Day 15 Part 1 – The Crown Jewels

The back door to the Tower.

Today was one of the highlights so far, and shows just how engaging an enthusiastic guide can be for an audience. It probably helped that the guide we had was not what we were expecting, and I don’t think we were what he was expecting either. 

This morning we were up and out bright an early for our private tour of the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Those of us who had been to London before, which was quite a few, had generally all seen the Tower and the Crown Jewels, however it was with a huge number of other people as you queue through the building to get on the little moving walkways which glide you past the display cases of glittering crowns. This experience was vastly different, although there were still the moving walkways, but they were turned off so we could stand and stare at the pretty shiny jewels for a while without being elbowed out of the way by other tourists. 

I’m getting ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning. Our guide for the day was the Chief Warden of the Jewel House. We expected one of the iconic men in red uniforms commonly known as Beefeaters, or Yeoman Warders of the Tower, to be showing us around. 

The Yeoman Warders we were expecting to meet.

Instead we met Nivek Amichund, who I’d guess to be about mid-30’s and dressed in a very sharp suit with one of those little secret-service radio wires going into his ear. This guy was probably the highlight guide of our trip, well for me at least. He has a fascinating job and the always exciting air of mystery when he told us that he’s signed the Official Secrets Act and so there are some questions he can’t answer. He was also just generally a very friendly, funny and enthusiastic person. It was interesting to us to meet a heritage professional who happened to be male and under the age of 40 (a rarity on this trip, and in the museum world in general) and I think he was pleasantly surprised to have a group of 20 young women (mostly under the age of 30) who were very interested in everything he had to say. 

Her Majesty’s Jewel House.

Nivek met us at the Tower and guided us to the Jewel House. We were a little late in getting started, so didn’t have as much time as we’d anticipated before they were going to allow the public in. As per usual with these royal collections there are no photos allowed inside, so I’m afraid you’ll need to be content with my external shots of the Tower. Nivek gave us a brief explanation of the concept behind the re-design of the Jewels while walking through the exhibition space before actually getting to the jewels themselves. The exhibition was re-done in 2012 for Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee to present the story of a coronation. Upon entry visitors walk into the Hall of Monarchs which shows graphics of all of the monarchs, including a dramatic gap between the executions of Charles I and the re-instatement of Charles II in 1661 to symbolise the period of the Commonwealth. From there you are taken through Sacred Symbols, The Coronation – a very visual experience of the process of a coronation which through music and pictures of previous monarchs including film of Queen Elizabeth I’s coronation in 1953 the symbolism of the different elements is cleverly explained. This includes the procession, recognition, the oath, the anointing, investiture, crowning and enthronement. This section includes the regalia of the ceremony, robes, anointing oil and ceremonial swords before being faced with the cabinet of gorgeous sparkly jewels, at which point you step onto a little conveyor belt and slowly glide past the cabinets to be spat out the other end and carry on to Working Treasures which is masses of gold plate, jewelled salt containers and gilded baptismal bowls. Finally the last section is the Jewels Today which is great because it shows some of the specially designed, slightly worn and battered leather cases which are used to transport various crowns and accessories when they go out to be used. They are still used regularly, not just for coronations, but events including baptisms for the Queen’s great-grandchildren and when she opens Parliament. 

Nivek regaled us with the history of some of the most notable jewels in the collection as well as various superstitions and legends including the Koh-I-Noor diamond which brings bad luck or death to any man who touches it, but good luck and long life to any woman. This has led to the men, including Nivek, refusing to handle it and the Crown Jewellers ensuring that it is always a woman who does the cleaning and maintenance of it. If you think about it objectively, the men who owned this gem lived in a time when it was normal to wear giant gemstones into battle and do other courageous manly things which often resulted in death/injury, while the women generally stayed out of the firing line so were more likely to survive to old age. Its last wearer, the Queen Mother, lived to over 100 so maybe there is some truth in it. 

During this tour Nivek explained some of the challenges of the exhibition design, mainly the volume of visitors they receive and that many of the visitors are what they call ‘time poor and knowledge poor’. Visitors to the Tower are often on a bucket list trip – that is they are trying to see the major landmarks/icons of England, one of the most important of which is the Tower and the Crown Jewels. Many simply want to see the sparkly crowns and don’t have much knowledge either about the history of the jewels or their significance today. This led to the exhibition being designed with minimal text, better lighting, improved access for those with mobility issues and the use of audio and film to illustrate the significance of the jewels and regalia. 

After our tour, when the public started flooding in, we were escorted to another meeting room where we got the chance to bombard our guide with more questions about the logistics of his role. Some of our questions were simply met with a polite smile and a shrug (generally when we were getting to nosy about access and security) but otherwise he was very forthcoming. Here’s some interesting things we discovered: 
- The crown jeweller is the only person allowed to actually touch the jewels, but someone else (usually Nivek) is always there to help out. 
- The Crown Jeweller also only has the contract for five years and then it changes. The jewels are only dry cleaned, meaning no chemicals or other substances are used. Once a year the team spends every night for two weeks in the Jewel House doing a deep clean, this is to ensure that they can remain on display during the day for the public. I’m pretty sure they’d be an outcry if people were told that no-one was allowed to see them for two weeks. 
- The Warders clean the galleries and look after maintenance and upkeep of the display cases, which are high-security to protect from bomb-blasts, anti-shatter and other hazardous events. Nivek did admit that their fire emergency plan was a bit trickier to carry out, and the only other information he’d give us was to admit that they do have a list of the top things that need to be saved in a fire, but he wouldn’t tell us which things they were. 
- There is no public funding used in the display or maintenance of the Crown Jewels, all conservation and exhibition costs are funded through the Historic Royal Palace Trust. 

