Friday, June 29, 2007

The Birds

I am surrounded.

When I go out of the front door there are young swallows on the verge of fledging, in a nest just above my head. The only problem is that they produce a shocking amount of poo. Fortunately Lovely Warden has lovingly crafted a doorstep and doormat protector from pieces of wood. So there are still unsightly piles of poo, but on pieces of wood.

When I step outside my back door I am met by this scene.

The ducks know where grain happens. They beg every bit as much as the cats and dog for their meals. Lurking at the edges of the garden are the moorhens. They are cautious birds and dart in amongst the ducks to grab their share of what's on offer. There is a new family at the moment, the baby moorhens like tiny black pom poms running about the lawn.

I spend a lot of time going "awwww, they're so cute!" and not getting any work done.

Thursday, June 28, 2007


I was spouting forth to Young Volunteer this morning about the failings of our organisation's technological side, because I couldn't find any accurate information about events on our own website.

"The thing is," I said, "that we can be shockingly bad at the IT side of - whoops!"

I had somehow managed to pour most of the cup of herbal tea I had been holding into my keyboard.

Young Volunteer is learning so much from me.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007


McColleague has gone on holiday this week.

Luckily I have the lovely young volunteer I mentioned here, who is now experienced enough to be able to perform most of McColleague's duties in her absence.

She works until about 1 pm each week day and then departs, so I always close up the house myself every evening. Some of my volunteers who steward in the house in the afternoon like to stay on after we close, to help me put the house to bed. Tonight my volunteer and I went to the Court Cupboard to fetch the bat covers. These are the tyvek sheets we use to protect all the surfaces in the Great Hall from the bats which like to socialise in the rafters after dark. They are taken off in the morning, stored in the cupboard, and put back on when we close.

We opened the cupboard door. Wow. All the sheets were neatly folded.

"Good heavens!" exclaimed my volunteer, in shock. "This is very tidy."

He was right. Normally McColleague or I just grab the covers from the tables and chairs, bundle them up and stuff them into the cupboard in a big, bulky ball.

"Ah," I explained. "That would be our young volunteer who helps in the house in the mornings."

"She's folded them all up," he said, somewhat redundantly, as we both stood looking at their folded neatness. "I thought half of them were missing at first, but it's just that they take up so little room like this."

"Well, she's young and still cares," I said. "She hasn't become jaded like McColleague and I. We just stuff them in any old how. It's not like they're best quality tablecloths - they're only going to get covered in poo."

"True," he agreed.

"Plus it probably took her ages," I ponted out, "whereas McColleague and I can have this room open in under a minute."

"Still, it's nice that she bothered."


I miss McColleague.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Happy Feet

McColleague and I went shopping for arts and crafts items for our next big event.

We had a fairytale theme so were delighted when we spotted some stone feet stepping stones in the gardening department of Woolworths.

"They'd be perfect as troll footprints under the bridge!" we exclaimed. "We'd be crazy not to buy them!"

Once we got them back to the office we unwrapped them and decided we needed Lovely Warden to help install them properly outside. We decided to text him a picture to illustrate our request. McColleague and I giggled just as much over our handiwork (footwork?) here as we did over our halloween exhibit or the nuts incident. Is this childish?

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Coach Parties Welcome

Sometimes you just have a feeling that a particular group will prove challenging.

It began with an email.

Regarding our group visit to thehouse next Friday, 14 of us would like the quiche, 12 would like the ploughmans, the others don't know yet but I'll let you know their choices as soon possible. We'd also like to book the guided walk of the estate, thanks.

I was confused. What group visit next Friday? I went through my diary and my bookings file. Nothing.

I wrote back.

Thanks for confirming your choices for lunch and your booking of an estate walk. Would you be so kind as to complete the attached booking form, so I know how many of you there are, your time of arrival and so on?

The reply was illuminating. Apparently the organiser had already completed a booking form and posted it. The only problem was they'd sent it to the wrong address, hence my surprise at the unexpected lunch confirmation.

So, with only a few days notice, we arranged their visit for them. They were to arrive by coach at 11am, have coffee at our tea room on arrival, then half of them wanted to have a guided walk of the estate, while the other half wanted to visit the house. Then they all required a group lunch. This took a bit of planning, as the tea room is a good two miles away from the house. In the end we came up with the simplest solution. My Boss, who would lead the walk, would go to the tea room when they arrived for coffee and take those who wanted the guided walk on a stroll through the woods. The other half of the group would get back on the coach and be driven down to the house. My Boss would bring his group down to me, finishing his walk at the house, and then the two groups could re-merge, get back onto the coach and head up to the tea room together when they were ready for their lunch.

