Today I would like to take a break from telling you about life at Hatchlands Park, if I may, to tell you about my volunteering experience at a very different National Trust property – the Big Brother house.
You may have heard in the news over the last few weeks about the National Trust opening this famous house in Elstree Studios to the general public for the first time ever. There has been quite a lot of controversy about it, but whether you agree with the decision or not, London director Ivo Dawnay puts it very well in the forward to the Big Brother house guidebook (yes, there’s a guidebook) when he says: “The Trust has always been about getting people into special places. And, like it or not (and we acknowledge some won’t), it is hard to dispute that this particular Palace of Varieties, housed in Elstree Studios but a genuine residence no less, is special to many.”
So how does a House Steward from Hatchlands get to suddenly steward the Big Brother house? Well quite simply, a plea for help went out earlier this week from the London Project team (more on them later) and I just couldn’t resist! The house was only open for 2 days – Friday and Saturday – with guided tours running all day. Tickets sold out within hours of going on sale. My job for the day was essentially to steward the tours, make sure nobody got lost (intentionally or otherwise) and just be a helping hand. I also had one very special job which I will tell you about later!
The tours I stewarded were all lead by Sean, a volunteer at NT’s Sutton House in Hackney. He was a fantastic guide – funny, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and friendly. Our visitors really got their money’s worth with Sean as their guide. (I’m sure the other guides were great too!) The tours themselves lead visitors into the camera runs that snake their way around the outside of the house, then into the house itself including the bedroom, garden, living room and all important diary room, then over to the production gallery where we saw how the show was edited and put together, as well as meeting one of the 27 voices of Big Brother, then finally down to the Bit on the Side studio for a quick look around. The tours were intended to last about 90 minutes giving us a half hour break between each one, but in reality each one took nearly 2 hours so it was pretty much non-stop, but seeing how much everyone was enjoying themselves more than made up for it. (And let’s not deny it, we were enjoying ourselves hugely as well!)
Being inside the house was surreal. We entered through a back door and into the camera runs (where photography was not permitted, sorry) and there were all sorts of little nooks and crannies, secret doors, or passages leading into the house. I can’t really describe how bizarre it felt to be inside the house that you only ever see on TV. Everything inside the house was very cosy and nicely done (recently made a little bit more plush for the celebrity housemates) while everything in the camera runs looked a bit home made and basic, with notes up reminding the crew to wear dark clothes and be extra quiet.
The most surreal place of all however, was the diary room. This was also my special job I mentioned earlier. When each tour group reached the lounge, it was my job to go and radio Big Brother and tell her we were ready. Then, one by one, she would call each visitor into the diary room where I was on hand to take a photo for them. In itself, this doesn’t sound too surreal, but it was. The first thing was the room itself. I had never really considered what it is the housemates are looking at when talking to Big Brother, but all you could see was this little camera in the corner of the room. It is also really hot in there with intense lighting. Our first visitor to be called in was hugely excited to be there, and I cheerfully took her picture and waited for the next person. But before they arrived Big Brother started talking to me! I’m standing in the diary room, and Big Brother is asking me to move a droopy balloon. It was just weird! For the rest of that first tour I felt really uncomfortable standing there knowing Big Brother was watching. This got much easier to comprehend throughout the day, as Big Brother was really quite friendly and chatty, but it was still bizarre. When we went over to the production gallery and met the face behind the voice, she was lovely – but when in the diary room I couldn’t bring myself to address her as anything other than ‘Big Brother’, and still found her slightly intimidating!
I could ramble on for hours about things around the house that I found interesting or exciting, but hopefully this has just given you a flavour of what it was like. There are no firm plans to open up the house again in future but we’ll just have to wait and see. The London Project has been set up by the National Trust to give our members better value for money for their membership in and around London, while also trying to branch out and bring in new audiences that previously might not have felt that the National Trust was for them. I hope we have achieved that to some extent this weekend. Everybody I spoke to was really positive about their experience, and was pleased that the NT had done it. You can find out more about what the London Project team have planned at http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/london (including a ride to Hatchlands on an old Routemaster bus) and you can (and should) follow them on Twitter @NTLovesLondon
I had an absolutely fantastic day, but next time, I promise to return to talking about Hatchlands!
The house at Hatchlands has a great many fine paintings, but this summer we transformed the old stable into an art gallery to rival the Tate! Visitors of all ages have been contributing and below is just a very small selection of my favourites… including one by a fine young artist who has now given up art in favour of blogging – and alas, gave up being 24 a few years ago as well!
