should have asked a few more questions. I formulated a plan B in case they turned out to be awful.

“McColleague,” I said, “if it’s rubbish, get out there with the wine and keep everyone’s glass topped up”.

As it turns out, my fears were groundless, and the Tudor musicians were fantastically good. McColleague was happily able to remain at her station by the mulled wine and top her own glass up in comfort.

Once the audience had dispersed and the doors closed behind them, the after-gig party ensued. There was witty and in-depth discourse around the kitchen table long into the small hours. Most of the party-goers had gone by then, admittedly. Zed regarded me mournfully, his super advanced sense of smell detecting the scent of cloves and alcohol and knowing that did not bode well for a timely breakfast.

My conclusion today is that the human body can only cope with a limited amount of cloves, heated up with orange juice and the kind of red wine that comes in a 1.5 litre bottle with a screw top lid. Mulled wine is just one of those substances that was never meant to be imbibed in great quantities, much like marmite or advocaat. Insane amounts of the stuff, gleefully blended in, and dispensed from, the tea urn, is just not a sensible idea. To then polish off a bottle of port before bedtime, just to be sociable, is also verging on the silly side.

That said, when I ambled back through to the Parlour this morning I was delighted to find we still have several gallons of pre-mulled, cheap Spanish red wine left over and a few bags of crisps! That's my Saturday night in sorted then. I was not quite as delighted to discover we also have about 600 mince pies left, with a rapidly approaching use by date. Over the last few weeks I must have consumed my own weight in mince pies. My recuperative powers only extend to the wine, I’m afraid. I have enough faith and optimism to re-try the wine and womanfully finish it off, but I can't stomach another mince pie. I gathered up our artfully arranged mince pie pyramids and pondered their disposal. I lobbed a few out of the window for the ducks, looked in vain for passing ramblers so I could lob a couple at them, lobbed some to the sheep, but what the hell am I going to do with the rest?

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Cake Safety Advice

This kind of attitude signalled the end of slapstick.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Another door on the Advent Calendar

A successful event, yesterday, despite:

  • The total destruction of all our marquees
  • The tree being denuded of all its decorations save a red bauble on one branch and a small fake robin, hanging upside down from another
  • The cows escaping into the woods, and from there making their way onto the road
  • At least three cars getting stuck in the mud and having to be towed out
  • The constant rain
  • The saddest man in the world on festive duties

So, that’s two down.

Only one more Christmas event to go.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The Best Things in Life are Free

Free Entry Day. It’s a nice concept. Open the doors to everyone, no charge, so that those people who might not usually have the income or inclination to visit can take advantage of this once in a year opportunity.

This year Free Entry Day coincided with our Damson Weekend, and some beautiful autumnal weather, so we were mobbed. So many people – so many of whom had no particular love or respect for heritage and the environment, but, hey, it was free! – meant a lot of wear and tear on the house and grounds. The toilets had that outdoor music festival feel and there were plastic bottles and rubbish strewn throughout the gardens.

There was also some confusion about how much of the day was free. Many people wanted free damsons as well as free entry. “It didn’t say anything about having to pay for the damsons on your sign!” I had been under the impression that the concept of Pick Your Own was a well known one, but maybe all orchard owners and vendors of fruit have to contend with this. Maybe lots of people think the Pick Your Own signs are a genuine plea for passersby to gather all this annoying fruit and take it away and if money changes hands at all it should be going into their pockets for providing this service. I have learnt, over the years, that signs of any kind, no matter where you site them or how you word them, provide a source of unparalleled confusion in certain people.

That sunny afternoon I was busily picking damsons to bag up and sell for those people who did not want to pick their own, when my radio squawked. “Doris, can you come to the ticket office?” Aha, I thought, I bet it's a difficult customer to deal with.

I was right. A frowning couple, wearing dark glasses that never came off during our entire exchange. Their body language told me all I needed to know.

"Hello, can I help?" I asked, with my widest professional smile.

"Yes. There's an Apple Day at Somewhere Else today. The same day as your Damson Day. Can you tell me what the main difference is between your day and their Apple Day?"

"Um...Is it that they have apples and we have damsons?"

They did not find this remark as witty and charming as I did.

They went on to complain that whereas Apple Days have apple tasting, apple products, apple varieties to identify, apple experts and a whole plethora of apple-related activities, all we were offering was the chance to pick damsons and buy jam. They felt "misled". They kept brandishing the property leaflet at me, pointing at the events listing that says "Damson Weekend". They were cross that we hadn't specified exactly what the event was. They had made all sorts of assumptions about what a Damson Weekend should entail and were angry that their fantasy damson world, complete with damson parades and damson themed white knuckle rides, had not been actualized. At which point I interrupted to say that a press release had gone into all the local papers (and – oh joy - my colleague happened to have the newspaper article on hand to prove my point) which explained EXACTLY what to expect on the day. I had also been on BBC Radio Local to tell people EXACTLY what to expect on the day. They stuttered to a halt, for just a moment. But the woman rallied with "Well, yes, but not everyone reads the paper or listens to the radio".

“True” I said, “but you'll never reach absolutely every single person on the planet.”

And as for the property leaflet she kept flapping about in my face, I explained that we have to print those a year in advance, so no details are given on any of the events, as things often change in the interim, which is why it says at the bottom to phone this number for more event information.

I then discovered they hadn't actually progressed beyond the ticket office so hadn't even seen what we had to offer, but were complaining about it anyway. I described the beauty of the day itself, the lush orchards, the house, but to no avail. We didn't have free samples of damson cake to give away, so were therefore shit.

The woman then asked "Can we get something back for our wasted journey? We put money in the car park machine at the top".

"You want your money back?"


"You want your £2 back?"


Unbelievable. They may not have liked our concept of a Damson Weekend but they had actually used the car park. You don’t get your money back from town centre car parks because you didn’t find what you wanted in the High Street. And we are a charity. Still, I am an exemplar of customer care. I have been on a course. With great ostentatiousness I opened the cash tin to extract their £2.

“Here’s your £2 refund, with our apologies for your being ‘misled’”.

I returned to my wheelbarrow of damsons in the orchard. A sheep was eating the fruits of my labours. I looked around me - it is usually at moments just like these that someone will appear to tell me how lucky I am to work here.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Gale Force Tent

The wind has not yet dropped, nor satiated its hunger for destruction. I don't know if our marquees will ever be the same again. On the plus side they are not in the moat. On the negative side I have to fit several festive trade stalls in there for the weekend. And the forecast is for more wind.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Party On

There had been some grumbling. Some volunteers did not like the concept of combining the end of season meeting with the Christmas Buffet. I hoped the concept of free food would win the day, and it did.

A bumper turn out. Record attendance. All in all a successful meeting. Only a bit of argy-bargy and one minor spat. No walk outs! Mind you, if you have a buffet after the meeting, it is unlikely anyone will walk out. They are too busy waiting for the clingfilm to come off so they can get stuck in.

I should be used to it by now, but I am always amazed at how swiftly the volunteers depart once they’ve had their food. They just eat ‘n’ go. Voom. Like that.

I noted that the volunteer who had been the most vocal in her protests about this combined function madness was the first to arrive and last to leave. I smiled into my vodka and thanked her for coming.

And, joy! Lots of leftovers! And friendly bar staff who fetched plastic bags and tin foil so we could divide the goodies between us. “Good news, family”, I was able to cry. “Tonight we have two kinds of gateaux for tea! And mystery sandwich selection!”