As well as all of this interesting jewel information we learned a little more about Nivek’s background and how he ended up as one of the youngest Chief Warder’s (his predecessor retired in the 60’s and held the job for 20 years). Nivek has worked in front of house, visitor experience and security areas for many of the major museums and galleries in London including the Tate, Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. He didn’t have a degree when he started, but studied and finished his degree in geography while working. He also mentioned he was thinking about going back to study in the area of the crown jewels and their relevance to contemporary culture. He loves the adrenaline rush of his job, getting to go places and see things that most people aren’t allowed to, even if he sometimes can’t tell his friends and family what he’s been doing at work. His role is a combination of high-level security, tour guide/interpreter and logistics. He is the man who receives the order from the Lord Chamberlain when some of the jewels are needed for use and he has to co-ordinate their safe transport in and out of the Tower. It’s also a bit of anything else which is needed in terms of exhibition and interpretation, conservation and visitor services. He’s also the first person of colour to be a (willing) resident in the Tower, he was in the process of moving into an apartment in the Inner Ward with his wife and new baby. He was kind enough to let all of us traipse up the tiny spiral staircase to check out his new flat and roof terrace. Here are some photos of the view from his rooftop.

The view into the Tower
The view over the Thames

The rooftop door back into Nivek’s apartment.

After this whirlwind morning we all jumped into taxis to race across London to Kensington Palace. There we have an afternoon session with the lovely ladies who look after the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection. More on that in the next post.


Days 12-14 – Museum fatigue sets in.

I’m going to combine the weekend together as it was all free time and quite frankly I was getting a little museumed out by this stage. We arrived in London around midday on Friday and after checking into our student housing in Russel Square we were free to do whatever we liked. I’ll be honest, many of us slept – a lot. We were all pretty tired from the constant moving around, a couple of people had been passing around a cold so weren’t feeling too great and we all enjoyed the few days of sleeping in and afternoon naps. 

I think many of us were also starting to suffer museum fatigue. Yes, this is a real thing and I know it seems highly unprofessional for a group of museum and heritage students and young professionals to say they don’t want to see any more museums, but it is clearly an illness which can affect us all. It was first documented as part of a visitor study in 1916 by Benjamin Ives Gilman and is commonly defined as the point at which a visitor begins to feel mental or physical fatigue during their museum visit. 

It can affect people who spend a long period of time in one museum, or people who visit a high number of museums in a short time. We had done both, in the space of 11 days we had visited 10 museums and spent an average of 5-6hrs in each one.  We were also set up to visit another 6 museums in our remaining 4 days. We needed to pace ourselves. Gradually you stop actually seeing the exhibitions and just start wandering aimlessly through the galleries, drifting  between whichever objects catch your eye. Eventually you find yourself lost and confused staring at a case of Victorian medical instruments which look more like the tools of the Spanish Inquisition wondering why people ever thought they were a good idea. Then the nice visitor services assistants come and lead you away to the cafe and try to locate your family,

Courtesy Google Images

So here are my tips to combat museum fatigue (now don’t take my word for it, everyone’s methods are different):

1) If it’s a big museum like the British Museum or the V& A – don’t try and tackle the whole thing at once. Check online for any special exhibitions they’re having or any stand-out objects/stories you want to see and head there first. It’s been found that many people will start off in a museums trying to read most/all of the signs and labels in the first few galleries and then as they get tired/bored they start skipping over things or just looking at the pretty objects. So start in the galleries of the things that really interest you and you’ll still be fresh enough to want to read the information and remember it afterwards. 

2) Take breaks – many breaks. Most good museums have seating spread around the galleries as well as near the entrance and cafe areas (although art galleries tend to be better at this than many museums). Even if you’re not feeling particularly tired, if there’s something pretty cool in one of the galleries, sit down for a few minutes while you look at it. Take a second to think a bit more about what it is, how it was used/designed/functioned and what purpose it had for people. It can be hard to do – for example there’s that many people crowded around the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum that your lucky to see it at all. My favourite type of things are objects which tell a personal story, something that can connect to an individual. I often wonder what their lives were like, did they ever think that their things would survive so long to be stared at by strangers in a museum? Would they have cared? Did they think they were important enough to want to have their things preserved? It’s also helpful to stop for a coffee break every now and then to recharge. You don’t have to go through the galleries at break neck speed. 

3) Talk to the people! Text panels and multimedia are all well and good, some people read them and enjoy them but others find it all a bit bland. Talk to the people and the stories come alive. The staff and volunteers at most museums are there because they love their jobs and they are passionate about their subject, they’re also usually a wealth of knowledge which won’t fit onto those small labels in the cases. If there’s something you’re curious about, talk to them. If they can’t tell you the answer, they should be able to find someone who can. They can probably also tell you the more scandalous and interesting stories which may or may not be completely researched, but which make a topic that much more interesting. 

4) Skip the queues – many places simply say to mentally prepare yourself for the queues. I say skip them entirely! Many big museums (those that aren’t already free) will have two lines for admissions/tickets. One will be for the people who turn up on the day and want to get in, the other is for people who have bought tickets in advance. Check your museums before you go. If you can buy tickets in advance – do it! That way when you turn up you can cruise past all the other people waiting outside in the sun and head straight inside. Another tip is to check for quiet times, a quick google can sometimes reveal the peak visitor times, so that you can avoid the crowds if you want. Some places will do late night openings once a week or month, they are a good time to get in while it’s quest, and even if it isn’t quiet there will generally be less kiddies around if you feel like avoiding them too. 

5) Take a tour – if you’re short on time or not sure exactly what you want to see have a quick look at the tours on offer. They can often be a good way of getting a ‘highlights’ look at the collection, or in the case of Museum Hack tours in the Met Museum in New York, a great way to delve into the scandalous back stories of some of the artworks, you can check out their options here: It also means you can leave knowing you have probably seen a good percentage of the “major” exhibits without wasting time wandering around trying to find them. 

