Thursday, May 31, 2007

Nursery Crime

Just before I came here, a couple of years ago, my Boss had decided to make the place a bit more family friendly by creating a walk for children. It's a lovely concept. A gentle stroll, surrounded by imagery from familiar children's stories and rhymes.

My Boss being my Boss, however, didn't ask for any input at the planning stages, and just went for what seemed like a good idea to him at the time. If he had asked any of the numerous parents we have working here to test walk it first, or tell him what they would look for in a children's trail, it could have all been so different. As for the images en route, some subtle touches like a bell pull on a tree, some wood carvings or sculptures, maybe, would have blended with the landscape and been fun to spot. As it is, the artwork - and I use the term in the loosest possible way - was completed by the wife of one of his mates and can be seen from space.

The final result is a bizarre array of incredibly badly painted pictures, mounted on boards, weathering badly, randomly dotted along a walk that includes two sets of steep steps and a marsh. I have to send people off on this, when they turn up and ask if the Nursery Rhyme Trail is open. I do my best to warn them - sensible footwear, I say. Does involve steps, I warn. I have yet to find a way of saying sorry about the boards, please don't have nightmares.

I shall now take you on a virtual journey, so you can share my anguish.

This is the Wildflower Meadow. Not much in the way of wildflowers at the moment, granted, but still very pretty and perfectly pleasant. So far so good.

But behind you is a horrible thing. You can tell it's meant to be Humpty Dumpty, but it is not even egg shaped. And it has something very wrong with its legs. I wish it'd hurry up and have a great fall, so I can put it in the skip.

Now, this is meant to be Snow White's cottage. The dwarves are bigger than she is though, which bothers me.

The Three Little Pigs. I can accept that the house of straw and the house of sticks will be piss poor, as that's the point. But the house of bricks is meant to be strong and wolf-proof. This interpretation shows that the third little pig didn't bother with any foundations, or mortar, and didn't have enough bricks. The message to the kids is that, by rights, this pig should be so much wolf shit by now and that chicken wire is, in fact, the optimum building material.

What can I say? Oh, for a flame thrower.

After negotiating the steep flight of stairs down the side of the embankment we now find ourselves in the boggy bit. The unwary step off the end of the bridge onto what looks like solid ground, only to find it is actually a big green spongey mass that will suck your shoes off your feet while simultaneously releasing clouds of mosquitos.

Yes. It is supposed to be Mole and Ratty. Mole looks far more like a big poo, inexplicably wearing a suit, though.

What has happened to Tigger's lips? Why is Eeyore so wide?

This is a Billy Goat Gruff. He has been on steroids.

The steps back up to the non-scary world! Not exactly pushchair friendly. Not easy to climb with a toddler in tow, either. You have to lean quite a way to your right to reach the rail, in places, while nettles abound at toddler bare ankle height. Pretty though.

And to complete the tour, the final gate, which opens towards the steps, so if you had managed to get that far with some super all terrain mega pushchair, you now have to reverse back down while trying to open the gate at the same time. Tricky.

Next month I meet with the conservators and curators as part of the property conservation plan. This trail is on my hit list. The good thing about all that flakey, gaudy paint is that those boards are going burn brilliantly.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Bank Holiday Stake-Out

Hundreds and hundreds of visitors came to the house on Monday.

Which is great, the people who tot up the figures will be pleased.

It's not too hard for me, as I am busy working, so don't expect any alone time anyway. It is more difficult for my family, who have to share their home with hundreds of other people every weekend and Bank Holiday. They're very good about it, and are accustomed to having volunteers tapping at the kitchen door, needing more milk or trying to track me down if I've selfishly popped home for two minutes to go to the toilet or something. And it's probably just as well the weather was too wet to sit out in the garden. If you do, you will find yourself becoming one of the attractions. Looking out of my kitchen window I saw a line of people, just gazing over the garden fence into the back garden.

They are understandably curious as to who lives there, and why it says "Private" on the gatepost. Which is a bit of a misnomer, as the one thing I cannot have here is privacy. I feel a strong affinity with zoo animals now. There's a reason why chimps behave as they do, you know.