Something quite magical happened this Spring at Hatchlands Park. Our bluebells came out and were as stunning as ever, but this year they were joined by a host of bluebell fairies loitering throughout the woodland.
The fairies arrived in response to some comments we had last Spring. Last year we developed an imaginary map of the parkland featuring things you might have been able to find if you have an active imagination. The map featured things like the Twisted Tree of Good Luck, and the home of Albus, our albino squirrel (he is real, not imaginary, but we had to guess where his actual house was) but also included the playful warning “Beware the Bluebell Fairies.”
The whole idea behind the map, as I say, was to use your imagination – but we did have some visitors disappointed that they couldn’t find any bluebell fairies, so we decided over this winter to see if we could make contact with a friendly colony of fairies that might come and visit the woods for us. It took some doing, as our Park and Garden Manager Sue had quite a specific idea in her head of what type of fairy we were hoping to attract, but we couldn’t quite find them anywhere until Kerry, one of our hard working volunteers, offered to make outfits for them.
Kerry spent months collecting and stitching and returned in the Spring having recruited 15 stylish fairies that could spend a few weeks at Hatchlands. It was touch and go for a little while as the bluebells were very late, and we were worried that they wouldn’t come at all before the trees came into leaf and the bracken grew up, but thankfully we were wrong – when the bluebells finally came they were lovely, and lasted a good long while this year due to the changing weather conditions. The bluebells arrived just in time for the first May Bank Holiday weekend, as did the fairies.
Instantly the fairies became the subject of a lot of comment. We always like to gather visitor feedback at Hatchlands to see what you think we’re doing well, and what we could do better. For most things we do we would like to receive a lot more feedback, either positive or negative just to give us a rounded view, but straight away the fairies started getting more feedback than most things we do. It ranged from overwhelmingly positive to incredibly negative. Descriptions ranged from “Beautiful”, “awesome” & “inspired” to “excruciating” and “macabre”.
Clearly they were becoming marmite. It was wonderful to have so many visitors (young and old) enjoying spotting the fairies, but clearly we needed to act quickly to respond to those who couldn’t stand them. Opinions in the office were divided – should they stay or go? A compromise was agreed, and the garden team spoke very politely to the fairies and convinced them to spread themselves out a bit. Some moved to our woodland adventure area – Wizard Wix’s Willow Warren – while others lined the route to the bluebell woods, only leaving a few in Little Wix Wood itself. We still had complaints after this but far fewer, while the positive comments kept rolling in, as they were no longer seen to be detracting quite so much from the natural beauty of the bluebells.
It was easy to understand both sides of the argument. For many of our visitors the fairies were great fun and really brought the place alive. For others they were too gimmicky and spoiling the natural environment. Nobody can deny however what a good job Kerry did on the outfits! When the bluebells finally gave up, so did the fairies. The very next day we had disappointed visitors hoping to have seen them.
Will they be back next year? That remains to be seen. We love to try new things, and this seems to have gone down well with our family audience, but not with everybody. We will have to weigh up the feedback from both sides and have a serious think about what to do. We would love to hear from you whether you liked them or not. Do you want to see them back or was once enough? Please let us know, we really want to hear from you!
I’ll let you into one last little secret. One of the fairies hasn’t left Hatchlands at all. She’s sitting on my desk in the office next to a meerkat, a Dalek, the Queen and Cheryl Cole, where she seems to be quite happy.
We got there. It took a while and at times I thought it wasn’t going to be ready, but the colonnade was more or less how I wanted it by the time we opened on Good Friday. If you don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, scroll down and read the last few posts to see my project in progress!
I’ve shown you my housemaid’s apron and slightly revamped pests displays below, but we have succeeded on most of the other bits. Remember I told you my photo curtain was ready? Well I hadn’t quite worked out how we were going to hang it. My first preference is always to try and do things myself, I’m a little bit controlling that way – so I actually tried to hang the printed image with an extra-long shower curtain rod. Bad idea – just didn’t work. Obviously I needed our excellent local handymen (who were also building the draining board.) In they came, and fit a wooden beam across the ceiling with hooks on to hang the print – but what hadn’t we checked? Was the ceiling level?! No, it certainly wasn’t – 2 inches higher at one end than the other, so the curtain was hanging but the image was decidedly on the wonk. Slightly crestfallen I resigned myself to opening at Easter with a wonky image, but hey, I thought by about the Tuesday before Good Friday that we’d have no image there at all. But no, our handymen came through again, and returned on Thursday to construct a made-to-measure thingie to fit to the ceiling, creating a completely level beam to hang the curtain from – problem solved!
