Regenerating a nature reserve
Wicken Fen, Cambridgeshire
(01353 720274; www.wicken.org.uk)
‘There is nothing, absolutely nothing, half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats,’ Ratty famously said to Mole in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Happily, you’ll find more than Ratty and Mole in and around the lodes of Wicken Fen: butterflies, dragonflies, Konik ponies, Highland cattle, snakes and every type of wildfowl and wildflower count this growing nature reserve as home. I helped rethatch Tower Hide-a bird-watching hide with some of the local sedge that’s been left to dry out for a year. A programme of regeneration and the use of locally sourced materials is one of the basic principles behind the Trust’s 100-year vision for Wicken Fen. Now in its 10th year, the developing reserve covers 1,900 acres. The aim is to extend it to a maximum of 13,000 acres by gradually purchasing land to the south and east. The peace was wonderful, but volunteers must be prepared for exercise, as it’s a vast area that can only be covered on foot, bicycle or boat.
National Archive, Kew/Melford Hall, Suffolk (01787 376395)
One of the most popular attractions at Melford Hall in Suffolk is the collection of watercolours and drawings by Beatrix Potter, who, as a cousin of the incumbent family, visited many times (bringing with her a caged menagerie of small mammals to paint). However, our focus was to delve deeper into the history of the Tudor mansion of Sir William Cordell, ‘one of the most able and ambitious “new men” of the Elizabethan Age’. I joined volunteers at the National Archive to pore over documents that could shed further light on the lives of the Cordells and their descendants, who stayed in occupation for some 250 years. Tithe maps showed the extent of land-holding, and boxed papers revealed legal wranglings and unpaid bills for fine jewellery. A mortgage document on vellum dated ‘3rd November in the 10th year of the reign of our Sovereign Anne’ (1711) confirmed (and temporarily solved) a period of financial difficulties. For me, it was a day of marvellous introduction, not only to Melford Hall’s history, but the amazing National Archive itself.
Stourhead, Wiltshire (01747 841152)
Steve Harris had no choice but to be a farmer-it’s in his DNA. His only other option would have been the Church, and I’m sure he would have made as excellent a job of that as he does farming. He and his wife, Louise, have been Stourhead tenants since 1984 and farm 346 acres, producing wheat, oats and barley crops and managing a beef herd, all under organic conditions. They also have their own butchery and are partners in the Stourhead farm shop. The highlight was helping with the harvesting, with the help of some serious machinery, in the sunshine. It’s a wonderful antidote
to office life, but be prepared for a hectic day. I left, mildly dizzy, in awe of what Steve and Louise achieve on a daily basis, and thankful that they are there protecting a part of England.
Apple-picking and cider-making
Killerton, Devon (01932 881345)
Although Devon cider-making and orchards have declined, Killerton still has 58 acres of orchards, 600 apple trees, 98 named varieties of apple (two of which are unique to Killerton-Killerton Sweet and Killerton Sharp), all of which results in its own brand of cider. I joined a group of volunteers in October, spending a back-breaking morning filling sacks with windfalls. The afternoon was the fun and mucky part. With our ‘sterile’ rubber boots on, we climbed onto the cider press and packed the hessian sacks inside the wooden frames with the scrumpy, the apples having been passed through the mulcher, piling the ‘cheeses’ on top of one other. Finally, the traditional press was lowered by turning the great cogs, and the apple juice squeezed out, funnelled, filtered and bottled. It’s a labour-intensive process, done by volunteers on the National Trust’s Working Holiday scheme. For a small fee, they receive accommodation and meals and learn the tradition of making cider on an 18th-century press. The results are delicious.
Being a custodian
Fenton House, Hampstead, London NW3 (020-7435 3471).