Monday, May 28, 2007


Earlier this year I sent out a letter to all the local craftspeople on my database. In it I gave the price for reserving a stall at the May Craft Fair, and explained that this fee was for the pitch itself, which included a standard sized trestle table, based in a marquee in the grounds.

One craftsperson returned their form, asking if they could have their table against a wall, preferably in a corner of the marquee, as they would be displaying handmade cushions and didn't want them to fall off the table.

I duly allocated tables according to specified requirements and reserved one, in the corner, and moved it as close to the side of the marquee as possible.

The lady in question arrived, looked at it, and went ballistic. It wasn't enough room, it was all wrong, wrong, wrong.

"I'm a serious marketeer!" she exclaimed.


And she flounced off, taking her cushions with her.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Due to the aesthetic restrictions of living in this picture perfect house, I can't put my satellite dish up outside. It ruins the medieval atmos, apparently.

I have to hide the dish in an attic space and point it at the open window. This means that sometimes the reception isn't as brilliant as it should be. It's a great deal better than a bog standard TV aerial, but I still find myself watching wildly pixellated, staccato versions of well known films on the movie channels with depressing regularity.

Clouds. That's what causes it, apparently.

You bastard clouds, let me watch my telly box in non intermittent splendour!

(Shakes fist heavenwards and refills wine glass)

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Unexpected Visitors

McColleague entered the office, hands cupped together. "I need the bug jar!" she cried.

I leapt into action, retrieving the clear plastic pot and lid we keep for such times. A moment later we stood back and peered at the small insect within. It didn't look like much, but we both recognised it for the pest it is. A clothes moth.

"Where did you find this again?" I asked.
"On the bed."

I groaned. This was bad. The bedroom houses some gorgeous textiles, and would, naturally, be the last place we'd want a moth infestation.

Sure enough, upon investigation, we found many more insects in the bedding and a treasure trove of bug activity between the carpet and underlay.

We don't use pesticides for such things. The recommended treatment is to put the textiles into a sealed plastic bag and then freeze them for a minimum of two weeks. This was fine for the bed covers, curtains and rug, but has left us with a bit of a problem with the mattress, carpet and underlay. The mattress is hand stitched and stuffed with hair and lambswool. I have a feeling it is also home to stuffed moth larvae, glutted on a feast of natural fibres.

The Wardens - New and Lovely - were kind enough to come and help us move the heavy four poster bed and drag out the heavy carpet. We have left them in charge of those items too large to freeze, while I await curatorial instruction, though if we wait too long there is a chance they'll do a bit of purification through fire. A manky old mattress and a carpet will go nicely on their next bonfire.

Of course, all of this occurred about an hour before we were due to open, so we had to close of the bedroom while I hurriedly made an explanatory notice and laminated some pictures of the bedroom as it should look, when its soft furnishings are not in the nearest freezer.

Still, there were some more welcome visitors today. In our courtyard area we have a corner where we sell plants. We also sell bird boxes. We have some really pretty, twee, painted ones. We also have some very rough and ready rustic ones, that Lovely Warden made with visiting children at one of our wildlife events earlier this year.

As we stood in the courtyard, Lovely Warden noticed a blue tit coming and going from one of the boxes. He waited until she'd flown off and had carefully lifted the lid on the box. Peering into the gloom within, he suddenly broke into a wide grin. "I thought so," he said. "I could see it was worms she was taking in, not nest material." He beckoned me over. There in the box was a fluffy mass of baby blue tits.

"Awwwwww," I said, going into instant soppy mode. "Fancy choosing here, where all the public come to buy plants! Ooh, I'd better make a sign!" I had horrible visions of someone picking up the box and rattling it, not knowing it was in use. Since then, I've discovered the box next door has also got a nest inside - no chicks yet, but two eggs. We saw the same blue tit going into both boxes.

"Can it really have two homes on the go?" I asked.

"Oh yes," nodded Lovely Warden. "If it's from Local Town it's probably servicing the whole street."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


"Are the cows coming?"