I did have doubts about the group's ability to master this plan. Considering that they didn't manage to send back the form to the address printed on it, I was not overly optimistic about the chances of them even turning up on time. Or to the right place.

11am came and went. I gave McColleague my "I told you so" look. My Boss radioed. "What time did you say this coach was coming?"

Forty minutes later the coach finally arrived. My Boss gave them a few minutes to get their coffees and then went over to the tea room. He welcomed them warmly and explained that he would be taking those who'd requested it on a guided walk, while the others would drive straight on down to the house. "Any questions?" No, they all understood perfectly. "Right, well I'll go outside and all those who are coming on the walk can meet me by the coach."

Ten minutes later a small group had assembled by the coach. "What are we doing again?" they asked. "Am I on the walk or the coach?"

By the time my Boss was approaching the gates to the house an hour later, he was beginning to feel the strain. Still, at least he hadn't lost any of them en route. He radioed me again. "We're just approaching the house," he said. "The organiser has some money for today's visit and wants to know where she should pay."

I sighed, inwardly. This was all explained in the booking information I sent. "If she goes to the ticket office on arrival, they'll be happy to deal with it."

A few more minutes passed. The group arrived in front of the house. One of the party approached me. "Hello! I've got some money to pay for today's visit."

"Right. Yes. If you just call in at the ticket office, there," I pointed, "they'll be able to take your payment."


"That building there. You just walked past it to get here. It's usually quite hard to miss."

My Boss finished his part of the proceedings with a relieved smile. "This is the end of the walk, folks," he said. "I hope you enjoyed it. I'll hand you over to Doris now. Anything you want to know about the house, you just ask her."

He patted me on the shoulder as he took his leave. "This lot are daffy," he hissed in my ear before striding away.

"So, what are we doing now?" was the first query from the group.

"Well, now you can have a tour of the house, have a look round the grounds, and then your coach will take you back to the tea room for lunch at 2 o'clock".

At 2.30pm I noticed two things as I walked through the orchards. Firstly, the coach had gone. Secondly a group of people had accumulated near the now empty coach bay. I went over to investigate, with a due sense of foreboding.

"Oh, good," said the organiser of the coach party as I drew near. "Can you call someone at the tea room and get them to find our coach driver? He's taken some of the others back to the top, but we've been left behind and we're really hungry. We'd like our lunch now, too!"

I duly radioed through the message. There was a pause at the other end, where they were either tracking down the coach driver or laughing a lot. Or both, possibly.

I stayed with the group until the coach returned. I didn't want any of them wandering off again, or I could see this scenario playing out before me on an endless loop for the rest of the day.

At last all of them were on the coach and off to have their lunch. Where, despite their original email, detailing their menu choices, none of them could remember what they'd pre-ordered.

Yes, they were a challenging group. Perfectly pleasant, if a little confused. By the end of the day we were almost sorry to see them go. Almost.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

But is it art?

I received an email informing me that the Learning Officer would be organising a two day art partnership event, with an artist present both days to work with the visiting school classes. Felt making and sculpture, it said.

The days it was due to happen coincided with my days off. On the morning of the first day I encountered Lovely Warden on site, as I walked the dog. He had just pounded in an avenue of fence posts in the orchards, as per the instructions of our Learning Officer.

"What's all this for?" he asked me.

I explained about the art and sculpture thing.

"But what are these posts for?"

I shrugged. I had no idea.

Bidding him farewell I made good my escape for the rest of the day. When I returned I boggled at the sight before me. That couldn't be it, surely? Maybe it wasn't finished yet.

I went out again on the second day. I returned later that evening and, yes, that really was it. After two days, and at great expense, having involved the time and labour of Lovely Warden to install numerous fence posts and hiring the talents of a professional artist, the end result was a collection of tattered tramp beards on a line, slap bang in front of the house, ruining the view.

And no matter which angle I looked at it from, it didn't get any better. No amazing sculpture revealed itself.

Still, that night the big storm came and the next morning only the posts remained. How very fortuitous.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Bigger Rain

Well, that was an impressive storm .

Ironically enough, the digger had returned first thing yesterday morning to repair the hole, again.

Watching the river of rainwater flowing across the fields and down across the path, over the newly filled in hole, I began to suspect further repairs may be necessary.

As it turned out, the hole withstood the tide rather well, but the path itself has lost a lot of its surface. Great grooves have been gouged out and bare rubble remains.