6) Don’t be afraid to split up. Everyone likes to do things at different paces and if you are with a partner or group who goes at a different speed to you, don’t feel like you need to keep up or slow down to accomodate them. I happen to be married to someone who will quite happily spend all day in an art gallery, (once we arrived at MONA in Tasmania within 10mins of it opening and didn’t leave until they were kicking us out and locking the doors behind us). I like art galleries, but I’m not as passionate about art as he is, so we have an arrangement where we go our own ways and meet up every few hours to check in and see how the other is doing. There are usually plenty of other things that you can get interested in if you are first to finish (cake anyone?), take a walk in the gardens (if they have them), museums shop or cafe. We recently went to the Picasso museum in Granada, Spain and while I spent a little bit of time looking at the squiggly pictures I later discovered that in the basement they had an exhibition and archeological remains of the early Phonecian building which they had uncovered when renovating the museum, so that kept me happy while the Mr. spent time analysing the squiggly lines. Likewise when I nerd out over a royal palace and spend ages there, Mr. sometimes takes a sketch book and spends some time outside sketching the building, or wandering the gardens. 

7) Lastly if you are binge-ing on a high number of museums in a short space of time, alternate them with some fresh air and other things. Depending on your enthusiasm/dedication a museum a day can be a big task, take a day off in between and go and see some other sights. I know many of the big cities, London, Barcelona, Paris etc will have no shortage of museums for you to see but don’t feel like you have to get though them all. Pick one or two of the big ones which have the stuff you want to see and then maybe try a little local museum to get some of the smaller stories. There’s often some hidden gems around and little ones are less likely to give you museum fatigue. 

Well that’s it for this one, not much to report museum-wise for my free weekend in London, I did some shopping, explored the markets and caught up with some old friends. I’ll admit I did see one museum (couldn’t resist!) – The Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett. It’s tiny, located in the attic of a church and only accessed by a tight spiral staircase but its great. It is one of the earliest operating theatres in Europe, built in 1822,  and a fascinating insight into early medicine. The museum officer there who conducted a short talk was amazing, she clearly knew her stuff but didn’t make the medical terms too technical or hard to understand. It’s very much a cabinet of curiosities, and one I’d recommend if you are in London. You can find out more about it here: 

Old Operating Theatre & Herb Garrett Museum

That was the last bit of relaxation – strap yourselves in for the final whirlwind week of museums in London coming up in the next posts. 

Day 11 – Woburn Abbey

Today was the day we all had a fan girl moment. We were in the presence of a wonderful historian, curator and lovely lady by the name of Tracy Borman and none of us could believe our luck. Tracy met us at Woburn Abbey, just outside of London, and talked to us about her career path, her work as joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces (a role she shares with our other hero, Lucy Worsley) and a bit about her favourite subject, the Tudors. Sadly I didn’t have the presence of mind to take along a copy of her book to ask her to sign it, nor was I brave enough to ask for a photo. However many of the other girls were and Tracy was happy to oblige.


Helen & Tracy (image courtesy Helen Myers)
The official signature (image courtesy Helen Myers)

To start with Tracy is a bit of the eternal student, she has two degrees, a masters in historical research and a PhD. She has worked her way up through volunteering and working in various museum education jobs to what she described as her ‘big break’ as an exhibitions officer at the British Archives. She is now, not only joint Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces butalso involved   in the Heritage Education Trust which runs the Sandford Award to recognise excellence in the field of heritage education. Incidentally she gave us the tip-off that Historic Royal Palaces (HRP) run a paid (yes, paid!) internship for emerging professionals who have been accepted into a masters program where the HRP pays for your masters while at the same time as studying you are working for HRP. So gaining experience in a world renowned organisation, while being paid, and having your study paid for as well. I currently don’t have a masters, but with an offer like that I might just consider going back.

She also gave us an overview of her career as a writer, starting with magazine articles and working up to books. She usually writes about her specialism, Tudor history, and mentioned the struggles of meeting publishing deadlines while holding down a day job. She began by writing one book in three years, now her publishers are straying to get her to write three books in one year, sounds like writing is a hard job to maintain. She was gracious enough to give us her top five tips for writing:

1) Find your natural environment, wherever it is you work best. This doesn’t have to be home if there are too many distractions. For Tracy it is in the British Library.

2) Have a deadline – conveniently Tracy’s publishers provide these for her.

3) Research and write at the same time. Outline the proposal chapter by chapter and gradually flesh out the details as your research grows, consistently editing and reviewing. This is much more time efficient and less daunting than doing all the research (the fun bit) first and then looking at mountains of notes wondering how your going to turn it into a book. 

4) Set daily word targets. It helps to focus and progress the writing if you consistently feel like you are achieving a set amount. Tracy aims for 5, 000 a day, but recommended we start with a minimum of 3,000. 

5) Stay focused on the end result, whatever it is you want to achieve out of it. 

Naturally all this helpful advice was underpinned by subtle marketing for Tracy’s books, specifically her latest, The Private Lives of Tudors, which was inspired by diary and journal entries, letters and comments from visitors to Hampton Court. She had found through her work with HRP and being based and Hampton Court, that what the visitors were really interested in were not the politics and logistics of court life, but the more relatable interesting stories like, where was King Henry’s toilet? What did the Groom of the Stool actually do? Why were the ladies using lead-based makeup? Tracy described it as a Horrible Histories for adults. Conveniently the young boys, pages and footmen, serving at court were usually educated younger sons of wealthy families and they liked to write journals about daily life. The Tudor palaces were built to enhance the mystique and privacy of the monarchs, but privacy then was not as we understand it now.  The Tudor monarchs were never really alone at any point and the details of what went on out of the public eye is what Tracy has brought to life in her book. 