I was half way over the ricketty gate, in a vulnerable position.

"No, they're still the other side of the hill."

"OK. Well, if they do come, and if that one with the horns is a bull, just save yourself. You're small and quick. I will distract them by flailing my arms about and getting trampled."

McColleague laughed, her eyes scanning the horizon as she calculated the sprinting distance between us and the next gate.

"I reckon we should be all right," she asserted.

McColleague and I had been on quite an adventure, exploring the estate on foot for the last four hours, through fields, woods, streams and parkland.

We found a little shelter in the woods.

It is where the community service kids have their base camp, brewing up tea over the fire when they are not clearing away fallen trees and maintaining the footpaths.

I particularly liked their sign over the door.

I am tempted to make it my own office.

We left the shelter behind us and moved on. We had a moment of indecision when faced with a herd of cows on the horizon. Should we walk through them, or go round on the other side of the hedge? We opted for the latter. As we walked up the hill we could see the cows on the other side of the hedge. They were only youngsters, half grown. We felt somewhat foolish. Turns out they weren't far away, they were just small.

We did a lot of clambering over stiles and fences. Eventually I managed to hurt myself on some barbed wire. "Watch out for the barbed wire," I said, giving my wound a lick.


I was too late. I untangled McColleague and compared injuries. Mine was worse.

OK, so it was just a scratch. McColleague swallowed a fly too. It was a survival type exercise, all right.

Home was in sight when we encountered the final field, the cattle thundering toward us, eager to see what the two humans were up to on the other side of the fence. "I think there is a bull in this field," I said. "That one's got horns, anyway."

We decided to try to find another way past, and stood for some time peering over the ricketty gate at the expanse of apparently cow-free field before us. "I think we'll definitely be all right, climbing over this," I stated, confidently.

And, as it turns out, we were, despite the fact the electric fence keeping them from us just stopped halfway along. I decided not to draw attention to that fact and just walked a little faster. "I really need some tea," I said. "Come on.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Open All Hours

"And you actually live here? You're so lucky!"

I hear this at least once a day. I try not to let on that I live here. When visitors ask about the part of the house not open to the public, I just say that it is still lived in. If pressed, I'll go as far as to say it is lived in by a member of staff. The volunteers, however, will rat me out in a heartbeat. "Doris lives here!" they state, pointing at me as I try to slink by, unnoticed.

And yes, it is amazing, and I am lucky, and it is beautiful....but....

The drawback is, of course, it is incredibly rare to just enjoy it, as when you live where you work, you are never really off duty. Closed days and evenings are very important to me, and the family, as these are the only times we can relax and treat the place as our home. Which, of course, it is, it's just that when the public are here you can't go playing loud music, washing the car in the courtyard, letting the dog out, lighting up the barbecue or even hanging out the laundry.

Next year the amount of time when the house is closed is set to diminish further, with opening times set to be earlier in the mornings and the open season starting in February and continuing until December, wherever possible. This means the time I can have to myself, undisturbed, is very precious to me.

The trouble is, my colleagues, the ones who work Monday to Friday, 9 to 5, who go home at the end of the day to a house they have all to themselves, keep booking in extra events and visits for every closed day and evening they can. I am thinking of becoming a naturist, just so I can go outside for a game of wobbly volleyball, or maybe jiggly pilates, and unsettle everyone so much they never disturb me during my time off again.

Friday, May 18, 2007


I asked my daughter to create a centrepiece for the dinner table. Something special, as we were making a bit of an effort.

This is what she came up with.

I like it.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Tiny Frog!

