Thursday, November 30, 2006
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
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
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
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
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
Thursday, November 23, 2006
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
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”.
“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
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
“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.”
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
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
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
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.