Saturday, February 28, 2009

Pre Season Pressure (Washing)

We open the doors to the public very soon. The weeks before re-opening are always a manic time of trying to get all your essential repairs and building works completed with no staff and no budget but this year has been even more frantic than usual.

To condense many months of ongoing drama and angst in certain quarters the end result was my Boss and our volunteer shop manager resigning simultaneously and not entirely unexpectedly at the end of the pre season volunteer meeting just a couple of weeks ago.

To compound matters the volunteer shop manager also provides most of the stock. Since she was leaving she decided to take all her wares with her, leaving me with some dusty bare shelves and the pricing gun.

So, in addition to the usual long list of requirements before opening (re-lettering and replacing the signs, interviewing and hiring seasonal staff, unpacking the many boxes of 2009 literature and recruiting materials in the ticket office, updating the handbook, proofing a myriad of advertising, agreeing budgets, and so on) McColleague and I have also had to become impromptu shop managers. We have been scavenging every stock and store room in our quest for merchandise. There was great excitement when we unearthed an entire box of out of date crisps - that's lunch sorted for the next month!

Normally we make great use of the wardens in our pre season preparations, as they are so helpful when you need to move heavy oak furniture or shift an ice cream freezer. This year, however, we are effectively down to just one. Luckily that one is Lovely Warden but he is over-burdened and we try not to add to his workload if we can avoid it. Hence my decision to pressure wash the courtyard myself.

In the shady areas a treacherous green algae proliferates, making the surface incredibly slippery when wet. I donned protective clothing - wellies, cropped trousers and a mac - plugged in the pressure washer and did my bit for health and safety. It's a fearsome beast the pressure washer. It removes algae and dirt effortlessly and blasts them safely onto my face and body in a thick coating of filth. Effective at removing years of mud, it is equally good at removing huge chunks of cement and gravel from the courtyard surface itself, and you can't get cleaner than that.

After many, many hours I had completed cleaning maybe a third of the courtyard. I was caked in goo and my trigger hand was still vibrating for hours after I finished. The rubble and silt I had created had blocked the drains and the muddy water refused to drain away.
"I tried to save you a job," I explained, as Lovely Warden unblocked the drains and shovelled the mud and rubble into a wheelbarrow. "Would you like some out of date crisps?"

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It's Not Like It Used To Be

"Sodding hell, I've got another one!"

"Another complaint letter?"


"Is it because there weren't any craft stalls?"


[Sound of head hitting desk]

It's been hard work changing a long standing event. For many years now we have held an annual Christmas Fayre, with numerous stalls situated in and around the house. Each year, however, visitor numbers grow smaller as competition grows greater. The problem is we are a small property with a smaller budget. We simply cannot compete with the garden centre up the road or the big shopping centre in town when they advertise that Father Christmas will be arriving by reindeer-drawn sleigh, as opposed to Mini Metro, and will then be available in a proper grotto that isn't just a hastily erected shed. To make matters worse, neighbouring properties have also jumped on the Christmas Craft Fair bandwagon, often holding the same event as we are, on the same day, thereby effectively, and pointlessly, thinning out the audience.

In previous years we have had all the fun of moving the heavy oak furniture upstairs in the house to accommodate the craft stalls, helping the traders unload their cars and set up their stands, and then listening to them complain bitterly all day that there aren't enough power points, that the lighting is insufficient and that there aren't enough customers and we should have advertised it better.

So, for 2008 we decided to change our Christmas event. Let's play to our strengths, I said. Let's feature what we do have and stop trying to compete with properties with more money or big commercial operations. What we have is a unique, moated medieval manor house. We shall hold an authentic medieval Yuletide event!

The re-enactment group were most enthusiastic when I explained the concept to them. I wanted the public to feel like they'd stepped back in time by 500 years. Characters in costume would be making medieval Christmas food, staging mumming plays, bringing to life and illustrating the origins of many of our modern traditions, everything from original meat-filled mince pies, to Yule logs and Saint Nicholas.

I tried to sum up the essence of the event in our promotional material. The press releases, the adverts in the local papers, the posters, even the banners on the road all emphasised the living history aspect of it all. "Enjoy a Merrie Medieval Christmas" went the blurb. "Experience the music, food and customs of Yuletide as it would have been 500 years ago. See the Great Hall decorated with foliage from the estate and join the household as it prepares for the Christmas festivities." I stressed to anyone that would listen that this was a turkey and tinsel free zone. One thing I was very clear about, one thing it did not say in any promotional material at any point was that this was a craft fair.

The event itself went very well. Visitor numbers were high and our re-enactors were fantastic. The public seemed particularly fascinated by the food piled high on the tables and kept our household ladies very busy with questions about it all. One unexpected point of interest was the skinning of a hare! The group had brought some game with them - a hare, some pheasants, a mallard - so that the men would be able to return successfully from their staged hunt. On the second day of the event one of the medieval ladies asked me if there was anywhere secluded in the courtyard she could go to skin (or pluck, in the case of the birds) and gut the game before it spoiled. I set her up in a discreet corner, where no one had to be privy to the blood and guts of real meat if they didn't want to, but still on show if anyone took an interest. She ended up with a huge crowd around her! Children in particular were quick to express an "Ewwww" and immediately draw closer with a volley of follow up questions.