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Flock Me

"I wonder if you can help me?"

"I'll do my best!"

"I was doing one of your walks, when I came to this gate here".

We both lean over the map, her finger pointing at the gate in question.

"Oh yes, " I say. "That's the back orchard".

"Well, we got that far and couldn't go any further".

"Really? Oh dear. There shouldn't be any obstructions".

"There were all these sheep in the field".

"Yes, those are our Ryeland sheep, gorgeous aren't they?"

I smiled at her, genuinely mystified as to where we were going with this conversation.

"Well, are they safe?"

"Um....they're fine, as far as I know".

"No, I mean, is it safe to walk through them? You have to be careful when you have little ones," she stepped back, the sweep of her arm leading my gaze to the pushchair behind her.

"Oh!" I said, as understanding dawned. "Oh, they are perfectly safe! They will run away from you if you approach them. They are totally harmless, they don't attack or stampede or anything!"

She did not seem convinced. "Well, there's all that sheep muck I'd rather the children didn't walk through".

She left then, and drove off in her spotless 4x4.

I wondered if she finds herself trapped inside the car if she ever journeys to Wales or Scotland or anywhere that sheep roam freely over hill and dale. Sometimes it is hard to work out why some people choose a day out in the country.

Monday, December 04, 2006

When the Bough Breaks

The old oak tree may never be the same again. It is certainly not where I left it.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

When the Wind Blows

All was in order. The marquees were up, the stalls set out, and the tables clearly labelled. Everything was ready. I could go to bed and rest easy. All right, it was a bit on the windy side, but nothing to lose sleep over. I can rely on the wardens to firmly tether everything in a safe and secure manner.

I was, therefore, a little perplexed to find our foliage stand had vanished overnight. The table was still there, but the gazebo had vanished. It was most definitely not in the courtyard. At last I found it, over by the barns, a goodly distance away and the other side of a seven foot high wall. It may never be the same again.

On the positive side, at least it wasn’t in the moat. When we held our World War II event in 2004 we had a small marquee in the orchard, with a few tables and chairs inside, so the public could sit and enjoy their refreshments while the local band played various hits from the 40s. It was, like today, a bit on the blustery side, and I vividly recall standing on the front doorstep of the house, seeing the marquee lift in the wind and then just flipping over. As it rolled toward the moat I was amazed and amused to note that the former occupants of the tea tent were still seated at their tables, drinking their tea and eating their cake, with only the turning of their heads and the occasional “ooh” to indicate anything out of the ordinary had occurred. That is true blitz spirit.

In the meantime all the staff on site were chasing after the errant marquee, trying to grab it before it hit the water. Luckily we did bring it down, like the mighty hunters we still are at heart. It, like today’s foliage gazebo, was never the same again.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Cow Whisperer

I stood at the gates, trying to pinpoint where the noise was coming from. I’d driven up to the entrance to unlock the gates and had heard something new and interesting. Ah! There!

Peering over the hedge I could see the Farmer on his quad bike, attempting to round up his herd of cows. He was not doing terribly well. The cows were forming breakaway groups and scattering to all four corners of the meadow, instead of going through the gate into the next field as intended.

“You fucking bastard cows!”

My grin broadened. The Farmer was entirely oblivious to me, his attention focussed on his unruly herd.

“Fucking move. MOVE! You fucking, fucking bastards!”

Reluctantly I returned to my car and continued on my way, much as I would have enjoyed watching and listening to more.

Later that day I encountered the Farmer down at the house. “Hello!” I beamed. “I heard you earlier, moving your cows!”

He laughed. “Ah, yes, then you would have heard me cow whispering.”

“Cow whispering,” I repeated, delighted.

“It’s an art,” he affirmed.

“Well, the school group I was in charge of was really impressed.”

There was a moment, just a moment, when he thought this may have been true. Then he saw my grin and knew I was just teasing. Still, I missed a trick there. It would have been so much fun to fake a child’s drawing of the Farmer on his quad bike, with some lovely accompanying text in clumsy lettering, saying “we did go to the farm and we did see ducks and lambs and trees and flowers and fucking bastard cows”.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

O Tannenbaum

When I left this morning, there was a beautiful Christmas tree, a good 18 foot tall fir tree, being erected in the courtyard. Lovely.

When I returned this afternoon it looked like the local pound shop had exploded and the tree had caught all the crappiest tinsel and baubles in its branches.

McColleague and I will have to put it right tomorrow. Or hope for strong winds overnight.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pyscho Pheasant

There is a psycho pheasant on the loose.

I have been aware of him for some time. He sits upon the gatepost and waits. He waits for the car to reach him. He then chases the car. When he can’t keep up on foot, he flies behind, at low level, so that when you glance in your rear view mirror all you can see is this stalker pheasant, wings outstretched, filling your field of vision. It’s disturbing.

What is even more disturbing is that when you get out of the car he goes for your legs.

I worry for his future. The shooting season is here, so he’s fair game. In fact, recently retired Warden came to ask my husband to shoot it, as he was so fed up with it chasing him around the estate yard. (My husband declined – he only has an air rifle, after all). I shall miss Pyscho Pheasant if he does get blown to bits. The sight of our property secretary running across the car park, making noises not unlike those of Pyscho Pheasant himself, as he fixes her with his beady eye and darts his beak at her shins, is one of life’s rare pleasures.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Picture Perfect

A photographer called today. We needed a picture to illustrate our Christmas events. Given the standard of photography the local press usually produce, my expectations were not high.

Imagine my delight when the photographer wanted not just me, but McColleague as well, to hold aloft a sprig of holly and a fir branch in each hand and grin like the bar had just opened. “Come on girls, hold them up!” chirped the photographer. I didn’t risk even a sidelong glance at McColleague.

“Well, another corker for our collection,” I mused afterwards.

“We looked demented, didn’t we?” ventured McColleague.

“Yes. We looked like we were part of a special group of people who really, really like holding up bits of trees”.

“If that doesn’t draw the crowds, nothing will”.

“Perhaps we should consider nothing as an option next time”.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Love a Duck

The ducks all have their winter plumage, which means that they look particularly striking and that they are beginning to show definite signs of friskiness.

Well, "friskiness" is a bit of a euphemism. The reality is a lot more graphic and usually involves a great deal of quacking and splashing, with about seven drakes piling on top of one lone duck. They do seem to have exhibitionistic tendencies too, and always seem to save their most disturbing performances for any visitors who may be present. I mean, forget dogging. Ducking is where it's at for hardcore full-on action. Shameless.

With our Christmas events looming large, involving children’s choirs, visits to Santa’s Grotto and respectable families enjoying a traditional day out, I can safely predict the ducks will be re-enacting their orgiastic version of the last days of Pompeii every chance they get. I blame whatever’s in the water.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A Miracle!

Found in the woodshed - the face of Jesus in our very own Miracle Ash Log!

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Education and Expiration

A Law of Nature

Whenever a party of schoolchildren turns up for an educational visit something will expire on the route they were due to take through the property.

At the Big House where I used to be, before coming here, part of their tour would involve going below stairs, to see how the servants worked and lived. This included visiting the well in the cellar. We would walk the route and check everything, thoroughly, before they arrived. Without fail we would later get to that part of the tour, gather the children around the well, and then spot a dead mouse floating, bloating, in the dark water. You may as well just give up at that point. You can try to carry on, to engage them by asking how they think it would have been, having to carry buckets of water up all those stairs, but all you will hear from that moment on is a chorus of “Urgh! Look! A dead mouse! Urgh!”