After being inspired by Tracy we had a chat with Matthew, curator for Woburn Abbey about his career path, the history of the Abbey and our project for the afternoon. The Abbey was a Cistercian monastery founded in 1145. During the reformation in 1538, when King Henry VIII was shutting down monasteries so he could enjoy their money, the Abbots at Woburn refused to go without a fight. Unfortunately this meant Henry decided to seize the Abbey by force and ordered the Abbot to be hanged. The Abbey remained owned by the Crown until Henry’s death when it was gifted to Sir John Russel, along with several other properties. Later King Edward VI  made Sir Russel the First Earl of Bedford. It wasn’t until many years later that the 4th Earl actually decided to live in the Abbey, until then the family was enjoying one of the other estates which made up thier total of 90,000 acres of land. By the time the 4th Earl wanted to live there the Abbey was pretty run down and verging on ruins, so re renovated and rebuilt sections of it from 1620-1630.  Since then the family have been on the rise, being made Dukes in 1694. They’ve re-done the house several times over, post World War Two (when the house was requisitioned for military use) there was not much money or materials available for maintenance so in 1949 the Duke at the time decided to preserve the earliest sections by demolishing the newer sections to the house. This also served to stop the infestation of death watch beetle which was eating its way through the stone and wood. Another blow for the family was the post-war death taxes. When the 12th Duke died in 1951 the family were charged 80% tax on the property, causing his son to be forced to sell significant amounts of the house contents to afford to keep it. He also opened the house as a visitor attraction in 1955, one of the first manor houses to do so. The 13th Duke really embraced the PR and marketing side of things and was happy to come out and show people around his home, or work in the gift shop. The house is still lived in by the current Duke and his family, although they are a little more private than his father was. As the family are still there we, understandably, weren’t allowed to take pictures inside the house, so once again its external and garden shots, sorry. 

For our task today we split into groups and each group was assigned an two exhibitions, each using different interpretation methods, of us to compare. We were asked to comment on the effectiveness of each style of interpretation, provide ideas on improvements or alterations and give feedback on whether we thought they were any good. 

The group I was in were assigned the temporary exhibition space which currently has an exhibition called Design of the Times – 400 years of interior decoration at Woburn Abbey and the gardens. It was a tricky one because the gardens are not specifically an exhibition, but they are an element of the house which need to be interpreted for visitors, and as we found at Stowe, garden design can say a lot about the people living there. The gardens at Woburn were created by Humphrey Reston in 1804, at the request of the 6th Duke of Bedford.  We found there was a garden trail to interpret some elements of the gardens, but not very much and without much assistance they just appeared to she a mix of pretty manicured garden beds, open lawns and more free-range plantings. 

Our feedback suggested a clearer indication of what was original garden design, and what were the newer sections as well as a kids trail. The signage they had contained a good mix of botanical information on specific plants for garden lovers and a bit of history. What we ought could be improved on was to add a motif or cartoon anima to the signs, perhaps a lady bird or an insect commonly found in the garden giving the kids something to look for, with a quick fun fact next to it. There were a few sections where we felt things could be better explained, such as the Chinese Dairy, while it was obvious that the building had Asian design influences, there was nothing to say why it was called that or even if it had ever actually been used as a diary. A group member also suggested linking objects or stories in th house with the gardens,  for example if there are paintings n the house which show some of the plants in the gardens, reproduce them on the signs for the garden and tell people they can see the original artwork inside. 

Our feedback for the temporary exhibition was slightly more critical. As we weren’t allowed to take photos inside it’s going to be a little awkward to explain but our main points came down to the following:


– the use of plinths to isolate and elevate objects and furniture was great to show the visual separation of objects as not just furniture in a room, but objects of artistic design. 

– the reproduction wall paper. There was a badly faded and damaged piece of the original wallpaper left in one wall of the room, next to it was a reproduction piece which had filled in the damaged areas and recreated what is thought to be the original colours, including their original vibrancy. It was great to be able to show how intense and detailed the wallpaper would have been. 

– exposed layers. The walls showed different stages of construction, from some sections showing the exposed brick, to the lime mortar, to the hessian backing which was attached to the walls and then the wallpaper or paint which was put over the top. These layers were amazing to see as it really gave a better understanding of how the decorative elements of a room were put in place. I had no idea that many houses, including wealthy houses, used hessian backing on the walls to attach the wall paper to. 


– the flow was quite disjointed, there was no clear path for visitors to follow and the text panels didn’t always make sense read in different orders. 

– text panel design and placement. There was a lot of text on the panels and they weren’t well designed. The positioning of some was quite high on the walls, causing people to crane their necks to read, or if they stood further back the text was too small to read. There was also empty space on some of the panels, which indicated they had the ability to increase the font size to ensure readability without increasing the physical size of the panels. 

– label placement. Some of the object labels were not in places which clearly indicated which objects they were linked to, creating some confusion about what particular objects were.  Some objects didn’t have labels, but were referred to in text panels which were on the opposite side of the room. 

– placement of the temporary exhibition within the Abbey. The exhibition was the first room you enter after the foyer where visitors pay for their tickets. It’s a confusing spot for that exhibition because it doesn’t give any context to the house or the family. It launches straight in to examining the design elements which have changed in the house over successive generations, but no real background on who the different Dukes who made the changes were. We felt it would be better placed either in a more central spot, after visitors have had an introduction to the development of the Abbey and context on the family, or at the end. 

The volunteer guide on duty in the exhibition did comment that she has noticed many people start in there trying to read everything, which many do when they first enter a museum. As many people are often tour groups on a time schedule, they are then forced to rush the rest of the house. 

One of the biggest successes that we found for the Abbey were their guides. The volunteer guides placed in each room were fantastic, they were knowledgable not just about the rooms they were in, but also the overall history of the family and the history. on many of the objects before the family acquired them. The lady in the temporary exhibition mentioned that the guides are rotated to a different room every half day so they get a change of scenery and don’t get bored just talking about the same space. Each one I spoke to was very enthusiastic and happy to answer questions but wasn’t intrusive in any way, they were happy to let people browse if they desired. 

Overall temporary exhibitions in historic houses are not particularly common but they are a great way for sites to examine different areas of their history or development in more depth. Many historic houses try to return the site to a very specific time period, and quite often there are more stories to tell which don’t always fit, having the freedom and space to do it is great, but we felt that it needed a bit more consideration in its execution. 

That ended the day for us at Woburn Abbey, so it was back to our accomodation in some lovely rooms over a 17th Century pub for a drink before heading off to London tomorrow. 

17th century rooms with low ceilings and exposed beams.

The joy of combining 17th century rooms with modern bathrooms means I can’t fit in the shower! All part of the historic experience. 🙂

Day 10 – Stowe House

Today began with breakfast in the State Dining Rooms inside Stowe House. We are spending our time here staying in the boarding house for Stowe school, which is attached to the manor house, and the students of the school are served breakfast lunch and dinner in the historic dining rooms. So we have been able to experience a bit of what it might have been like to live in a place like this. It’s quite bizarre having the estate to ourselves overnight and the ability to explore a nearly empty manor house after dark. 