At the close of the weekend I felt confident that we had provided a top quality educational and entertaining event, with far more people in attendance than at the Christmas Fayre the previous year.

Then I received a letter. It stated how disappointed the author was with our Craft Fair this year. There weren't any stalls at all. I replied to say how sorry I was that he was disappointed with our Merrie Medieval Christmas event but that this was not a craft fair and had never been advertised as such.

Then I received a couple of emails which said pretty much the same thing. The complainants came to our Craft Fair every year but this year it was rubbish! The re-enactors themselves were good, they said, but the courtyard had no trade stands whatsoever. What kind of Craft Fair was this?

Almost every week since Christmas I have received another letter complaining about the paucity of stalls at my Craft Fair. I really don't know what more I could have done to raise awareness of the fact that this event was not a Craft Fair other than emblazoning "NOT a Craft Fair" over all my publicity material. There is annoyance that the event has changed, even though the new event is much better than the old one. There is annoyance that they were unable to not buy anything from a selection of tat-laden trestle tables despite the fact that we were surrounded by venues offering exactly that on the very day they attended.

I truly believe that if I invented a time machine and actually transported people back in time to experience the house in its medieval prime, some people would still be disappointed that the paths were muddy and that there was no opportunity to buy a hand-painted tea tray. It confounds me. Why come for a day out at a medieval house, for a medieval event, if all you really want or enjoy is shopping?

Heaven help me if I ever decide to change the format of our Easter Egg Hunt!

Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Return of the Doris (Again)

I am returned, with so much to update upon it is a little overwhelming. In the meantime, while I get my hilarious stories in order, I shall give you a brief, visual summary of the intervening months.

It is a sad day for me, after Halloween, when our amazing creature creations have to be taken down and put back into storage. I was immensely proud that several visiting families told us that ours was the best Halloween trail in the region. I can believe it. No crappy paper ghost flapping forlornly in the corner for us! We do Halloween properly. Full-sized monsters and spooky sound effects abound. Still, all good things must come to an end and, reluctantly, I put away the rubber spiders and turned my mind to other issues, such as the water leaking into the house every time it rains.

It isn't a new problem. I have been flagging it up for quite a while now. Still, at long last, shortly before Christmas, some buildings department people and an architect came to see the problem for themselves. Of course, as is the nature of such things, it wasn't raining. It was a glorious winter day with not a cloud in the sky. We would have to recreate rainy day conditions if they were to try to pinpoint where the problem lay. No problem.

"Up you go," we said to Lovely Warden, issuing him with a ladder and a hosepipe. "Try not to fall off, but if you do, try to roll with it."Afterwards, while I was mopping up the subsequent indoor water features that resulted from this experiment, the architect came to show me the water ingress points he had marked on his drawing.

"So, that's pretty much all of it."


"The entire front of the house."


"Almost every timber and every panel needs attention."


"And when can we start work on this?"


"When we re-open?"


I have been on a course. I know that this is not a disaster. It is a challenge to be met.


Time to prepare for the annual Christmas event, which entails much joyous gathering of foliage.

Lovely Warden McColleague and I duly donned our foliage gathering hats and wellies, climbed into the Gator and set off up the road, singing festively.

"Why's it making that noise?" asked McColleague as the Gator thwup-thwup-thwupped its way along.

It turned out that a knackered tyre was making that noise and Lovely Warden had to remove the entire wheel and take it into town to be repaired.

Undaunted we set off on foot to gather whatever we could carry back to the house. We wanted an enormous ball of mistletoe to hang as our centrepiece in the Great Hall. In one of the many old orchards on the estate we found just the specimen.

"Up you go," we said to Lovely Warden, issuing him with a saw and a pair of loppers. "Try not to fall off, but if you do, try to roll with it."

It was an impressive size once Lovely Warden cut it free. Almost as big as McColleague. We used double the rope we would normally to hoist it aloft in the Hall and even then I had a nagging concern it might plummet onto an unsuspecting visitor and flatten them, festively.

It was an exciting walk back across country with the fruits of our labours. Lovely Warden has a habit of taking shortcurts which involve fording streams and scrambling up near vertical slopes of mud. It all got a bit Blair Witch Project for a while. Which I liked, being a Halloween queen.

The Hall was duly decorated and set for a medieval feast. Sadly the public can't sample the food, but the re-enactors are happy to feed it to me. They have lots of interesting spiced alcoholic beverages to pass around in wassail bowls too, which makes for an entertaining evening.


Ah, back to work after the Christmas break. The moat froze solid and the flagstones in the Hall developed an alarming mould. I phoned the curatorial department for advice on the best way to tackle it and was informed to brush the mould carefully before vacuuming it up via a special filter and to wear face masks of the correct specification, to avoid breathing in spores.

Ten minutes later Lovely Warden appeared with a broom, McColleague fetched the Dyson and we all pulled our jumpers up over our noses for safety. It was fine.


So far this week I have missed the Spring Conference, a training day and a staff meeting due to the heavy snow. While I am obviously deeply disappointed I am making the best of it. Luckily McColleague and I only just re-ordered toilet rolls and biscuits last week so I think I may survive until the thaw.