We made a similar error in leading them through the basements, past the stuffed animals. “What did that one die of?”
“Um….I’m not sure. Perhaps it was run over. It looks like it was run over”. (It was particularly badly stuffed).
“What did that one die of?”
And so on.
A week or so later we received a bundle of drawings and letters from the schoolchildren, on the theme of their day at the Big House. My favourite was “We did saw a ded mouse”, with accompanying picture.

Then there was the day we were waiting for the coach to arrive, laden with excitable primary school children. As we leant against the gate in the car park we became dimly aware of a background buzzing sound. A dark cloud of flies was hovering at the opposite side of the car park, at the entrance. Uh-oh. On closer inspection it turned out to be dark cloud of flies over a dead sheep. (Sheep take a lot of care to plan their deaths so that they are on a main visitor route if possible. Prefereably on a road or footpath. On one occasion on the back doorstep of the holiday cottage. If they can get a crow to peck at their eyes for effect, so much the better.) There followed a frenzy of phone calls, to try to get the shepherd out to remove the body before the coach turned up. “OK,” I said, “worst case scenario, we’ll just try to stand in front of it. Maybe they won’t notice”.

As it turns out my master plan wasn’t necessary. The shepherd arrived on his quad bike, loaded the carcass onto the front, and roared off with moments to spare. The coach then pulled in to the car park and the visit went as planned. Until one of the children said, apropos of nothing, “When we drove in today we saw a man with a sheep on his bike”.

“Did you? Ah, well, that was the shepherd, and he was just moving the sheep to another field”.

“It was on its back. Its legs was up in the year”.

“It was probably sleeping”.

Another Law of Nature

No matter what you tell the children, what you show them, no matter how engaged they seem to be, how exciting the activities are, what they remember afterwards will be what they had for lunch, what they played after they had lunch, poo (“Darren did step in sheep poo when he got off the bus!”) and “ded” animals. On the plus side, it makes our display of their letters and drawings really, really entertaining.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Working with Volunteers

I have been on (another) course for the past two days, hence the lack of posting.

This time I was learning about Working with Volunteers, which was interesting, given I have been working with them for the best part of a decade now. Still, I can always learn something new – usually from my peers over coffee or lunch.

The segment on Recruitment and Selection was entertaining. There is a wealth of useful, practical help and advice for how to target your potential volunteers, what legislation you should be aware of, how to select wisely. The reality is a little more basic. We are always desperately short of volunteers and never have enough bodies from which to actually make a selection. It tends to be a case of “Hurrah! You turned up! Here’s your badge, the kettle’s over there”.

Then there was the section on induction. Which made me muse on our own volunteer induction process, part of which involves learning to use the two-way radios. The premise is simple – press the button on the side of the walkie-talkie to transmit, speak, then release the button again, or no one else can transmit in reply. No matter how often I go through it, there will always be a few who forget the “release the button again” bit. So, you will always know, immediately, that it is a volunteer on the end of the radio when you hear the following transmission:

“……hello?........Hello!.......There’s nobody there……..hello!.......tsk!....They never answer!....”

And all the time you’re shouting at your radio “Take your thumb off the button!”

Even better than that though are the pagers that some volunteers in larger houses have. These are pendant style devices with a big red button to press that they wear around their neck. The person in charge that day carries the receiver, so they can respond in an instant when it beeps. They are designed for emergency use only – say if a visitor keels over with a heart attack, or someone gets caught trying to steal the silverware. False alarms occur on a regular basis. The beeper beeps and you rush to the indicated room – the volunteer on duty doesn’t appear to be on fire or anything, so you ask “Is everything OK?”


“Only you paged me”.

“Did I?”

“Yes. So…?”

“How odd. I don’t remember pressing the button…..”

They have usually either taken the pendant off and sat on it, or have clasped their folder to their chest and inadvertently summoned emergency assistance. The deliberate pagings are just as exciting, with emergencies ranging from needing a new travel claim form to wanting to open a window. My all time favourite was when a colleague of mine was paged because they were out of teaspoons in the volunteer room. “I had to stir my tea with a knife,” was the outraged cry.

And finally, we covered Dealing with Difficult Situations. I don’t know of anyone who has not encountered a Difficult Situation with their volunteers at some stage. Whether your colleagues are paid or voluntary, you will always have the inevitable clashes of temperament and personalities from time to time. Where we differ somewhat with our volunteers is that they tend to be of a certain age. There is a common scenario where you have a very elderly and infirm volunteer, who can no longer adequately fulfil their role, but who you simply can not ask not to come in again. It would be like kicking your granny. An example is a lovely old lady whose failing eyesight eventually left her effectively blind. She couldn’t see, but, perversely, she loved to be on the front door. “Oh, I love it here,” she would say. “It’s my life!” How can you possibly respond to that with “perhaps the time has come to call it a day”? No. Instead we used to arrange for another, fully-sighted volunteer to work alongside her, checking admission cards and tickets and steering her to wherever she needed to go. This kind of thing is happening at properties nationwide. Elderly volunteers who can no longer stand will be found jobs where they can be seated. I heard of one property who had a problem with a volunteer who was clearly suffering from some form of dementia. They would not turn up for duty when scheduled, arriving and departing at random, surprising, intervals. If they did turn up you’d start them off in one room and find them in another. Or find that they’d gone home a couple of hours ago, leaving the Precious Things abandoned. I remember one chap who would go to his assigned room, sit down, fall immediately into a deep and untroubled sleep, and visitors would be tiptoeing past so as not to disturb him. To my great delight in these cynical, commercial times, these volunteers will still be kept on the books. We, as an organisation, just tend to work around them. We take great care of all our old treasures.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Afternoon of the Living Dead

When the weather is fine and the property is closed, would-be visitors accumulate at the locked gates. Which means that when I have to go out on closed days it resembles a scene from a zombie flick. I’ll be in the car, approaching the gate when I will spot the distinctive jackets and bobble hats of assorted ramblers, pressed up against the wooden bars, peering in to the middle distance, moaning. The closed signs are up, but they mean nothing to them. They barely perceive them. They are driven by a basic impulse, a need, a drive - to access all areas, at all times. It is a hunger. I can almost see their arms outstretched through the bars of the gate, fingers futilely grasping the distant image of the house on the horizon. Of course, if it were a scene from a zombie flick I would then stamp the pedal to the metal, accelerating through the gate, wood splintering, back end fishtailing wildly as I accelerate away, watching the shambolic horde in my rearview mirror as they stumble and turn their dusty eyes toward my disappearing taillights.

This being reality, instead I have to glide to a gentle stop, sigh, get out of the car, unpadlock the gate, open the gate, get back in the car, drive through the gate, sigh, get out of the car, close the gate and repadlock the gate. Which is a much slower process and one which affords endless opportunities for conversations like this. Sometimes if you avoid making eye contact you can just about slip past without engaging in such dialogue, but mostly there is some degree of “yes, I’m afraid so” whilst very pointedly snapping the lock shut and trying to convey “you better not be even considering climbing over these gates as soon as I’m gone, matey” with just a look.