The House Custordian,  Anna, took us for a tour of the house after breakfast and described how it was built in the 1680s as the ‘principal temple’ of the gardens (there’s about 40 other temples and follies around the gardens, each with their own metaphors and political undertones). The House was the home of the Temple-Grenville family who within a span of 200 years rose from being sheep farmers in Oxford to being the Dukes of Buckingham and Chandos (although they had a few other titles along the way. 

The family were very political and their strong political views were reflected in much of the ceiling decorations in the Ouse, as well as through the gardens. The North Hall is the only room with a political ceiling left, it depicts Lord Cobham being handed the Sword of Victory by the god Mars. This is to reflect that Cobham was a soldier who fought alongside the Duke of Marlborough, it’s also a very direct way to tell visitors (being one of the first rooms you enter) just how full of yourself you can be. 

Interestingly we learned that the house and gardens were open to visitors from as early as the 1750s, when the Duke was still in residence and diary accounts reveal that the duke had formal guests at the same time as tourists were wandering through to see how the other half lived. Unfortunately the family went into decline and by the mid-19th century they were in huge debt, following a visit from Queen Victoria (because you have to spruce up the house when the Queen comes to visit). In 1848, three years after the queens visit they have one of two huge sales in which the family try to recoup some funds by selling off the contents of the house. Sadly after 40 days of selling things off they had only raised £40, 000, not nearly enough to cover the debts. In 1921 the last member of the family, Lady Kinloss, held the second of the big sales when she decided to sell the estate and its contents because the heir to the family title, and whatever fortune was left, had died during the First World War. 

The person who bought the estate in 1921 proved unable to do anything with it, so in 1922 it was sold again and this time was turned into a school. Stowe School opened in 1923 with Mr Roxborough as the headmaster. The school managed the estate by themselves for 67years, then the National Trust took over the management of the gardens and much later the Stowe House Preservation Trust was started to improve visitor access to the house. They re-opened it to tourists in 2015 and manage the restoration and interpretation of the building. 

Marvelling at the ceiling to the Music Room

We also had a chance to hear from Suzy, the visitor experience manager and Anna, the community and learning officer. Both ladies were lovely and gave us an outline of visitor numbers, types of tours on offer, constraints of offering tours during term time as the school uses much of the house for classes and alternative ways they are trying to entice people in. There are some special experiences that are run to attract more visitors including rooftop tours, behind the scenes tours and some volunteer guides will pick a specialist subject and run tours on that aspect of house history. 

The main challenge that is presented with this site is the ongoing restoration work. The House Trust was established in 1997 and started the first phase of restoration in 2000. The balance of conservation and housekeeping is difficult as the building is used in so many different ways, and let’s be honest teenage boys are not often kind to their surroundings. Part of the conservation work involves also telling the history of the school, how the students have used (and mis-used) the house contribute to its history, and sometimes it’s damage. 

Our task for the day was to develop a fundraising proposal for the restoration of the State Dining Rooms. We needed £950, 000 total for ceiling restoration (repairing and stabilising as well as restoration of paintings); original wooden flooring needed to be taken up, assessed, repaired where possible and relaid or replaced; joinery, dado rails, skirting boards and door frames all need work as well as replacing some non-original doors with jib doors; lighting; and finally attempting to re-instate replicas of three original tapestries which hung on the walls. 

It’s a massive undertaking with many considerations including visitor access, relocating the school’s dining facilities, staging of the project and online engagement.  We pitched a range of ideas designed to target different levels of fundraising. To start with the least sexy, the floors, we decided to approach fundraising bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and request the money on the grounds of public safety and access. Our big ticket items such as the ceiling restoration and tapestries would have a combined approach using low level encouragement such as donation boxes for regular visitors and an option in the house cafe and visitor shop to add £1 to their purchases to go towards the restoration. The second approach is to target higher level donors through strategies like a gala dinner in the State Dining Rooms before the work has started so that donors can see what needs doing, followed by a re-opening of the space with another gala dinner to see the completed works at the end. We had thought of charging about £200 pounds per head for the dinners, and by targeting the school alumni, Old Stoics, we could hopefully appeal to their sentimentality to preserve their old school for the future generations. 

After each group presented our ideas to the Stowe House Preservation team we had two hours to beautify ourselves in time for our formal dinner in the Drawing Room of the house. This was a great way to mark the halfway point of the trip and have the unique experience of dining in a manor house with the staff. We had also noticed earlier that another feature of this posh boarding school is that they keep about 40 beagles on the grounds. So we got permission to go and say hi to the puppies and all traipsed down to the kennels before dinner. I’m pretty sure this was the highlight of the trip for most of us. Here are the photos to prove it. 

Big puppies!
Little Puppies!
Formal dinner in the Blue Drawing Room

All the Open Palace participants prettied up for dinner.

Day 9 – Oxford and Stowe

This morning was a lovely relaxed morning exploring oxford on our own before being back on the bus to head to Stowe House for a garden tour with Patrick from the National Trust. Since today didn’t have any set activities, and they were both such pretty locations, it will mostly be a photo gallery. 

As I’ve been to oxford once before, and we’ve been covering so many museums in the last several days, I took a break from museums. I briefly poked my nose into the Ashmolean but spent most of my morning just wandering the streets and people watching. 

The outside of Magdalen College

We were lucky enough to stay in Magdalen College in Oxford university, unfortunately not the wonderful heritage buildings, we were in the 1970s dorms above sainsbury’s. However it did give us the perks of being able to wander the college quod and see all the lovely gardens and buildings when they were practically empty. We also got to have breakfast in their Hall, which is very Harry Potter style, so also amazing.

