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.