I don't think it is a coincidence that I enjoy zombie-killing games as much as I do.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Until the Cows Come Home

This is the time of year when the cows are put into the sheds for the winter. The cows dislike this. It curtails their freedom. The cowsheds are very very close to the house. The cows spend a lot of time protesting mightily at their confinement. They make a lot of noise. It sounds like they throw themselves bodily at the sides of the shed. Every so often they get lucky and manage to bust their way out. They then run riot, revelling in their freedom, kicking up their heels, mooing and bellowing, churning great hoof marks into the lawns and defecating in huge cow-patty sprays. They can be quite an intimidating herd of bovine hooligans. The ground literally shakes.

If they do this during the day time I can usually either get Farmer himself to come and round them up again or Lovely Warden will find himself a stout stick (“you can do anything if you’ve got a stick”, he informed me. “Makes you feel manly.”) and shoo them back to the shed.

Last night, however, neither were available. The tell-tale signs of cow escape (cowscepades?) were in evidence. They suddenly sounded much, much nearer. And much much louder. There was that Jurassic Park-style vibration effect, with small ripples appearing in my tea as several tons of beef made its way into the gardens. A quick peek outside confirmed the diagnosis. The cows were out.

Lovely Warden had long since gone home for the day, and, as I later discovered, Farmer was having a rare night out and had left his phone behind. It was therefore left to my husband to go and find a stout stick and persuade them to get back to the barns. I like the range of noises people find appropriate to make at cows when trying to direct them. The combination of stick swishing and “Hieee! Hooo!” did the trick, and the cows were safely contained once more.

Tonight we were in the kitchen when the doorbell rang. Farmer had brought a present to say thank you for our herdmanship. Some scouring pads, to get the mud off our boots, some carrots to help us to see better in the dark, a bottle of wine and a brace of pheasants. Fantastic! We must be sure to let the cows out next time we are stuck for something for dinner!

Friday, November 17, 2006

A State of Emergency

“The car park seems very empty!” We looked about us. It was true. There should definitely be more cars, given the numbers due on the course. McColleague and I had wisely taken the back roads to our destination and were now disconcerted at being among the first to arrive. “Damn. We look keen now”.

Apparently there’d been a big pile-up on the motorway, which was the way the majority of attendees were travelling. McColleague and I duly dropped off our neatly labelled kit bags in the allocated gazebo and made our way inside. We then had to drink insane amounts of tea to pass the time until the course actually started, as several “key” people were stuck in traffic and we couldn’t begin without them.

“My attention span has already gone” bemoaned McColleague.

“Yes,” I agreed, “my optimum learning time is between 9 and 10am, so it’s all downhill from now on.”

Finally, at about 10.20am we were called through to begin the training day. Rows and rows of chairs laid out before us, a projector screen and laptop at the front – I could sense an imminent Powerpoint presentation brewing. Bugger. “Where do you want to sit, McColleague?”

“At the back. So we can text”.

Ah, sensible McColleague. Text saves many a dull meeting or presentation. Press press press - “I R Bored” – send.

The Powerpoint presentations were just as arse numbingly dull as anticipated. Shame really. I mean the subject matter should be gripping – Fire! Flood! Emergency Situations! But no. In reality, after the nth slide of something on fire (of which you can only see the top left hand corner anyway, due to the sea of heads in front of you) interest levels had slumped. And people who put up slides full of tiny text and then read it out to you make me want to do bad things to them. Very bad things. Good job I drank all that tea, really. It gave me reasons to leave the room before I did something unspeakable with a biro.

Still, it wasn’t all sitting around being talked at and texting. We did have lots of interesting workshops on various salvaging methods for various materials – like stone, ceramics, textiles, paintings and so on. Then, best of all, we had a full blown emergency exercise, complete with fire engines and flashing lights and men in uniform. When the alarm sounded we all had to exit the building and make our way to the gazebo where we had left our kit bags earlier. We then had to put on said kit, outside, in the dark and the rain. I looked at my many colleagues, hopping about on one leg, trying to get their clumpy protective boots on, or attempting to fasten their tyvek overalls.

I turned to McColleague. “Why don’t we take our stuff to the toilets, and put it on in the warm and dry? With the light on?”

Five minutes later McColleague was laughing at my NHS-glasses-style headlamp.

“The problem is, “I explained, “that there are no clips with it, so the elastic band slides off the helmet and the lamp is catapulted a fair distance, if you’re not careful.”

McColleague was not careful. Her headlamp catapulted itself to the toilet floor with a satisfying clatter of plastic and batteries. We then both managed to overtighten the headstraps in our helmets.

“Ow! I can't wear this. It’s giving me a headache!”

“Let’s just carry the helmets for now”.

Eventually we did manage to get all component parts of the kit to function and fit adequately. We salvaged items and packed them in bubble wrap, in crates. I had to do it in the style of a finishing school graduate, of the book-balanced-on-head-for-excellent posture variety, as every time I bent forward my helmet would fall off. Our team leader had a task for me.

"Now, I want you to pack up the items on the mantelpiece. But not the clock. That candlestick, those ornaments, not the clock and the other candlestick. Don't touch the clock."

"So, basically, you're saying everything except the clock".

"Yes. Not the clock".

"Right oh!" I exclaimed, cheerfully. "So, that's everything on the mantelpiece and especially the clock."

Not everyone shares the same sense of humour in an emergency situation.

Still, we were obviously the most organised and efficient, as our team was the first to finish. “Good work, McColleague,” I said as we stuffed our kit back in the bags. “Now let’s get out of here. I need to get home and salvage my wine stash.”

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Running Repairs

It's the emergency salvage training day tomorrow for McColleague and I.

I have had to prepare our emergency salvage kit in neatly labelled bags. We need to take the following:

Black steel toe-capped boots
Olive green waterproof jacket and trousers
White tyvek overalls
Yellow reflective jacket
Rigger gloves
White helmet
Head lamp

As I packed our respective bags one of the head lamps clattered to the floor, hitting the tiles and becoming so much plastic shrapnel.

Fortunately the bulb escaped unscathed, so I have performed an impressive piece of restoration work using just a roll of carpet tape.

Tempting though it was to stick it in McColleague's bag with an accompanying "Oh dear, your head lamp appears to have been dropped and all smashed", I have done the decent thing and put it with my kit. I will have the head lamp equivalent of NHS glasses held together with sticking tape. I will look special. I might say McColleague beats me and takes my lunch money.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Reasons to be Cheerful

  • The dog escaped again, but was picked up by the wardens and returned. I was oblivious to this, being stuck in a 6 hour meeting, and didn’t discover he’d been on an adventure until much later, when Young Warden informed me.

  • I seem to have unwittingly offended some of my volunteers by combining the annual end of season meeting with the annual Christmas Buffet Lunch. You wouldn’t think it would be possible to cause offence when there’s free food involved, but apparently it is. I am cheerful because if enough people take umbrage and decline the invitation I will be able to afford the upgraded buffet menu option. That means sausages on sticks AND Black Forest Gateaux.

  • It is closed season, so I have the weekend off.

  • The alarms engineers have finally finished!

  • The 6 hour meeting I sat through today is finally finished!

  • My bottle of wine is not yet finished.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Shut That Door!

“Could you please make sure you keep the doors closed?”

“Yup, ok, no problem.”

“Only I know he looks old and slow, but he will run away if he gets the chance.”

“Yup, ok, no worries.”

“So please try to keep the door shut so he can’t get out.”

“Will do!”