Magdalen College cloisters
The cloisters
Magdalen College Quod
Magdalen College campus

After roaming Oxford until 2pm we were yet again on a bus to our next stop, Stowe House. Stowe is an odd place as it’s part historic house, part National Trust gardens and part prestigious boarding school (we got told it was one step below Eton College. So the Stoe House Preservation Trust manage the house and have it open to the public, but the school also use it for classes and their dining hall and dorm rooms, and the gardens are owned and managed by the National Trust, but the school leases sections for playing fields and outdoor activities. It’s a very unusual but relatively harmonious between the three organisations. 

Our perk for this section of the trip was staying on site in the boarding houses so having the run of the manor house and gardens at night when there was no one else there. This afternoon was spent on a lovely walk through the Elysian Fields section of the gardens with Patrick, the deputy head gardener. He lead us through the Paths of Virtue and Vice and explained the symbolism of different sections of the garden and the various temples and statues which reside there. 

The Paths of Vice and Virtue represent the Greek god, Hercules’ struggle between these two choices. The Path of Vice is relatively easy, flat and winds through the garden of love. The temples in this area allude to stories of seductive women, sordid goings-on and partying to excess. Not for the faint hearted, but designed to show that vice is an easy way out. 

The Path of Virtue represents heaven on earth. The temples show good values, such as the Temple of British Worthies showing the thinkers and do-ers of Britain’s history. Of course, the virtuous path isn’t the easiest, so there are many bridges and hills in the way. 

The Path of Liberty apparently represents the political aspirations of Lord Cobham, the guy who designed the gardens in 1730s. As a simple metaphor it is the longest and hardest of all three walks, showing that politics is never easy. The temples along the way show Britain’s dominance in the eighteenth century. Hence the Temple of Concord and Victory celebrates Britain’s victory in the Seven Years’ War and Lord Cobham’s Pillar shows Cobham as a mighty Roman warrior, mostly because he had a superiority complex. 

Lord Cobham was a very political man who wanted to all his political opinions to hit visitors in the face when they came to his house. At the time, these symbols would have been pretty obvious to his friends and everyone would have known exactly what political affiliations he had, as well as how rich he was. Now we just see them and think ‘oh that’s a pretty temple’. It was really interesting de-coding all of these messages in the gardens and I think it would be great if there was a bit more explanatory signage around for the average visitor to give the gardens context. If we didn’t have Patrick there to helpfully (and literally) walk us through the meaning behind it, there would be so much significance lost on us. I’ll leave it there for now, with a few more garden pictures and delve more deeply into Stowe House tomorrow. 

Temple of British Worthies

Patrick explaining the gardens to us

Stowe gardens from the rear of the house. School playing fields in the front, followed by formal 18th Century gardens.

Day 8 – Windsor Castle 

Unfortunately this one will be a little light on for pictures. Due to security we weren’t allowed to take photos inside the castle, so you’ll have to settle for external shots instead, sorry. 

Today was a visit to meet Richard, Stephen, Paul, Hannah and other members of the Royal Collections Trust and Collections Care teams. We had a very interesting look at the public and private sides to the castle. Unfortunately no-one of particular significance was there as all the royals seem to have taken off to Scotland for the summer holiday. 

We had a very fun experience getting into the castle as we were told, firstly that there was a dress code of day dresses or pant suits for women, so we were all dressed up, and secondly that we all had to pass a security screening. So we got to skip mass the huge (honestly massive) line of tourists waiting at the public entrance, to a subtle little door down the side of the castle where we were only lowed in three at a time to receive our security passes, and then walk back past the line of tourists and straight through the main gate, which is flanked by some policemen who looked like they still needed a morning coffee. The tourists didn’t look particularly impressed that we skipped ahead so easily as well. 

Once inside we met Richard who gave us a quick run-down of a bit of the history, the castle was established by William the Conquerer as part of a defensive ring of fortresses around London after the Norman invasion. It’s currently the favoured residence of the Queen and she’s there most weekends. The interiors now are as they were designed by George IV, around 1820. The special thing about the Royal collections, both here and at the other royal residences, is that everything is there to be used. So the China galleries which display a dazzling amount of plates and crockery often have bits missing and a label up saying “currently in use”. Or when they loan things to other museums they’ll sometimes find that it’s been used for a state dinner two weeks beforehand. 

This need for access and function dictates how the collection is displayed, recorded and conserved. There are a huge number of people in the household staff who have access to these objects and so need to be trained in their care. We met Stephen, the head of Collections and Information team who summarised his job as “knowing what it is, where it is and how it is”. Basically they have a staff of 12 people to record the significance of the objects, their locations and their current conditions across all of the Royal Collection in all of the royal residences and historic locations such as the Tower of London. In terms of the make-up of the collection they have (roughly) 38% photographs, 19% books, 14% paintings and 27% works of art (which basically means anything else, including furniture etc). 

Documentation has been a tricky one over the years as different monarchs have created different inventories of what they collected. The first inventory that they have was conducted in 1639 by Abraham Vaderdoort, Keeper of the Cabinet Room for King Charles I. Unfortunately this poor guy got a bit obsessed about keeping track of everything and he committed suicide in 1640 when he couldn’t find one of the king’s miniatures. As a result of various systems, many things in the collection have different marks on them, particularly furniture as a few monarchs got enthusiastic about burning their brands into things. In one way ts is useful as it helps date when some of the earlier objects arrived, however from a conservation point of view it isn’t great. 

One of the Collections Care Stewards, Jade, talked to us about the challenges of working with the household staff, mostly housekeeping and livery staff, to maintain a stable balance between the conservation of a collection and its practical working nature. They train the housekeeping teams in techniques like conservation vacuuming for daily care and then the collections team do a hingher level of conservation cleaning themselves where necessary. They also train the household staff in object handling and safe ways of lifting things for daily movement of items for events etc. this also applies to service areas which might be used for events, spaces where food and drink preparations can occur to allow an event to take place in adjacent rooms. This can mean that things are being prepped in one of the drawing rooms, to service and event in the hall, and so the carpets and furniture in the drawing room need to be protected from accidents. They are consistently looking for ways to mitigate risks to the collection through preventative care. 