It's that time of year again! Tiny frogs! (Or possibly toads. They are too tiny for me to tell.) There was great excitement, and a poor quality camera phone picture, when we found our first of the season.
At this time each year, when the nights are wet, they appear, in my kitchen, hopping across the terracotta tiles, slowly becoming covered in a tumbleweed of dog hair, until they are captured and put outside again. Last year they reached biblical proportions. We collected 50 in a box and emptied back outside, and by the time we'd done that, the kitchen was full again. It makes it very hard to walk from one room to another without stepping on them. What makes it harder is that when they are still they look like little stones.
"They're softer on your feet than gravel, though," opined my daughter.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


If there's one thing guaranteed to send me into a bit of a tailspin, it's finding a curt, arsey memo in my pigeon-hole on the day that its author has flown off on holiday for a week.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Rainy Days and Biscuits

"Ah, Doris!"


"I noticed there were some broken biscuits in the tin, so I took the liberty of feeding them to the ducks. They seemed to appreciate it. I hope you don't mind?"

"No, no, that's fine."

Later on I cleared away the dirty cups and plates from the volunteer's corner, and lifted the biscuit tin to wipe away the tea stains and crumbs from beneath. It was suspiciously light. I lifted the lid and peered inside.

Two sodding biscuits. That's all he'd left me. Two.

"I would have eaten the broken biscuits," wailed my daughter, upon this discovery.

"It's this wet weather," I explained. "It sends them all mad."

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Wet Weather Day

On a rainy day, midweek, visitors can be scarce. The staff member in the ticket office, the volunteer in the shop, and the stewards in the house can become very bored after a while. Of course, in the shop and ticket office, in between customers, it is possible to read a book, do a crossword puzzle - one of my ladies brings her knitting with her. It is slightly harder to do entertain yourself in the house in a similar manner, and the volunteers have to find other ways to keep themsleves occupied.

This can take various forms, ranging from moving items about, to a layout they prefer, or putting all the lights on. Many cups of tea are made. Useful suggestions are thought of and searching questions are asked. I receive many more notes scribbled on scraps of paper on a rainy day. My volunteer in the house today though prefers to talk. He knows a great deal, and likes to share his knowledge. When there are lots of visitors he has lots of people to talk to. His attention is divided, diluted. On a day like today he stands in the gloom of the Hall, raindrops dripping from the roses above the door, bored and bursting with information to impart. When he spots a kagouled couple making their way up the drive, his eyes light up with anticipation. They will be the recipients of his undivided attention as he gives them the full 45 minute personal guided tour they never knew they wanted. Some people love it, others I have to rescue. I'll spot them, backed into a corner, eyes darting nervously from side to side, trying to spot an exit, as my volunteer continues, oblivious, lost in his happy place.

The wet weather is set to continue. I have encouraged everyone to bring in a game.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

A Reply

I received a reply to the email I sent to the headmaster of the local comprehensive school, following the Unpleasant Incident of last week.

Dear Ms Sparrow

Thank you for your email which was passed to me on Tuesday 7 May.

I share your sense of frustration and disappointment at the way in which a small minority of our students have failed to conduct themselves in keeping with the expectations of the school. The whole situation as you describe it is unacceptable.

The role of the teacher in charge of the situation is clear. If students misbehave in such a way they should have automatically forfeited their place at and been brought back into school.

I will share your email and my reply with the teacher concerned. It may be because the teacher concerned is a supply member of staff and that he is uncertain as to the action he is empowered to take in such a situation. Both the Deputy Head and I will make it perfectly clear as to the action the school believes is appropriate.

I will also share my reply with the Property Manager, . My view is that these particular students should not be allowed to come to again.

I hope you will appreciate that the school completely supports you in this matter and that you accept my personal apologies for what has happened. IT is disgraceful and there is no excuse for this type of behaviour.

I also hope that you will understand that this small group of students are not representative of the student body as a whole and any further groups working at will conduct themselves very differently.

Please do not hesitate to contact me if there are any future difficulties with our students, as action will be swift and decisive.

Yours sincerely


I am impressed, my faith is restored, and all is right with the world.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


"Wake up!"


"The alarm's going off again!"

Sodding hell. That was the second time in as many hours. My other half dutifully went to check if there were any actual burglars, while I phoned the alarm receiving centre to let them know it had happened again.