I return to my office, having briefed the alarms engineers on the dog/door situation at some length. They are upgrading the entire system, so are in and out of every room in the building, including the domestic side, my accommodation. The house is in chaos, with colourful coils of wiring looped in each corner and fine plaster dust powdering the surfaces. Stepladders loiter menacingly in the shadows, while unfastened floorboards await their moment of slapstick glory.

I try to continue with the business of the day, but soon realise the futility of attempting to use the phone when the alarms engineers are drilling holes in the walls and testing the sounders at random intervals.

I head to the kitchen. The door has been left open! I scan the room quickly and, to my relief, the dog is still there. He is sprawled on the floor in apparent deep slumber. I close the door, firmly, noisily, point-makingly behind me.

Reassured of the dog's continued presence in the house , I go into the utility room, check the status of the laundry, and re-emerge. The kitchen door is open. The dog is gone. Where once I let a sleeping dog lie, an alarms engineer now stands.

Oh, for fuck's sake.

I stomp off, grumpily, to look for him. For an elderly canine, with a touch of arthritis, he can still outrun me for sport. He loves to stay just out of my immediate reach. It’s funnier that way.

I don’t catch him. He disappears over the horizon. I give up, return home, stomp grumpily through the house, solely to give the alarms engineers the opportunity of reading my eloquent body language, and discover the dog waiting to be let in at the back door.

I let him back into the kitchen and go to find the alarms engineers.

“Right, I’ve got the dog back. Please try to keep the doors closed from now on.”

“Yup, OK, no problem.”

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Photo Opportunities

Local newspaper photographers have a very literal way of interpreting their subjects. They are the Pan’s People of journalism.

When we issue a press release a phone call from the local papers will follow, asking when they can send a photographer round. Which is excellent and very supportive of them. They will then want someone to pose in the photograph, to illustrate the subject matter at hand. This is the point at which all other staff members swiftly vanish. I am not as quick or wily as they, so end up starring in most of our press photos. I will usually be asked to hold up something pertaining to the story, and to smile a lot.

“And smile a bit more,” the photographer will say. “And can you hold that up a bit higher….little bit higher…and really smile….lovely!” I stand there, arms aching, eyes crinkled (it is a pre-requisite that I have to face the sun) knowing this is going to be another corker. There is always much hilarity when the local paper arrives in the office. Another two photo opportunities and I can release my own amusing calendar.

Here are my Top Ten Worst Local Press Photos:

1. The Huge Damson-Picking Claw – me holding aloft a sprig of damsons, with the perspective such that I have an enormous, burly forearm, bigger than my entire body.

2. Valentines Day - me, alone, on a blanket, holding aloft a big cardboard heart, with a fake picnic laid out before me, featuring an entire cake. The cake is in the foreground so it looks as massive as my huge damson-picking claw. I look like a comfort-eating, lonely nutjob.

3. The Food Fair – me holding aloft a tray of cakes. I am smiling with my eyes closed (presumably in blissful anticipation of comfort-eating all the cakes).

4. Easter – me holding aloft a big golden Easter Egg. And grinning at it.

5. Launch of New Room – me holding a portrait of the donor of the house, not quite aloft, more to one side of my body, almost like I am cuddling it.

6. Blossom Event – there was no blossom. Bloody late spring. So the picture is of me, holding aloft a branch, with a bud. And grinning at it.

7. “Bats Swoop and Poop” – yes, this one had a caption as crap as the picture – me holding aloft one of the dustcovers I use to protect the house contents from bat poo. And grinning. I love poo, me.

8. Wildlife Rescue – me holding aloft a hedgehog and grinning at it (trying not to betray the intense pain of a thousand prickly spines piercing my hands).

9. World War II Event – me dressed as a Land Army Girl, holding aloft a shovel and a basket of vegetables. I had to make my own outfit as I hadn't known until two hours prior to the photographer arriving that I was going to be dressed as a Land Army Girl. Which is why I have a blue and white duster on my head.

10. Christmas Event – me, alone, under a massive bunch of mistletoe. The mistletoe was actually hung securely on some string, but they made me stand beneath it with my arms aloft, as if embracing it, to somehow enhance the experience for everyone.

Regular readers of the local newspapers must have formed the impression that I am a cake consuming, inanely grinning loner with an unnatural fondness for inanimate objects, poo and small mammals. You'd think my visitor numbers would be up, really.

Saturday, November 04, 2006


We may have closed for the season, but we still have some events yet to come. A Christmas Selection Box of festive treats loom ahead of me.

Events for next year have been planned for some time. We have to plan incredibly far in advance to enable our listings to get into all the relevant publications.

We go for such saturation coverage with our events that I am continually amazed that the people who work alongside me - well, my volunteers, to be precise - appear to be oblivious of what’s planned.

The events are listed in our property leaflet, which we hand out all year. They are on our website. I send out press releases which are picked up by our local newspapers and radio stations. I put posters up on every available surface for a 10 mile radius for weeks beforehand. And I list them in the diary. Now this latter is the clincher. Our volunteers have their own, big red diary, in which they write their names on the days they will come in to do duty. I go through the diary with a big black marker and write in anything of import on the relevant day. Like events. I then go over the black marker with highlighter pen. Sometimes I draw little asterisks or arrows around it, to ensure it’s an attention-grabbing headline.

The volunteers then come in and write their names under such fluorescent declarations as “Easter Trails!” or “Halloween Event!” or "Re-Enactment Weekend!" They must see these notifications. They must. Sometimes I write my events titles so LARGE, they have to squeeze their names in around my mighty capitals.

Without fail, on the day of the event, the volunteers in question will arrive for duty, frown in perplexity at the marquee/people in historical costume/me in an Easter Bunny outfit, and ask “So, what’s going on today then?”

I use up far more than my recommended allowance of patience on event days. It leaves me with quite a deficiency, which is bad news for my friends and loved ones. The volunteers think I am smiley and pleasant, and my family thinks I am a grumpy old rat-bag. There is no justice.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Closed Season

Well, that’s October over and done with. November sees us in that wonderful, and all too brief, period of time when the house is closed to the public.

No more visitors (apart from a few Christmas events) until March! Well, no more legitimate visitors. Have already had a couple of opportunistic visitors who managed to bypass the closed signs, locked ticket office, deserted car park and then saunter into the house for a bit of a chat with the alarms engineer. This will happen frequently over the winter. When I have to leave the gates unlocked so that workmen can get in, opportunistic visitors soon follow. They will cheerfully pick their way over trailing cords from electrical appliances, weave their way between the step ladders and building detritus, somehow failing to notice the dust sheets covering the contents of the house, and utter those immortal words “Are you open?”

Having persuaded them that, contrary to the – admittedly confusing – outward appearances of scaffolding, builders vans and enormous "No Entry" signs, we are in fact not open at the moment, I returned to the scene of devastation that was previously my office. McColleague and I were having a clear out. Apparently my Jenga-with-box-files storage system is unsafe. As is my habit of storing heavy and sharp-edged items on the stupidly high shelf.

So, it all had to go. The wardens were pleased, they love getting hold of stuff they can burn. You have to put big labels on things you just want them to put in the shed, saying “DO NOT BURN!” We have learned this through bitter experience.

Should be a corking bonfire night. Especially if they leave the cans of paint and batteries in with the boxes.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006


Creating the monsters was the most fun.

