Posts Tagged ‘National Trust’

Sometimes I have a weird, out-of-body experience that tips me off my axis into a parallel world. It happens when I find myself in unfamiliar territory thinking the sort of thoughts that don’t normally come to mind.

I had one of these weird moments this week when Geoff and I were walking up the unfeasibly grand steps to an unfeasibly grand house. We were so far, so very far, out of our normal milieu, that I couldn’t help remarking to Geoff that we could fit the whole of Hill Towers into the area taken up by the steps.

And then we entered the house. Yes, it was a parallel universe indeed, a place of great beauty, of achingly good taste and enormous proportions. Even the hall table was larger than any dining table I’ve ever sat at.

It was the sort of house to get lost in, to find a space for oneself, a room where no-one would think of looking, so that curling up with a book and undisturbed for ages was entirely possible.

There was so much space and the whole scale so enormous that there were even some areas that contained nothing. Imagine that! Not a single thing had been placed in these few square metres of blankness. No clutter had accumulated. No-one had seen fit to plonk something down because it needed somewhere to go or because there was a space so inviting it just had to be filled.

It was space by design. Clever that, I thought, and how very pleasing it is on the eye.

I think that’s the difference: a vast house has space for . . . well, space. And very lovely it looks. Normal mortals’ homes, such as Hill Towers, have not a square millimetre that isn’t cluttered and clamouring for breathing space.

The parallel universe of grand houses, the kind of Honey I Shrunk the Kids syndrome, is evident in most National Trust properties, when staircases and corridors reveal room after room that once would have been home for a family and its servants.

I love them for the social history they tell us. The kitchens are always fascinating and cause me to give thanks that my cooking tribulations are now, in the 21st century, and not in the days of intense physical labour over a hot stove or a butter churn.

I like to see the children’s toys, too, and speculate about whether a well-worn rocking horse fired a passion in any of its little riders enough to give them hours of pleasure in a real saddle as they grew older.

Recently, Geoff and I visited a National Trust house whose 50-plus rooms had last been lived in by the erstwhile owners 70 years ago. Among the many intriguing artefacts on show was a typewriter, one of the clackety-clack sit-up-and-beg sort that required a straight back and well-positioned hands to operate. The first newsroom I worked in had one, in a dark corner, as though it had been forgotten in a clear-out.

Behind it, her crone-like hands poised over the keys, sat Phyllis, a woman of about 80 who always wore a brown ensemble, a shapeless hat pulled over her eyes and a cigarette balanced on her lip, somewhat in the style of Andy Capp.

I never knew what she wrote because I was too scared to ask, but seeing that old typewriter again brought her back to mind.

It’s hard to believe Phyllis was a real person, so perhaps I should think of her as my first other-worldly experience.


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ONE of my childhood memories is of hours spent killing time in a museum while I waited for my father to come out of meetings in an upstairs room.

As with all such memories, time has warped them, so that what I now think was a regular occurrence probably only happened a handful of times. And what I think of as ages being at large in the cool, unpeopled rooms, would not have been very long at all.

I think Dad and I must have had an arrangement that I would walk to the museum at the end of my school day and wait for him to come and find me after his meeting before driving me home.

It was all a bit dullsville, but anything that spared me the bus journey of well over an hour was worth it, even if it meant I was in a fusty, musty world that held little appeal for a 12-year-old.

I couldn’t touch, only look, so that the rooms of natural history, a subject I loved, yielded nothing in what we would now call a ’visitor experience’.

No fossils could be held and minutely inspected, no lifelike fox stroked or birdsong listened to. In other words, not the slightest hint of interaction in that department or anywhere else in the building. I usually ended up in the interlinked rooms full of gilt-framed paintings, aimlessly searching out the horsey subjects.

Things hadn’t moved on much by the time I had my own children, so that any suggestion of a visit to a museum, art gallery or historic house usually met with an underwhelmed raising of the eyebrows and an “Oh Mum, do we have to?” There was precious little to excite young minds.

Nowadays, the concept of visitors being treated to an interactive experience is as much a part of a day out as a cup of tea and cake. It is also one that sends unreasonable shivers down my spine when I’m with Geoff, although when we’re out with the family it is an entirely different matter.

“How lovely,” I say in my Joyce Grenfell voice to the grandsons, “they’ve got a have-a-go archery session starting at 3pm. We’ve just got time to finish the nature trail and see the birds of prey demonstration before we head down to the archery field.”

We experienced all that at a National Trust property at the weekend. It was the same place we’d visited a few weeks ago, when the boys made their own coiled pots from wet, messy clay – to their absolute joy – and took part in an archaeological dig.

The six-year-old, silent with concentration and sheer wonder, unearthed a coin during the dig. He announced at bedtime that he’d switched his career ambition from ’a police’ to an archaeologist, which was entirely understandable.

Inside the beautiful old house, we followed clues to make fascinating discoveries, touched wood panelling that had been on the walls for centuries – yes, even before grandma and grandpa were born – and climbed a tower from where the enemy could be spied upon and, if necessary, repelled in any number of satisfyingly gruesome ways.

The smaller grandson tried his hand at archery and, to everyone’s amazement, kept hitting the target. What this could lead to as far as his career ambitions are concerned we would rather not speculate upon, but I think we need to make sure he isn’t left alone with a bow and arrows for several years. That would be taking the interactive experience a little too far.

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