The draining board didn’t present any issues, and I think it looks great, hope you agree! The information panel went in, explaining what the space used to be, and I’m rather pleased with that too. Next came something I hadn’t really planned on at all. We started clearing out the events store down in the stables – full of arts and craft activities and forgotten projects from the last couple of decades perhaps! In the process of sorting, Genevieve our Events Organiser decided she didn’t really need the big cupboard down there. It looks like it was quite possibly taken out of the kitchen when that was all done up in the 1980s, so I nabbed it for our servants passage. It is possibly a little large, but looks like it belongs, and has meant that our flower arrangers still have a good space to work even after I took away their work surface! Problem I didn’t even realise we had – solved!
The only thing I haven’t quite managed to pull together in time for opening was the additional signage I wanted for the doors. Time and budget ran out, but I did manage to get these temporary little signs that cover some of what I wanted. They’ll do for now, I hope.
So there we have it! I hope you have enjoyed reading about this project from the start of my ideas to actually pulling it off. This one went remarkably smoothly. Some of my ideas never happen at all, some turn out completely differently to how I had imagined them, but this one has worked out ok. Let’s see what I can come up with next!
Ok its getting quite exciting now! I managed to get funding for the first part of the project (see below), so things are going well…
The first thing to get sorted was the photo curtain. I worked with a company called Corvidae who did some impressive stuff at Knole, and I must say they were incredibly helpful and creative, and managed to create exactly what I wanted, even though I wasn’t entirely sure what it was that I did want! We haven’t hung the print yet, we’ll wait until nearer opening time, but that’s one thing ticked off!
The sink has gone in as well, courtesy of our regular local plumbers. Its not perfect but its miles better than the old modern one. They’re going to diddle it up a bit for us – find some old Victorian pipe brackets, build us an old fashioned draining board, and put a little curtain round underneath the sink – I think it will look pretty good by the time they’re done, and far less incongruous than what we’re used to!My own little bits and bobs are coming together ok too. I’ve put up my coat hooks, neatly by the back door with the old umbrella stand, and we’ve hung the housemaid’s apron there, looks good to me! I’ve also moved our old mangle and set up a little display with that, its gradually coming together. I also wasn’t quite sure what to do with the conservation display that was already there, but I had a bit of a play around this weekend and I think I’ve made it fit the space required quite nicely.
The last thing we’ve got coming for now is the information panel. For this we’ve used a local design company that we often go to, FDK. I am always impressed when I send them words and pictures and they send me back something pretty. I’ve seen the first couple of drafts of the design, and I’m really pleased with it – just a couple of little tweaks left to sort out. Remember those photos I posted of chandelier cleaning and the cellar? They were all taken by our supurb volunteer photographer James, and he very kindly came in to take some shots for the board, which are also great. I won’t reveal the design to you all just yet but it will look good when its in place, I’m sure.
The only thing we haven’t got sorted just yet is the little signs I wanted for each door – we might still get them but I haven’t quite got there yet. Even if we don’t get those in place for opening they can be added later. Generally I’m really pleased with how it is coming together, I hope everyone else will be too!
For those of you who already read the last blog, I’m still talking about the same thing. For those of you that didn’t, scroll down below this one and have a quick read. Don’t worry, I’ll wait. …. …. Right, are you all up to date? Is everyone sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
So as hopefully you just read, we’re thinking about turning the colonnade back into a ‘servanty’ space. We’re never going to be able to make this 100% accurate, and in all honesty if we did, it would probably be empty, so what we’re going for here is giving the space a ‘servanty’ vibe.
Firstly, the posters and the leaflets will go. Let’s give up on this as a marketing space, as it doesn’t really work in that way anyway. The problem with that though, you remember the big new notice boards we had made? One of those hides a set of ugly light switches and plug sockets, so it would be better off staying. This is going to become our new information board all about the use of the servants spaces, hopefully with photos and floor plans – I’m working on a draft of the text at the moment.
As I mentioned before, we’ve also got all the old bells lining the passage, these are great, so deserve to be looked at a bit more. You know the sort of signs you often see under these bells, that say which room rang? Well we don’t have signs like that, but we thought we could use that style to point out what goes where. For example, the old Housekeeper’s room is now the National Trust office, so we can’t open it up as the housekeeper’s room, but we can put a nice sign on the door explaining what it was, and so on and so forth.