The challenge is much the same regardless of the occasion. How to create a marvellous, entertaining, top quality event with absolutely no budget whatsoever? The answer is to acquire things.

We have acquired so much Halloween equipment over the years it now fills more boxes than the Christmas decorations.

This year we acquired three surplus-to-requirement scarecrows. And the bottom half of a mannequin. From these humble materials we crafted the finest props known to the heritage sector. The Grim Reaper, a Mad Monk, a Wicked Witch and…. the bottom half of a mannequin.

While we were assembling the various body parts in a disused outbuilding, McColleague and I found ourselves continually interrupted by random passers-by. The door would swing open and a head would emerge, peering in curiosity at the cobwebby gloom of our impromptu laboratory.

“Hello!” I would chirp. “Can I help you?”

“Oh, no, no….just having a look round.”

“Ah, right. I’m afraid this part isn’t open to the public. It's a bit dirty and cluttered.”

“Oh, right”.

“So, if you'd like to close the door, we'll just get on with our work.”


A pause.

“So, what was this old building then?”

“A milking parlour. But it’s not open to the public.”

“Right. And what are you up to then?”

Sigh. Eventually we would persuade them to go without resorting to bludgeoning them over the head with the bottom half of the mannequin and dragging them out.

“Well,” I said to McColleague, “it’s just as well we’re not performing diabolical experiments on corpses in here. It’s a lot harder to have a secret laboratory than it looks in films.”

Which led me to a fond memory of Halloween Past, in Another Place with my best friend, when we were busy decorating the basements. Part of our design included an enormous Pentagram on the tiled floor. Rather than risk damaging it with scratchy chalk, or similar, we decided masking tape would do the job. Many, many attempts later, surrounded by screwed up balls of masking tape, we finally managed to produce something that looked almost right.

“They get a bad press, but hats off to the Satanists,” said my friend. “It’s much harder than it looks!”

It was a good point and one well made. If I were trying to summon Beelzebub I doubt I would have the patience to spend much more than half an hour or so trying to get my Pentagram to join up. And that's before you take into account the candles and blood and robes and all the other accoutrements.

Anyway, this year's props looked magnificent. Even the spooky marrows (we didn't acquire enough pumpkins) were a winner. I suppose I need to start acquiring firewood for bonfire night now. I need more cats in trees!

Monday, October 30, 2006

Emergency Salvage Kit

McColleague and I have to go on an Emergency Salvage Exercise in a few weeks time.

The response to this news was less than joyous.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhh.” (Long, drawn out noise of almost inexpressible disappointment, much in the style of small children when informed that it is now bedtime). “Do I have to go?”

“I’m afraid we all have to go. How else will we know what to do in the event of an emergency?”

This always raises a smile. The house is built of ancient, tinder-dry timber. If it catches fire we’ll probably have about 10 minutes before it’s a smoking ruin. (By the time I have got my emergency kit on I estimate I will be on fire. My plan is to drop and roll towards the moat.) We all know that in the event of an emergency we will lob what we can out of the windows, hoping for the best, and then leg it to a safe distance.

Along with the summons to the Emergency Salvage Exercise was a list of required equipment for each participant to bring with them. McColleague and I perused the emergency stores, to see what we needed to order.

“So, that’ll be everything then” says McColleague, chirpily, having singularly failed to put a tick next to any of the items on the list.

“I believe so” I agreed, closing up our emergency stores again. “But if the list had said a hammer and a washing up bowl, we’d be all set”.

Diligently I completed the order form and sent it off to our central office.

A week later an exciting parcel arrived.

The response to its contents was less than joyous.

“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This isn’t what we ordered! These are horrible! I’m not wearing them.”

She had a point. The list had specified protective footwear. We’d selected ones that looked a bit walking-boot-like, a bit Timberland-like, not too shameful and yet meeting all required safety standards. What we actually had were boots which looked like they might be useful in correcting the lurching walk of Frankenstein’s monster.

We also had Tyvek bodysuits, complete with hoods, helmets, headlamps, relective jackets, rigger gloves and waterproof jackets and trousers.

In the spirit of adventure, we tried it all on. It’s a good job we weren’t about to salvage anything from an emergency situation, as we were incapacitated for quite a time. One size does not fit all.

"How does this help, in an emergency situation?" asked McColleague from the depths of her Tyvek hood.

I attempted to shrug in response, but then thought better of it, as my bodysuit was a bit on the snug side. "I'm not sure," I mused. "Possibly it's to keep us out of the way of real danger, as by the time we've struggled into our kit and clumped over in our monster boots, the real emergency services will have arrived and we can just go and make the tea".

Perhaps we will feel differently once we've had the training day.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The Final Countdown

Well, we’re into the last week of the open season!

There is a bit of a party atmosphere among the staff and volunteers. We’ve cracked open the chocolate biscuits in the office.

For me, the party atmosphere is enhanced by the planning and preparation involved for the actual party this weekend. We have Halloween Half Term activities for families every day this week, but on the Saturday evening we have an extra special, tickets-only party. It’s very popular, and we tend to have booked all the available spaces within days of the tickets going on sale.

Halloween is a time of pure creativity. We have fun making the props and decorating the house and grounds, while the children have fun dressing up and pouring scorn on our efforts to scare them. When you have a generation of children brought up on blood-spattered shoot-em-ups on whichever games console they happen to have, it's really hard to startle them, or even induce mild unease, with a rubber spider and a bed sheet. It's a challenge I keep taking on, though.

As part of the party package we do include “refreshments”. "Refreshments" is a great term, as I feel it doesn’t really imply proper food. In this instance we have bought in a quality selection of the finest Halloween-themed treats our local shops can offer. "Flourescent" is the word that springs to mind.

I took a phone call earlier. It was a very nice lady wishing to know more about the Halloween Party and to book some tickets.

“So, what kind of food is it?”

“Oh, well, mainly party food. You know. Nibbles. You may want to feed them a vitamin or two before you come”.

“Ah, only one of my boys does have a food additive intolerance.”

My eyes slid helplessly to the gaudy pile of orange and green sugar-based confectionaries on my desk.

“You might want to keep him away from the Creepy Cakes then”.

She booked her tickets regardless. I feel I should go out and buy some carrot sticks, just to show willing.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Light damage

One of the first things you learn about in the care of historic houses and their contents is the damage that light causes to fabrics, paintings and furnishings.

Light – any form of light – causes deterioration. UV filters are fitted wherever possible, sunblinds are put to great use, and electric lights are only put on when absolutely necessary.

So, why why why can’t I get my volunteers to leave the lights off?

I’ll grant you the house can appear a tad on the dark side when you first come in, as the windows are small and not particularly numerous. But that’s medieval fashion for you. Still, once you’ve been inside for a bit and let your eyes adjust, you can see perfectly well. I’m here all day every day and have never blundered around blindly, knocking into things and plummeting down the stairs. It is not that dark. You can see perfectly well by natural light.

The volunteers, though, come in and immediately start flicking the light switches on, even on the sunniest summer days. (Is this something common to all older people, I wonder? My parents, for example, always like the "Big Light" on. I prefer subtle mood lighting, a couple of lamps maybe, for a softer effect, but they like a central ceiling light with a bulb so bright you can still see the room through your closed eyelids.) “Ooh, it’s a bit dark in here” they say.

Patiently, I explain that it seems like that, at first, due to the contrast between the brightness outside and the dimmer, cooler recesses of the house, but that in a few minutes they’ll be fine. I try to turn their perceived negative into a positive.