Open weekends and some weekday afternoons
The day before I shadowed Jane Ellis, custodian of Simon Jenkins’s favourite house, she’d had an encounter that had left her feeling more than a little uncomfortable. ‘I had to turn away the director of the Smithsonian Institution: he turned up too late for entry. He wasn’t pleased.’ She instructed me in the art of dusting precious objects, a daily chore she injects with as much variety as possible by tackling a different floor every day-‘but you get to the stage when it’s actually satisfying to spot some dust’. After the fourth piece of brown furniture, I began to see what she meant.
For me, being unable to have an unscheduled night away-someone has to sleep on site every night-or having a long weekend during the opening season would be a deterrent. But the daily processes involved and the answering of questions ranging from the mundane to the academic, to the flatly inappropriate (sadly, I missed the visitor who’d slipped on the pavement outside, and asked for someone to inspect his bruised bottom), made the day tick along easily.
Hughenden Manor, High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire (01494 755565).
For specific opening times-not Monday/Tuesdays-telephone to check. The palatial home of Benjamin Disraeli in the 1880s, Hughenden Manor boasts spectacular gardens that feature 57 varieties of apple and a number of projects. I worked with community groups who have plantings on site and RHS horticulture-diploma students, one of whom was doing an in-depth study into Victorian vegetables (he’s in the right place Hughenden has been painstakingly reconstructed, based on original plans), as well as visitors. Many families were enjoying a day out, from storytelling in the willow maze to playing games and collecting seeds to plant at home. One mother said gratefully that her son, Elliot, ‘waters his potatoes after school every day, and now likes eating his veg’. Under instruction from the jovial team of volunteers, I did simple tasks, such as pruning (I was upfront about my level of expertise)-no hardship in such beautiful surroundings, with such committed people.
Dunham Massey, Cheshire, Closed Thursday/Friday, 0161-941 1025.
It soon became clear why the chandelier, in the Green Saloon, is only cleaned every four years. It’s an Olympic event, comprising memory games, delicacy and good old-fashioned polishing. Preparation is all-forget where a single chink of glass goes and chaos ensues. The 6ft chandelier is taken down piece by careful piece under a barrage of photographs, which act as crib sheets for reassembly. Each piece of crystal is wiped with chamois leather dipped in de-ionised water (add a drop of washing-up liquid). The process is repeated (add a drop of mentholated spirits) before each bauble is hand-polished. The transformation is amazing. The Trust’s dust monitor has discovered that most dust comes from people’s clothes and that it settles in greatest quantities 2ft-6ft off the ground, so, thankfully, the chandelier hanging high above the room escapes the worst-any lower and it would become an annual, rather than Olympic, challenge.
Ebworth Estate, Gloucestershire (01452 814213)
When I drew helping a stockman out of the hat, being stampeded over did spring to mind. Luckily, I was in the safe hands of head warden Matt Stanway, who kindly allowed me to invade his life for a day. First, I had the job of weighing cows as they came through the runner to be looked at by the vet. I then tried my hand at herding. This involved making a lot of noise and waving a plastic tube. Luckily, none got away. Matt took me to see more cows-a highlight was stroking one called Hetty-and the beautiful, restored grasslands surrounding Ebworth, where he pointed out butterflies. It’s one of the most important grassland habitats in Europe, which is why they need hardy cattle like the Welsh Black and Belted Galloway to graze it. It was a fantastic day.
Fix the Fells project
Cockermouth, Lake District (Info: Wordsworth House-01900 820884)
This March, I was lucky enough to visit the Lake District. I was able to see, first hand, how the Heritage Lottery-funded Fix the Fells project, being run by the National Trust, is applying some badly needed first aid to the widely used and intricate range of paths across this amazing landscape after the extreme flooding at the end of last year. During my time there, the crucial role of the volunteers in maintaining these paths was thoroughly explained to me, and then it was my turn to get some practical experience of the work by helping to clear a drain. Cockermouth, one of the towns worst affected by the flooding is also just beginning to heal. During my visit, I was impressed at the speed with which the staff at Wordsworth House were working to restore this Georgian gem, along with its groundbreaking garden. It is currently set to reopen on March 13, an impressive testimony to their labours.
