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.