“It’s the authentic medieval experience” I smile. “This is exactly what it would have been like when it was first built. No electric lights, and candles were expensive, so you wouldn’t have lit those in the day time”.

They are unconvinced. “But people can’t see the Precious Things properly”.

I know what they want me to do. They want me to find an enormous spotlight and shine it on our very interesting and historic map. “Ah, yes,” I say, patience personified, “but the map is very delicate. If I put a light on it some of us will be able to see it really well for a little while, but, eventually, it will fade and then no one will be able to see it at all, ever again.”

They nod, thoughtfully. I return to the office, pleased with my informative and educational bit of volunteer management there.

When I come back through some time later all the lights are on. I can feel tiny hairs on my skin crisping in the heat from the 100 watt bulbs.

“It was dark” they say, by way of explanation.

A weird kind of strategy game has since ensued over the following weeks.

I took all the lightbulbs out of the light fittings.

They found them and put them back in while I was out.

I taped down all the lightswitches until the bulbs cooled enough for me to remove them again. This time I hid them in a special, secret place.

Lamps appeared, dotted around the building.

I hid all the lamps.

It's their turn next. I await their move with interest.

Saturday, October 21, 2006


Let me begin by saying that they are a wonderful body of people. Volunteers are a scarce commodity round here, as you need a very specific person. You need someone with spare time and a car. Public transport is just not an option round here, so transport is essential. This narrows the field down to retired people who have sufficient health and income to drive. All my volunteers are retired ladies and gentlemen, with a lifetime of skills and knowledge behind them.

Managing them is a delicate business, as they have the advantage on me in terms of age, experience and sheer volume of numbers. Plus, of course, they are here of their own free will and can simply walk out if they’re not happy. They are immune to the lame-at-the-best-of-times performance-related-pay carrot, as they get no pay anyway. The I'm-docking-your-wages stick is equally as redundant. I have to use other methods to get the best out of them. I use cake, mostly. Cake and Being as Nice as Possible.

So, all my dealings with them involve a lot of smiling and relentless chirpiness. You must never, ever, ever betray the slightest irritation with them, or they may leave. And then where would we be? Knee-deep in uneaten cake, I imagine.

The problem is, at present, we all share the one office. Indeed, we all share the one house. The house is neatly divided into two halves. One half is the part which is open to the public, the showrooms. This is the part where the volunteers steward, keeping a watchful eye on the contents and interacting with the public. The other half is my living accommodation, my home. Then there is a small “no man’s land” lobby in the middle, where the two halves connect, and my office.

The office has many functions. This tiny room is not only my hub of operations, with all the computerisation and paperwork that entails, but it is also the storage area for conservation materials and cleaning equipment, a dumping ground for the boxes and boxes of leaflets we seem, as an organisation, to produce and – this is the tricky bit – the volunteers refreshment area. There is only one desk. On one half is my computer and diary. On the other is the kettle, mugs, cake and biscuit tins. There tends to be a mingling of areas, despite my best efforts. I may foolishly leave the office for a minute or two, to attend to a visitor enquiry, or go to the loo or something, leaving my neatly printed letter next to my keyboard, awaiting my signature and an envelope, and I will return to find three coffee mug rings, a smattering of crumbs and a sandwich crust upon it.

Also, if I happen to take time off for whatever reason – holiday, day in lieu, explosive diarrhoea – I run the risk of being spotted as I cross No Man’s Land to get to my living room or kitchen. The fact that I am Not Really There means nothing. Not when there are incredibly important issues, burning issues that cannot be contained, issues that simply have to be raised, right here, right now.

I’ll be flitting surruptitiously from one room to the next, when a volunteer will pop out from the office, hearing aid obviously attuned to my careful footfalls.

“Dor-is!” comes the cry in that slightly singsong way they have. “I know you’re on your day off/holiday/deathbed, but - ”

I smile. Through gritted teeth, Usually with my hand on the latch of the door to my kitchen to indicate my deep need to be gone. My body language is screaming, damn it. But? But what? But a visitor had a heart attack? But a Precious Thing caught fire? No. More important than that.

“- do we have any more animal stickers?”


I must stress that I am inordinately fond of them, really. And I do appreciate all they do, for free. But, be warned, this is a theme I will return to again and again, bless 'em.

Thursday, October 19, 2006


With the return of the prodigal cat I was anticipating a glorious night of untroubled sleep.

All was deep and dreamy until I became dimly aware of my husband repeating the mysterious, and, frankly, annoying phrase “the alarms are going off” over and over again.

I was confused. In my dazed and dozy state I went into default mode, mumbling “yeah, yeah I know” whilst trying to fumble off my alarm clock. I squinted at the blue, glowing numerals. Four? Four in morning? What? Why alarm ring now? Why clock not shut up?

“No,” insisted my man, with commendable patience, “the security alarms!”

And, yes, now as I concentrated and gathered my faculties a little more, I could hear the incessant, maddening, long drawn out, spiralling whoop of the intruder alarm sounding in the distant reaches of the house.

Bugger bugger bum bum bollocks.

I lurched upright, and managed to get my dressing gown without falling over again. It is always best to investigate potential break-ins when wearing a purple candlewick dressing gown. If you tackle them in just your curry-stained t-shirt and big knickers you can be imprisoned for using unreasonable force. There is no justice.

So, having investigated every room for signs of intrusion, and finding none, I was left to conclude it was those sodding bats again.

The attic space is home to a thriving maternity roost of pipistrelle bats, though we also have long eared brown and lesser horseshoe bats. All of them like to flit about the Great Hall in the hours of darkness, pooping on the Precious Things and setting off the alarms. Which is all great fun for them, but less so for me, as each time the alarms go off the police are called out automatically. While they are talking to this purple dressing gown-clad, sleep-deprived woman who keeps shaking her fist at bats no one else can see, actual crimes are being perpetrated, unpoliced!

Oh well. Only a few more weeks and the bats will be hibernating for the winter. I could find out where and set off a car alarm or play the tuba at them at random intervals, to see how they like it, but they are a protected species, and, to be honest, it all seems like too much effort and they probably wouldn’t grasp the point I was making anyway.

In the meantime I shall count the days until the new, supposedly bat-proof, alarm system is installed.

The Cat is Back

Yes, taking a chainsaw to the Gordian Knot-like problem of how to retrieve my cat from a Douglas Fir has done the trick. He is returned. Caked in mud and ravenously hungry but none the worse for his amazing stunt. The surviving trees can rest easy now.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Lost Cat

My cat is missing. He is a home loving little fella, so when he failed to reappear after going outside on Sunday evening I began to feel concerned.

Given our location – the middle of a huge expanse of mixed woodland, parkland and farmland – it was unlikely traffic had finished him off. Or that he’d been catnapped. I had to assume he was on some sort of adventure, which, it turns out, he was.

When this morning came and he still wasn’t home I began the task of making those depressing “Missing Cat” posters, ringing the vets, and – dramatic drum roll – mobilising the estate to look for him! Yes, I have the power to do that, as I am a Very Important Person. And they were probably tired of hearing me go on about the cat.

So, I had a final wander around, making those little pursed-lip squeaky noises that we believe entices felines, and rattling food pouches, before miserably concluding there was nothing more for me to do and leaving for a day off. (A day off! Hooray! I had organised cover, and everything!)