It's the same room every time. When checked, nothing is there at all. No intruders, no bats, nothing. The doors and windows are securely closed. I think the problem lies within the detector unit itself. It has become self aware and is attempting to communicate with me via the medium of sleep deprivation.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Jobs for the Boys

We made a sign:

"The last servants left here in 1947.
Please wash and put away any crockery used and take your rubbish with you.
Many thanks!"
New Warden had landed the choice job of putting up the noticeboard above the sink, so that we could display our finely crafted sign. This has been his first week on the job, and, I imagine, quite a learning curve. He has probably not saved a single dormouse or surveyed a solitary fungus. He has learned when we need the rubbish taking up to the wheelie bins, when we put the kettle on, where to gather greenery and flowers for May Day garland-making activities and how to run a wattle and daub workshop for school children.
"Have you got a tape measure?" he asked McColleague.
"Oh, no need to bother with that," she replied. "Just put it up by sight."
"But what if it's not level?"
"Then I'll make you do it again."
A pause. A smile.
He is learning when we are only joking.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

An Unpleasant Incident

A cacophony of noise came from outside my bedroom window. Squawking, quacking and an underlying thud of running feet.

I peered out of the window and saw a galumphing great youth chasing the resident bird population along the bank of the moat. I could make out some other people sitting on the bench nearby.

Great. My day off and now it looked like I'd have to go out and move someone on already, and it wasn't even 9am yet. I hurriedly completed getting dressed and then became aware of heavy splashes. I went back to the window. I could see the same teenager crouching by the edge of the moat, throwing stones at something beyond my view, but I could hazard a guess it was any wildlife that hadn't flown away.

I dashed downstairs and out of the back door, and by the time I got to the group on the bench, Lovely Warden had arrived. He explained that these were a group of students from the local comprehensive school. Not overly blessed with an aptitude for academia, they were here to do a bit of outdoor work. I explained that I suspected them of throwing stones at the birdlife.

"They have got a teacher with them," said Lovely Warden. "He's obviously doing a great job of supervising them."

"Are you staying with them?" I asked, hopefully.

"No, but they should be fine, they're working round the back, in the kitchen garden."


I had grave misgivings. I wanted to go out and enjoy the glorious sunshine, but I was afraid to leave the house unattended. I did not trust them.

And, as ever, my gut instincts were spot on.

Lunchtime came around, and the work party came back to the moat to have their sandwiches. I watched them from the window. Two of the kids were crouched down by the waters edge, lobbing whatever they could find, hard, at the reeds by the opposite bank.

I threw open the front doors of the house and emerged on the opposite side of the moat to them like an avenging angel.

"Are you throwing stones at my ducks?" I demanded.

An adult voice answered me. To my astonishment their teacher was sat on the bench, with them.

"No, at the moorhens," he said.

I boggled. What was wrong with the man?

"Well don't!"

"I've asked them to stop, but they won't".

"What?!" I had reached the incandescent stage. "Don't ask them, tell them. Now I'm telling you. This is my home, not just somewhere I work, and I have shouldn't be afraid to leave my house on my day off for fear of what you lot will do to the wildlife while I'm gone! If you can't respect this place you shouldn't be here. In fact, I want you gone. Go. Now."

I stormed back inside and immediately contacted everyone I possibly could, to express my rage.

I was angry that I hadn't been informed that anyone would be on site in the first place, I was angry that they were here on my day off - I would have liked to have taken my breakfast and lunch out to the moat and enjoyed a picnic in the sunshine without a load of local fuckwittted yobbos lobbing rocks at the ducks. I don't suppose my Boss, or the new Learning Officer would want them in their back yard on their days off. I was angry at the louts for behaving so reprehensibly, but the main portion of my ire was reserved for the teacher who was supposedly supervising them. I would have had them straight back on the mini bus after the first stone was thrown.

The upshot of it all was that Lovely Warden returned and took them away to another part of the estate, where he gave them a lecture on respect. My Boss then intercepted the mini bus before it left and also read them the riot act. I am slightly mollified, but still out for idiot blood. My nostrils are still slightly flared and I have a mad glint in my eye. I am very, very protective of all in my care.