To keep track of everything they have a custom built collections management system which has been in use since 2009. This is used by the Royal collections trust, which has five curatorial departments, pictures, photographs, library, prints and works of art (everything else, including furniture, sculpture etc). The collections care and information team have 12 staff and always have one person attached to each of the curatorial departments. They also have a inventory manager attached to each site, when the household staff move objects around, they are meant to inform the inventory manager who will update the location information for that object in the database. However as she is only one person and the household staff often move things for events, or even the royal family decide they no longer want things in a particular room and move them, the message doesn’t always get back to the inventory manager and locations can become muddled. So approximately every five years the whole team will do a full inventory and condition report of all objects in the palace (it takes about 4 months) and so far they have found that things generally don’t move that far, normally just to the next room. 

It was a very special day, giving us an insight into how the Royal collections are used and managed and getting to meet the lovely people who look after them. After our workshop we jumped back on the bus and took off to Oxford where we were staying in Magdalen College at Oxford University. More on that tomorrow….

Day 7 Part 2 – Anne of Cleves House

This afternoon was spent having tea at Anne of Cleves House in Lewes. Here we met Joanna, the education officer who gave us information on the history of the house and its architecture. The house is owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society which was one of the first archaeological societies, founded around 1896. It is now a registered charity which also manages several historic properties (many of which have been donated to the society). 

Originally this house belonged to the local priory and it then passed to Thomas Cromwell. When King Henry VIII was going through his phase of creating his own religion and shutting down all the monasteries, Cromwell was acting as his own personal cheer squad and bully-for -hire. Cromwell was the one going around auditing the monks and if they didn’t stack up then he’d shut them down. One of the perks of this job was that Henry sometimes allowed him to take some of the seized property for himself, and this house was one which Cromwell grabbed. 
The reason that it is called Anne of Cleves house is because it was part of Anne’s annulment settlement from King Henry VIII in 1540, along with several other properties. Anne was probably one of the luckiest of King Henry’s six wives because she managed to avoid being married to him for too long, she didn’t get beheaded, and she was gifted a significant amount of land and money which allowed her to live in comfort and be referred to as the King’s Beloved Sister. Anne was kind of the original tinder bride. She and Henry had never met, Henry had only ever seen a painting of her, which he thought looked reasonable. When she turned up from Germany to get married Henry wasn’t that impressed, but Thomas Cromwell convinced him it was still a good idea. So in January 1540 they got married, by July Henry had reconsidered and decided she didn’t live up to her profile picture. He blamed Cromwell for making him go through with it, so had the marriage annulled. Henry also beheaded Cromwell and gave most of what Cromwell owned (which was a lot) to Anne, because it’s not her fault she’s not pretty. 
We didn’t have an activity to do here, just had a tour and a nice tea and scones in the garden before heading on to Windsor for tomorrow’s visit with the Queen. 

Entrance to the kitchens

Upstairs bedchamber

They have dress-ups!

Day 7 Part 1 – Plastering in Brighton

This will be a split post as today was a half and half kind of day. The morning was back at the Regency Townhouse getting messy playing with plaster and the afternoon was a much more refined tea and talk at the Anne of Cleeves house in Lewes before carrying on to Windsor for the night. 

Firstly – plastering. So. Much. Fun.

We went back to see Nick at the Regency Townhouse, this time we received a crash course in the science behind lime and the methods of turning the lime source into quicklime (really nasty stuff, don’t play with at home) to then turn that into slaked lime or lime putty (much safer and easier to handle. This was important as many historical buildings are made with some form of lime mortar, generally putty lime but there was also the discovery of hydraulic lime which will set underwater, if that happens to be where you are building. 

During the 18th century the British and French were re-learning the properties of hydralised lime and came up with a ranking system; feeble is the weakest, only slightly stronger than lime putty, moderate is generally strong for all purpose use and eminent is the most resilient of the hydralised limes. Of course we have simplified the terms since then and they are now referred to as value 2, value 3.5 and value 5 hydralised lime, which I don’t think sounds as interesting. There were extensive chalk quarries in the outer areas of Brighton so plenty of lime to work with. 

Nick gave us a fantastic overview of Georgian building techniques and materials and how this has helped shaped their restoration methods. They have found the most effective way to repair plaster damage to the walls is to chip out the original plaster, smash it back up into dust, rehydrate it by mixing in a 1/3 lime putty and then plaster it back into the wall. I think it’s great as they are effectively repairing the damage with the original fabric of the building. There’s no real replacement components and it will match the surrounding fabric meaning it will behave the same way, no unexpected reactions with new substances. Nick mentioned it’s a bit of an experimental idea and they can have trouble when trying to explain it to funding bodies. 

Anyway, enough of the talking, on to the fun stuff. We were allowed into the basement/ servants quarters of the house to meet Paul and have a go at plastering. Paul is a volunteer who has been helping out with repairing the plasterwork on the walls and ceiling. Nick also let us have a go at the more decorative plasterwork which is used for the cornices and ceiling roses and other decorative elements in a room. I’ll let the pictures explain better. 

Day 6 – Brighton Pavilion and the Regency Townhouse

Today was a combination of free wandering through the Brighton pavilion and a visit to the Regency Townhouse Restoration Project. 

So this morning we turned up bright and early on the doorstep on the Pavillion, which is a very impressive building that to many people looks Indian/Middle Eastern and doesn’t fit at all with the landscape of Brighton. I quickly learned that while to me it looks Indian or Middle Eastern, very few people from those two areas would recognise much of their architectural styles in it as it is really one man’s vision of what he thought these styles should look like. 

Brighton Pavilion

Unfortunately there is no photography allowed inside the building as most of their collection is on loan and the loan conditions stipulate no photos. However what I can tell you is the Prince Regent who designed this place was slightly obsessed with the Far East. He has loads of paintings, statues, carvings, wall paper, whatever he could use to decorate this place with Chinese and Asian themes. Some of it he was a bit sneaky with as well, so his stair railings are cast iron but they’re painted to look like bamboo. His dining room, apart from being massive which is normal for these places, is completely covered in Chinese paintings and dragons. Yes that’s right, the guy liked his dragons. The centrepiece of the dining room is a giant chandelier which has a 12ft carved wooden dragon at the top which has been covered in silver leaf and then painted. From that hangs the chandelier which consists of 15,000 individual crystals and has another four silvered carved dragon heads coming out of it which are upturned and positioned to look like the are exhaling the lotus-shaped light fixtures. The entire thing weighs just over a tonne. 