Hatfield Forest, Hertfordshire (01279 874040).
Open all year, dawn to dusk Henry I, who introduced fallow deer to Hat-field Forest, would probably notice little difference today, apart from the jet engines from nearby Stansted-and the booming population of muntjac. Now, the Trust aims to maintain balance by keeping deer numbers to 150 fallow deer and 200 muntjac through culls. These aren’t open to the public, and are undertaken by professionals, but I was allowed to help out as spotter. In the dawn light, fallen branches morphed into antlers, and we spent a fruitless 45 minutes in which property manager Adrian Clarke, who had the gun, watched from a high seat and I hunkered down in the undergrowth. Adrian then decided to seek them out on foot. We spotted a muntjac, but, as I braced myself for the crack of a rifle, there was silence-this deer had evaded the hunters. Later, we saw six fallow deer, but in very thick cover. By 9.30am, it was time to call it a day, but I felt, gratefully, that I had partaken in a 900-year-old tradition.
Ham House, Richmond (020-8940 1950).Open Monday-Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday.
After a glorious walk along the Thames, I arrived to find staff, experts and volunteers gathered to witness the reinstatement of a newly cleaned oil painting. My morning was not only a fascinating lesson in how fragile artworks are conserved, but also a moving testament to the influence volunteers can have in the care of Trust houses. Since 1983, Lilias Grey Turner had sat at the front desk staring at the blackened canvas of The Good Samaritan. Upset at watching so many visitors walk straight past the 17th-century painting, she badgered staff, wrote to Fiona Reynolds and, eventually, having donated funds herself, persuaded the Trust to get it restored. On this auspicious morning, conservators Nicole Ryder and Ben Pearce carefully removed packaging and rolled out a protective membrane across the back of the relined painting. Then, as they slowly turned it over, excitement surged: ‘Look! Buildings, water! More figures, and, oh, so much sky!’ Nicole dusted the canvas with a swatch of silk and Ben carried it to the fireplace, where they ascended a scaffold and gently manoeuvred it into place. Everybody stood back to marvel at the newly disclosed detail. A revelation!
Leith Hill, Surrey (01306 712711). Open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Few things improve the appearance of England’s patchwork of fields more than a well-laid hedge, so it was with eager anticipation that I joined a working holiday in prime Jorrocks hunting country to learn the art of hedge-laying. I arrived halfway through, to find the chosen hedge looking a bit odd-part of it was perfectly laid, some was thinned ready for laying and the rest was an untouched explosion of brambles and scrub. A team of budding layers was busy pleaching, winding, staking and binding, from Trust veterans to a sixth-former, led by hedge-laying champions who soon had us swinging billhooks and mallets with a modicum of skill. Being in southern parts, we were dealing with such trees as hawthorns and hornbeams, thankfully less vicious than the blackthorns of the Midlands, but tough enough, and I was thankful for my heavy shooting jacket. Any good effects from the hard work were negated by copious amounts of cake, but the sense of satisfaction derived from doing something so practical and yet attractive lasted much longer.
More volunteering ideas
April 24-May 1 Maintenance, including dry-stone walling, Castle Ward, Northern Ireland
May 8-15 Photography and dry-stone walling, Windermere, Lake District
May 10-17 Help with plant sale, Marsden Moor Estate, West Yorkshire
June 11-13 Garden maintenance
at Norbury Manor, Derbyshire
June 26-July 3 Tree survey at
Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
August 14-21 Hazel coppicing,
Leith Hill, Surrey
September 19-26 Maintenance
of the secret garden, Wallington Estate, Northumberland
September 17-19 Beach clean-up, Orford Ness, Suffolk
October 23-30 Save an orchard, Crom Estate, Co Down, Northern Ireland
October 29-31 Scrub clearance, Ashridge Estate, Hertfordshire
November 27-December 4
Hedge-laying, Hawkshead, Lake District
To find out about the National Trust’s many volunteer activities, telephone 0844 800 3099 or visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk
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