The tea room flooded again, a couple of paths in the woods were washed away and the bridge which forms the only access to one of our holiday cottages was swept away entirely, stranding the elderly holidaymakers within. Needless to say it has been an incredibly busy day, especially for our wardens. They have been dashing about in waders, putting things right, building temporary bridges, mending pathways and just being rugged.

Given the unsettled forecast I comfort myself with the expectation of lots more warden in waders action during the week.

Monday, June 18, 2007


This is what happens when cats swat insects that sting.

Poor Jules, he never learns.

I suspect he must have decided to play with a wasp. If it had been a hornet the effect of its sting would have been far worse I fear.

Every summer we encounter hornets here. They tend to build their nest in the hollow oak tree opposite the house, and head unerringly for the lights once darkness descends.

On one occasion we had two or three circling the lightbulb on the landing and I was too scared to go past them to the bedroom. I slept in the living room, big wuss that I am. And I am right to be wary. Hornets are enormous and menacing with a subsonic rumble that makes bumble bees sound like Joe Pasquale on helium. Many people will tell you that they are less aggressive than wasps, and unlikely to sting, but I am not prepared to give them the opportunity. I avoid them rather than trying to kill them. They are tough creatures and no matter how much you blast them with chemical spray they will not fall down. When they get zapped by the electric bug killer they sizzle and spark and refuse to expire for a good half hour.

One memorable night I went up to bed, snuggled up under the duvet and fell asleep. An hour or so later my husband came upstairs to join me. Time passed, all was snoozy and fine, and then suddenly:

"AAAAAARGH! Oh great buggery FUCK! OW!"

I sat bolt upright in bed, fumbling for the light, as my husband continued to howl anguished obscenities while flailing around the bedroom.

His upper thigh was reddening and swelling rapidly as the culprit crawled sluggishly out from under the duvet. Somehow a hornet had got into the bedding at some earlier point in the evening and I had been sleeping with it in blissful oblivion until my husband had got into bed and disturbed it. Unfortunate as it was for Bert to be stung on the upper thigh he considered himself miraculously lucky not to have been stung any higher up. Though he was saddened at missing out on the opportunity to give the old "take away the pain and leave the swelling" joke a bit of an airing. Sadly, or thankfully, depending on your point of view, I have no photo to illustrate his swollen appendage, but it was impressive. And I am henceforth wary of hornets and check the bed carefully before retiring, if I've had the windows open.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Big Rain

I stood at my kitchen window gazing out at the sheets of rain cascading down. I knew what to expect next. Every time we have heavy rain a river flows through my kitchen. It begins in the utility room, flows gracefully through the kitchen, and out to the back door. This time was no exception and we resignedly moved shoes, chairs and the dog's bag of Eukenuba out of the way as the water began its progress.

However, this time the rain brought with it a multitude of tiny toads.
Well, they might be toads. They might be frogs. They really are far too tiny to tell, as you can see from the picture above. They are about the size of my little finger nail and I must have collected about 30 before I went to bed that night, carefully placing them outside, only for them to return a few minutes later. I can't bear to leave them though, partly because I am so scared of accidentally stepping on one, and partly because they tend to dehydrate and die overnight and I find their tiny dried spindly bodies too unbearably sad as I suck them up the hoover.

The following morning I excitedly reported the tiny toad invasion to McColleague when she arrived for work. She pointed out there were hundreds outside the front door too, the visitor entrance to the house, their tiny bodies clambering over the fibres in the coconut door matting and clinging to the boot brush. Some had already been squished. So, I made a sign, saying "Watch your feet! Tiny toads crossing!" It worked really well, and we had great fun watching people gingerly picking their way across the lawns, trying not to step on any mini amphibians.

The big rains also caused the reappearance of another familiar feature. Yes, the hole is back, bigger and better than ever!
Here you can see the lovely McColleague pointing at it in true local newspaper photography style. I tried to get the builder chap and his digger back again, but he was busy elsewhere on the estate, as the storm drains up at the tea room had also collapsed. The kitchen staff had arrived to find their kitchen entirely flooded. McColleague and I decided to go and investigate and see if any cakes needed rescuing. We are not too proud to eat water damaged scones.
Amazingly, despite the above setting, people were still sitting nearby to sip their cups of tea and shout polite conversation over the noise. I find it amazing that I get comments cards complaining about dribbly teapots, yet no one says a word when they have to leap a trench and dodge the digger, Indiana Jones style, in order to enter the tea room. It seems our visitors are just as unpredictable as our weather.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


This is a young pipistrelle, found in my daughter's bedroom last night. Bats can't take off from the ground, they need to drop a small distance and then fly. Interestingly, as my husband discovered, once they are off the floor they don't need much height to fly at all. This one took off at about an inch off the ground, but fortunately flew out of the window and into the night without too much cajoling.

