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.