Fast forward a number of hours, to me standing in Woolworths attempting to pay for my motley selection of Halloween items (all essential work related kit) and my mobile phone rings. It is my esteemed colleague.

“At last! I’ve been trying and trying to get hold of you! We’ve had drama!

“What? What’s happened?” (There is always a panicky moment when I am convinced that it’s true, they really can’t manage without me, and the house has detonated or something in my absence).

“We’ve found your cat!”

This is a good thing. Yet I can tell there’s more.

“Oh, fantastic! Where was he?”

“Up a tree.”


“Yes, quite a long way up. Lovely Warden tried to get him down for hours, but the cat just kept climbing higher and higher.”

“Oh no”.

“Yeah, so in the end, the cat was right at the top, and there was nothing for it but to cut down the tree.”


“Don’t worry! The cat leapt clear and sprinted off into the woods before the tree hit the deck, so he must be OK.”

“Right. Yes. Great! Thanks!”

Oh my god. They cut down an enormous Douglas Fir just to get my cat down! Seems a bit, well, drastic. I feel churlish even thinking it, but maybe a small bowl of kitty treats somewhere near the tree might have been another option.

Anyway, the cat has yet to reappear in the homestead. I fear he may have been so traumatised he has gone straight up another tree. Massive deforestation may occur as a result.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Excuse me....

One of the hardest aspects of the job is having to continually accost people. Outside our opening hours I have to ensure the security of the site and accost anyone who shouldn’t be there. It’s hard when you just want to sit and enjoy your moment off.

So, on an almost daily basis, a variation of the following exchange will occur:

Me (having had to accost somebody strolling through the gardens): “Hello! Can I help you?”

Naughty visitor: “Oh, we’re just having a look round”.

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry, I’m afraid we’re closed”.

“Oh it’s OK, we don’t want to come into the house, we just want to look at the outside”.

“Ah, I'm sorry, we’re closed."

"Even the outside?"

"Yes. Sorry!"

"I thought you were open all year round."

"The parkland is. It’s open every day, dawn to dusk. But the house and gardens are closed today. That’s why the gates are locked and the signs say we’re closed”.

“I am a member”

“That’s great! Thank you for your support. I’m afraid we’re still closed”.

“But I’ve come all the way from Inverness, just to see this place”.

“Oh dear. If only you’d rung first! Or looked online! Or read the handbook you undoubtedly have, being a member. Or read the numerous signs as you climbed over the gates! Then you would have known not to come at 6.30 on a closed day.”

Variations on this include the ever amusing “Are you open?” asked by someone who has navigated two sets of padlocked gates, an empty car park, through deserted orchards and somehow found their way into my back garden. These people would ruin the apocalyptic feel of “empty world” films like 28 Days Later or Day of the Triffids, with their unfailing optimism in the face of all available evidence to the contrary.

There is also the annoying “But can I have a free tour anyway?” approach. This is when I’ve asked people to leave, as we’re closed, and I want to go out and enjoy my moment off, and they ask “So, how old is the house?” or other site specific questions. I don’t want to talk about the history of the house for the next 20 minutes! I just want to get to the supermarket for more tea bags. No crafty learning for free! Be gone!

My personal favourites, though, are the ones who decide to just brazen it out. They tell lies of breathtaking audacity. “It doesn’t say that in the handbook” they’ll say. Or “It doesn’t say that on your sign”. It pushes you into a “yes it does/no it doesn’t” Punch and Judy routine if you’re not careful. You can try and do the English, polite, customer care thing: “Oh, I’m sure it does say we’re closed in January. Perhaps your handbook is out of date?” but when faced with “It fucking does not” where is there left to go? It’s a bold approach and when performed well can leave me so insecure in my own belief system I have to go and check the signs, or handbook entry, even though I know what they say. I wrote it myself, after all.

And the absolute worst is when I end up having to accost someone, in my most authoritative manner, whilst holding an ice cream in one hand, a deck chair in the other, on my way for a bit of relaxation in the garden, while the dog undermines me by lolloping about in insanely cheery manner and peeing at inappropriate moments.

A Comments Selection Box

"The tea pots and milk jugs don’t pour properly – they just spill everywhere."

"How safe are the wooden floorboards outside the 4 poster bed room?"

(Hmm….well, they’re perfectly safe…)

"Superb exterior & grounds – interior very disappointing – much more needed as it takes minutes to look round! Please improve this."

(A personal favourite. The house is small. Only four rooms are on display. I am not quite sure how to change the laws of physics and make the house more TARDIS-like. )

"Where ever we travel up and down the land, stainless steel teapots always drip on the table! Yours are no different!"

"The walks are great if you walk the “correct” way round. If you go the opposite way it is not clear without a path map."

(This does not bode well for the author’s prowess at navigating major road systems. I mean, yes, the motorway is great if you travel the “correct” way round....)

"The small guide was one of the best I have had."

(I sincerely hope this is in reference to the informative leaflet, rather than my volunteer)

"Unfortunately the teapot doesn’t pour properly. Unfortunately the milk jug doesn’t pour properly."

It's hard to know how to respond to the dribbly teapot comments. We simply don't have the manpower required to test every spouted receptacle in the tea room for potential dribbliness. And, oh, how I long to reply as I would like to:

Dear Mr Hatstand. Thank you for your comment regarding the dribbliness of your teapot. I am sorry to hear of your disappointment with our tea-making paraphernalia. However, perhaps you could look upon this another way. If this is the worst thing that has happened to you today, you are truly fortunate. Take a moment to reflect upon how lucky you are! For if a leaky teapot is enough to ruin your day and drive you, ballpoint in hand, to the nearest comments card box, I dread to think how a major calamity - say a stubbed toe or a lost hat - would effect you. In the meantime may I take this opportunity to thank you for bringing this matter to my attention.

Yours sincerely,

Doris Sparrow

Visitor Services Manager

The Basics

Hello! I'm Doris. At least for the purposes of this journal. Certain identifying details have been cunningly altered so I don't get myself, or anyone else, a strongly worded memo. I work for a nationwide conservation charity. I look after a historic house at the heart of a large estate. My job title is that of Visitor Services Manager, but it could just as easily be Custodian, Cleaner, Woman Who Buys the Tea Bags or She Who Distributes Bog Roll. That is to say, my job is varied. It is a big estate with a handful of staff to care for it and a slightly larger fistful of volunteers helping out.

Unlike many jobs, I never leave. I am on site 24/7, living in the part of the house which is not open to the public. (Oh, all right, I do leave site now and then. Mainly to get more tea bags or bog roll). My life here is fascinating and frustrating, restrictive and demanding, challenging and fun.

I am not alone in the house, oh no. I have a husband, a daughter, a daughter’s boyfriend, three cats, one dog, tiny tiny frogs and a colony of bats.

History Matters, Pass It On. That’s been emblazoned across our Ticket Office all summer, the box of special, expensive, colourful postcards, where you can write a missive on why history matters to you, remaining largely untouched and unregarded by our visitors. Well, you can’t blame them. What can you say on one measly postcard? (Actually, quite a lot, and we’ll be sharing some outstanding achievements in the field of visitor comments as we travel this way together).

So, I shall take up the challenge and send my own missives from my exciting world of conservation, customer care and historic buildings. Or, more accurately, stories of bat poo, tiny frogs, bizarre behaviour, tea, biscuits and why our timbers aren’t black.