Isn't he beautiful?

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Luck? Sheer bloody hard work, I'll have you know!

It had been a long weekend. The local photography club had put up their exhibition in the marquee, having never displayed in an outdoor space before. Consequently their pictures spent the entire weekend wafting limply to the ground, as the double sided sticky tape they'd used just wasn't a match for the heat and humidity. I used up my entire office supply of sticky velcro reattaching the damn things every few minutes.

Then there was the time I had to spend on the phone arranging short notice cover for the Sunday. A couple of weeks ago one of my volunteers had come into my office to alter his shifts in the diary. "Doris," he said, wielding a biro, "I have crossed myself out for the Saturday, as you already have plenty of volunteers that day, and put myself down for the Sunday instead."

"Brilliant," I said. "Thanks."

Fast forward to the weekend in question and a few minutes past opening time, in comes the same volunteer. "Hello Doris," he cried, chirpily.

"Hello. What are you doing here? It's Saturday. You crossed your name out for today, and put it down for tomorrow, remember?"

"Did I? Oh dear. That's unfortunate. I've just agreed to do something else tomorrow."

"Brilliant," I said. "Thanks."

I smiled my way through the numerous "I didn't know we had an event on today" comments, sorted out the problem with the malfunctioning padlock which meant no one was able to get in, and raced about incessantly, dealing with everything from visitor enquiries to doling out change and loo rolls.

By the end of the Sunday I was flagging and at the face-ache stage of smiling.

"So, who lives in the house then?"

I couldn't bluff my way out of this one, as she was part of the re-enactment group and would find out eventually.

"I do, " I said.

"You lucky thing! I was just saying to your staff, yesterday, that whoever lives there, whatever they're paid, it's too much! To get paid and live here..." She looked at me again, hard and long. Whatever I was thinking was evidently not displayed in my public-facing persona. "You're so lucky!" she asserted once more.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

What's Going On Today Then?

I have mentioned this phenomenon before.

This weekend was no exception. My volunteers arrived, approaching the house through the myriad tents of the encampment which had sprung up in the orchards, the scent of woodsmoke lingering in their hair. People in costume went about their business, the blacksmith at his anvil, the women tending the cooking pots, soldiers practicing their swordplay.

Without fail, every volunteer was perplexed. "Hello Doris," they cried, eyes roving over the medieval scene before them. "What's going on today then?"

I smiled through gritted teeth, biting back my preferred response of "It's an Easter Egg Trail, what does it look like?" and gently pointed out that it was our 15th Century Weekend, as written on the wall chart and in the diary, in capital letters, with highlighter pen all over it, just above where they had written their own names directly beneath.

I have learned that it is completely pointless relying on them to spread the word about the exciting events we hold here as they are continually amazed that anything happens at all. Given the blanket coverage I already provide I am not quite sure how else to get them to take in such information. All I know is my face aches with patient smiling and I need another drink.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Throwaway Comment

I unlocked the comments box and reached inside. I retrieved a slelection of cards and questionnaires, completed by our visitors and then deposited within the box. The questionnaires all have to be sent off to the company we use to compile the data at the end of the year.

One questionnaire immediately caught my eye. It had been scrawled on in red pen. An oversized "Fuck you!" gouged across the front page. Turning it over I saw the equally pithy "Fuck you. You smell. Gaylord." emblazoned across the back.

Does this count as a genuine visitor comment and should I still post it to the market research department?

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Digger

At least I got to see it on my way out this morning. There was already an impressive pile of dirt next to the trench, which was now so deep that the builder could stand in it and have a fag and you'd never know he was there. I knew he was there, which is why he got out as I approached, which is a shame as I would have like a picture of him in his smoking pit.

I then headed off for a day long meeting about Visitor Services matters and when I returned everything seemed back to normal. I think that's because everything is back to normal, rather than my perception of reality being skewed due to a day spent saying things like "engaging our supporters" and writing SWOT analyses, but I will check in the morning to make sure.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The Expanding Hole

A builder chap came to investigate the hole in the ground.

McColleague reported his findings back to me.

"He says yes, it's big, yes, it's deep, yes it's quite dangerous."

"Right you are," I said.

"Lovely Warden is going to mow an alternative path through the orchards and we'll cordon off that entire corner with hazard tape."

McColleague headed back out, while I said a quick hello to the incoming staff and volunteers, before joining her at the cavern's edge.

She was holding a red and white tattered bundle of shredded plastic in both arms.