The building is very impressive but it follows one of the standard formats of a manor house experience where you are given an audio guide to walk around with and have to follow a set route through the building. I understand why they do this in such popular sites to help with visitor flow and controlling crowds but it does get a little dull after a while. 

From there we walked to Brunswick Square where we met Nick from the Regency Townhouse Restoraion Project. They have purchased one of the townhouses on the square and are slowly working to take it back to what it would have looked like during the Regency period (roughly between 1800-1830s). They are also building a fantastic database of Regency history for the public. Technically the Regency period is limited to 1811-1820 when King George III was going mad so the Regency act permitted his son to become the Prince Regent, he later became George IV. 

Brunswick Square

Nick is an extremely enthusiastic and interesting man who gave us a very comprehensive overview of the history of Brighton and what they are trying to achieve with the restoration project. We were given a quick gallop through the development of Brighton from a sleepy little fishing and market garden village in the 1720s with a population of around 2,000 people to a bustling growing town in the 1820s as housing estates expand to the east and west. In the 19th century Brighton was the fastest growing town in Britain. This was due to a combination of factors; firstly is Dr Richard Russell who began promoting the medicinal benefits of ocean air and salt water for treating people’s ailments. Cures took the form of lengthy prescriptions describing the number of times bathing in salt water was necessary, where people should live to provide optimal exposure to sea air and concoctions of salt water and other ingredients to drink. Secondly was the arrival of the Prince Regent in town at the age of 21. As is usually, where people of prominence go, fashionable society generally follows. The road access to Brighton also begins to improve in the 1830s which helps as well. Finally the locals also learnt very quickly that they could capitalise on the tourism industry. They had a significant number of wealthy people coming to town and if they provided goods and services quick enough and at a high enough standard they could keep them coming back, which resulted in a lot of early investment in hotels and associated services instead of industrial development. 

Nick then described to us the extensive process of restoring the Townhouse, which had been divided up into flats during the 1980s, back to how it would have looked as a Regency Townhouse. They are currently colour matching the original pain for the dining room, which was discovered by carefully sanding through the paint with ever decreasing grades of sandpaper, revealing approximately seven different colours with the original being a slightly sickening shade of purple.

Sanding through layers of paint

Final colour matched paint for Dining Room.

One of the hazards with this practice is the lead based paint. Workers have to be trained and wearing appropriate protective gear (dust masks) and vacuum particles as they go to prevent inhaling too much lead. Several patch tests are usually needed to ensure accuracy in case there was some kind of pattern design or feature painted on the wall. 

Nick also stressed the importance of knowing not just the original materials of construction but also the time period in which a house was built in order to safely restore it. These townhouses were constructed around 1820-30. By the end of the 1830s in Britain the economy is suffering and there are very few building projects going on, many which are happening are going bankrupt. So the architect for this set in Brunswick Square had specified the materials for construction but he realises that if he holds the contractors to that then there is a high chance they will go bankrupt and not finish his designs. So instead he relaxes his standards and allows them to use cheaper materials and cut corners. This means that structural problems begin to show relatively early and by 150 years later many of these houses are collapsing from the inside out. The knowledge about context and quality of materials will help inform you of what might go wrong next and how the house will perform over time. 

Consequently many structural repairs were needed when the Trust took on the house, some are still ongoing. Once they have been complete the plan is to reinstate internal fixtures such as skirting and plasterwork before moving on to the decorative elements and furniture. It will be an extensive project but with a dedicated core team of 50 volunteers with a total force of about 200 I have every faith that it will be an impressive house when completed. 

Tomorrow we return for more history of the house and a practical excercise in learning how to plaster. 

Day 5 – Stonehenge

This will be a relatively brief post because we were doing our own thing at Stonehenge. There was no activity or tour for us to do, it was a just a chance to check out the exhibition and then walk, or in my case shuttle bus because it was raining, out to the stones to marvel at their mystery. 

It’s a big pile of rocks, but they’re pretty cool rocks. I’d heard they’d put a fence around them and that you couldn’t get too close. I wasn’t excpecting the not even knee high little rope that stops you from walking up to them, I thought they meant big crazy fence which needs climbing to see anything. So I was happily surprised. And if you’re creative enough and you stand or kneel in the right spot you can take a photo that makes it look like there’s not hoards of people around. 
The reality is that there is hoards of people around and many on them, myself included, are trying to take photos of each other, themselves and/or the stones. Those who aren’t trying to take pictures are generally listening to the audio guides available either as an app downloaded on your phone of a little tape recorder thing which costs you £3 at the ticket desk.  It’s a pretty good audio guide and as you walk around the stones there are numbered points which match up to the numbered recordings that you can play and describes this relevant to the spot you are standing. 

I quite liked Stonehenge, but I did feel that the number of people around detracted from the impact of the site. I know there’s not much they can do about it because so many people want to see it, but if there were less people and an opportunity to just sit and look and contemplate the stones then I think it would have more resonance (wow factor) with people. I get the feeling it’s very much a point for people to tick off a bucket list and they’re not really getting much more out of it than being able to say “yes, I’ve been to Stonehenge”, which I think is a bit of a shame. 

Apart from that the exhibition space was well done but nothing particularly exciting. What I did really enjoy was the temporary exhibition called ‘wish you were here’ which explored the way Stonehenge has been viewed as a tourist attraction and cultural icon since Victorian times.  It’s been used to adorn everything from soaps to postcards, to comic books, to clothing to some truly hideous bright pink or green 1920s ceramics. It was interesting how each generation has adapted the idea of it and posed questions about what it was used for. It makes a great mysterious supernatural setting for comic book super heroes and murder mysteries. 

Overall definitely worth having a look, but try not to be disappointed by the crowds.