Next, the sink! When we put together the conservation display, we exposed a hideous modern sink unit that is used for flower arranging. We couldn’t get rid of it as we still need to use it, but we could replace it with one of those old fashioned butler’s sinks, wouldn’t that look better? Our regular plumber had a look last week, I’m just waiting for the price to see if we can do it.
The last ‘big’ problem, is what to do about the screen that blocks off the area not yet open. Does that make sense? Half the colonnade is open, the other half is still used for storage, and there’s not much we can do about that at the moment, so it is screened off with an ok-ish partition, with more conservation displays. One of our consultants had the brilliant idea of replacing this with a life-sized print of an old black and white photo we have showing this area when it was empty. I’ve got a quote for that and it’s really rather reasonable, so that will hopefully go ahead.
Lastly it just needs a bit of set dressing. I’ve got an old fire bucket ready to hang on the wall where the peg still is. We’ve got some old wooden chairs that look like the ones in the Downton Abbey servants hall, I’ve found some nice coat hooks on ebay that also resemble Downton (yes ok, a recurring theme) where we can hang our old housemaid’s apron…. And the list goes on. As I said earlier, it won’t be a completely accurate depiction of what the space should have been, but hopefully it will create the atmosphere we want. My last problem is that brilliant new lighting we put in a few years ago. It does the job and looks fine for what the space was at the time, but now we’re going ‘historical’ the lighting is a bit of a problem, but probably not one to be solved instantly, we’ll see about that one another time.
So hopefully this gives you an idea of the plan. The next stage is to actually do it! I’ll let you know how we get on, or don’t, as the case may be!
When I started this blog, my plan was to give you a bit on an insight into the behind the scenes running of Hatchlands. I don’t think I’ve really done this as well as I planned, so I thought I might try something a little different. I’ve got a project in mind that I would like to do before we open again next Easter, so I thought I’d take you through this project step by step. As I type this, I have no idea if the project will even happen, it might get completely scrapped a month from now, but hopefully I can tell you how far I get, and if it doesn’t work, why not?
So, to set the scene, we have a little space at Hatchlands called the colonnade. That probably doesn’t mean much to most of you – it didn’t to me before I started here – but for those of you that have been here, it is the rather uninspiring hallway as you leave the house. You probably don’t remember it. When I first came here five years ago, let’s be honest, it was a fairly awful space. The lighting was very poor, and not usually switched on, it had a line of chairs against one wall, and two miss-matching notice boards, one of which was attached to a rather ramshackle home-made leaflet stand.
One fine day, chatting to my former colleague, the lovely Jenny, we decided we needed to try and clean this area up a bit. We got lighting replaced with more effective lamps that were activated by a motion sensor, we scrapped the leaflet stand (I think it ended up on the gardener’s bonfire) and commissioned three matching notice boards, with leaflet holders built into them. We also removed the chairs, moved the existing furniture around a bit, and found some rather nice window seats in storage that we could let people sit on. It certainly brightened up the area and looked rather stylish – we were going for “smart hotel lobby” in our thinking. Unfortunately the space is not only the exit to the house, but also the entrance to the concerts, so our new layout didn’t quite work in practical terms so compromises were made and I’ll admit I was never very happy with the end result, but it was better than it used to be certainly.
Some time later, maybe it was the following year, a newer esteemed colleague, Ari, returned to the eternal question of how to make the colonnade more interesting. He had lots of good ideas, but the one we went with was putting a conservation display in the area previously used for storage, up around the corner. So we set about clearing out that corner, got some decorating arranged, and our conservation assistant Tora spent several months researching and pulling together things for her display. If you haven’t seen it, you should come and look – it’s rather interesting, and hopefully reveals some of what goes on behind the scenes before the house opens each morning, and when we close for the winter.
All the improvements we’ve made are great, but it still isn’t quite there. The space just doesn’t really look right. So our thinking now is to return to how it used to be – no not the grotty chairs and notice boards – historically how it used to be. The colonnade is actually a service passage that linked the old kitchen, servants’ hall and housekeeper’s room together, and gave quick and quiet access for servants into the main part of the house. None of these working areas are still around, but we’ve still got the passageway and the bells used to summon the servants, so the new plan is to rethink this area and present it exactly as it is – the servants’ passageway.
Plans are afoot, I’m gathering quotes, buying stuff on ebay as I always do, and gradually pulling together a plan. This blog is already long enough, so I’ll tell you about the plan in more detail next time, and give you an update on how we’re getting on with it…