"Well, we're off to a good start," she said. "Lovely Warden just ran over the roll of hazard tape with the lawnmower."

We laughed. After all, it wasn't our hazard tape, it was part of the warden's kit.

Eventually we managed to tie enough various shredded pieces of tape together to cordon off the danger area. The builder chap will return tomorrow with a digger. Annoyingly, I'll miss this as I have to go to a meeting at Regional Office for the day. On the plus side, when I return, there is sure to be a big trench across the path, possibly with ramblers in it.

Monday, June 04, 2007

The Hole

I picked up an answer phone message from the gardener.

"We discovered a collapsed drain while we were mowing," he said. "We've cordoned it off but you might want to get it checked out."

I went outside to locate the hole for myself. It was easy to spot.

Nice barrier work, I thought. Mind you, the hole itself is somewhat bigger and deeper than I imagined. I have concerns it may extend beneath the surface for quite a way and I could need a bigger cordoned off area. Otherwise there is a possibility some visitors may be lost to the underworld. On the plus side, McColleague and I may be able to wear our helmets and lamps again!

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Duck Rescue

The call came at midday.

One of the residents on the estate had discovered a mother duck with seven ducklings on her pond. Unfortunately the dog had already eaten two ducklings and they were concerned for the safety of the rest. Could we possibly relocate them down here, to the moat?

Hmmmm. Not as simple as it sounds. Even if I caught the duck, how was I to get it the mile and a half down to the house?

I texted McColleague. "Do you want to be involved in a duck rescue this afternoon?"

She did. Which was good, as she is the only person I know who keeps ducks, so has a handy duck carrier to transport them in. "Should I bring my husband?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied. "I have a feeling the ducks will go everywhere when we try to catch them, so the more help the better. Mr Sparrow and I will meet you there."

Pausing only to fill a carrier bag with corn, we headed off to the top of the estate. McColleague and her husband were waiting for us. He was holding the large plastic box, in which we hoped to place our captured ducks, and McColleague was holding a small yellow fishing net, of the kind found in seaside souvenir shops. We rang the bell of the house in question. I am sure we made an impressive sight. The plastic bag of grain, which I had now discovered had a hole in in the bottom, the fishing net and the box. A truly professional outfit, guaranteed to inspire confidence at a glance.

"Hello," I said, brightly, as the door opened. "Did you call Duck Rescue?"

They had indeed. Ushering us through into their back garden we immediately spotted our prey. "Ok," said McColleague's husband, "we're only really going to get one shot at this."

Carefully we fanned out around the tiny pond, to form a pincer movement. Mother duck and her babies stayed just beyond the reach of the tiny fishing net, in the middle of the water. I threw corn. They ignored it and refused to come closer.

"Put your arms out," said McColleague's husband, demonstrating by assuming a cruciform pose. We did. The ducks moved a little further towards one side of the pond. There was a lunge, much quacking, some running around over the rockery and flower beds, and mother duck flew off into the garden next door.


McColleague and I stood guard over the ducklings, to ensure we didn't lose those too, while our respective husbands climbed over the wall to try to shoo mother duck back into our garden again. There was much quacking, the sound of foliage rustling, thudding feet, a cry of "Aargh, I almost had her!" and then mother duck flew overhead and out into the surrounding parkland.

The couple who had originally called us in as a duck rescue team came out to see how we were doing. We explained the situation as our husbands climbed back over the wall, duckless, and it was agreed mother duck would probably return if we stopped chasing her about and had a nice cup of tea instead.

We drank our tea and listened to the sound of anxious quacking from the other side of the wall. The ducklings were still with us, on the tiny pond, cheeping and cheeping for their mother. We waited. Mother duck did not return.

"OK, plan B," I said. "If we stress the little ones too much they'll die anyway. Mother duck isn't going to come back while we're here. The ducklings can't get to her as they can't get over the brick wall. Let's catch the ducklings, put them back with mum, over the wall, and hopefully she'll decide here is a bad place and take them away to somewhere safe."

At last the small yellow fishing net came into its own, as one by one the tiny ducklings were scooped up and carried over the wall. Mother and babies were reunited and left to take their chances in the wider world. It was the best result we could hope for, and at least they were away from ravening pet dogs. Foxes and other predators would still be a concern even if we had got them back to the moat.

We gathered up our duck busting kit: the dripping net, the bag leaking corn, the empty box. "Right, well, we'll be off now. Just call us, you know, if you need any other ducks rescuing."

We returned to our cars, glowing with the sense of a job well done and the exertion involved in chasing a small duck around a rockery.