Volunteers’ hard work is at the heart of preserving our precious heritage

Becky Johnson, from Leeds is pictured  in the Library at Brodsworth Hall, and Mary Storey, below.
Becky Johnson, from Leeds is pictured in the Library at Brodsworth Hall, and Mary Storey, below.
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English Heritage relies on volunteers to help keep its historic buildings running. Chris Bond visited Brodsworth Hall to find out more.

IT’S a perfect winter morning. The dew glistens on the grass and a bright sun is hung low on the horizon playing hide and seek between the thin, bald trees, as a whisper of mist hovers above the ground.

Even now, in the dark depths of December, it’s a breathtaking sight so I can only imagine what Brodsworth Hall must look like come May time when Spring is in full bloom.

Nestled in rolling countryside five miles or so north west of Doncaster, Brodsworth Hall is one of the most interesting and unusual Victorian country houses in England – one that has remained virtually unchanged since the 1860s.

It was built by Charles Thellusson whose family lived here for more than 120 years, but it began a slow decline during the 20th century – a fate shared by many English stately homes. The last resident, Sylvia Grant-Dalton, fought a losing battle against subsidence and leaking roofs for more than 50 years but when she died, in 1988, English Heritage acquired the house and made the bold decision to keep the interiors as they were, rather than trying to replace or restore them.

This only adds to Brodsworth’s allure and its air of faded glamour. Not surprisingly, it’s become a popular film location over the years and on Boxing Day TV viewers will be transported into the living rooms of this stately home in a new BBC Two drama. The Thirteenth Tale, starring Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman, is a ghost story based on the novel of the same name by Diane Setterfield with many of the interior shots filmed at the house.

Walking around the sprawling mansion and its stunning gardens it’s easy to see why Brodsworth Hall is so popular with visitors, but conserving somewhere like this isn’t easy. English Heritage opened the hall to the public in 1995 and since then they’ve used an army of volunteers to help run the place.

There are 1,200 English Heritage volunteers currently helping out at over 37 sites and they are a shining example of David Cameron’s “big society” in action, even though they’ve been doing this long before the Prime Minister came up with the idea.

At Brodsworth they have 187 volunteers on their books, which was the highest number of any English Heritage property until Kenwood House reopened in London recently.

So what makes it so popular? “The volunteers come here because they love Brodsworth and over the years their numbers have just grown and grown,” says property manager, Paul Robson.

“Most of them are local and they’re here because they love the story of the place and the fact we’ve conserved it.”

He points out that Brodsworth is the only English Heritage property that has been specifically kept as it was found, which is why the volunteers are so crucial. “Just to operate we need about 12 to 14 volunteers every day, in addition to the paid members of staff. If they weren’t here we couldn’t operate as we do, we’d have to close rooms down to some degree.”

There are four types of volunteers; room stewards, who tell visitors the history of all the different rooms, garden volunteers, responsible for tours of the grounds, as well as research and education volunteers.

Paul reckons if they paid the volunteers for the work they did it would cost around £130,000 a year, which shows how valuable they are. “It’s very important that we keep getting volunteers coming through and we want to celebrate the work they do.” Which is why they’ve put on a special Christmas meal as a “thank you” for all their hard work during the past 12 months.

Although the house is now closed until the start of April, the gardens and tea rooms remain open at the weekends. The gardens, unlike the house, have been restored to their former glory with the help of teams of volunteers. As well as the restored Dolphin fountain there is a collection of “grand gardens in miniature”, including a stunning rose garden.

Most of the volunteers at Brodsworth are aged between 50 and 70 but there are some younger ones, too, like 24 year-old Becky Johnson. A history graduate, she started working as a house steward in October. “I’m a bit of a history geek and I want to make a career out of this, so I felt it was the best way of getting some experience and meeting people and that it might help me find a job eventually.”

It can sometimes be a bit daunting working alongside people who are older and more experienced, but not only does Becky fit in she enjoys it. “The age difference doesn’t bother me, if anything I quite like it because you learn a lot from them and everyone’s really friendly and chatty.”

Becky, who lives in Leeds, is one of the house stewards. She was working once a week but plans to help out more often when the house re-opens next Spring. “Part of my job is to be able to tell people a bit about the room that they’re in and show them some artefacts and give them a bit of history.”

She accepts that volunteering isn’t for everyone especially if you’re working full time. “If you have quite a high pressure job like I did before, it can be hard to fit it in. But if you’re a student or you’re doing a Masters degree then it’s perfect. I found it difficult applying for jobs because I didn’t have the experience, so this is a way of becoming more eligible for those jobs.”

As long as you’re prepared to put the work in then volunteering can be a rewarding experience. “You have to be quite dedicated because you’re giving up your time. But I think if you treat it like a job then you get just as much from it. I feel I’ve learned as much from volunteering as I would have done if I’d been a house steward on the pay roll.”

Mary Storey is a fellow volunteer, albeit one from the other end of the age spectrum. The 80 year-old from Barnsley actually worked for the last owner for a couple of years before she died, staying one night a week at Brodsworth where Sylvia lived with a butler.

“I would come in off the bus from Barnsley and the bus driver would flash his lights for the estate manager to come and meet me by the church. He’d bring me up to the house where the butler would meet me. He was called George and I was told he used to work at Buckingham Palace.”

She has fond memories of working for Sylvia. “We got on like a house on fire. I remember one day I was standing at the top of the stairs and she said ‘what are you doing up there?’ And I said ‘I’d love to slide down this bannister.’ And she said, ‘well, cock your leg over then.’ So I did and slid all the way down.”

In winter, though, the shivering stately pile was a little less enjoyable. “It was absolutely freezing. She used to go to bed in just a nightgown and a bed spread and I’d go in pyjamas, dressing gown, socks and scarf. One night I had seven army blankets and Sylvia said ‘are you going out? And I said ‘I don’t know if I’m going out or coming in, I’m freezing.’ But she didn’t seem to notice.”

Years later, after Sylvia died, Mary returned to Brodsworth with her family. “We went into Sylvia’s dressing room and I said to my daughter ‘oh, my bed’s gone’ and the steward in the room heard me and I explained that I used to work here. So she went off and came back with Peter, who used to be in charge, and he said ‘right, you can start work on Saturday.’ No interview or anything,” she says, laughing.

That was 16 years ago and she’s been a volunteer ever since, charming the visitors with her wonderful evocative stories. “I always volunteer for Sylvia’s room because that was my room,” she says.

Volunteering has given her a chance to return to a place she holds dear to her heart. “Me and Gloria just hit it off so to come back as a volunteer was just a dream come true for me. You meet all kinds of different people and everyone’s kind to each other, it’s just a lovely atmosphere.”

For more information about how to become a volunteer go to www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/get-involved/volunteering

The volunteer heritage army

1,200 English Heritage volunteers, currently helping at over 37 sites.

22 per cent of those volunteers come from the North and they do everything from garden tours and stewarding, to education and research.

16 per cent of those 1,200 volunteers work at Brodsworth, some volunteering since the late 90s when the hall was taken over and opened to the public by English Heritage.

Brodsworth did have the highest number of volunteers in the country until earlier this month, when Kenwood House in London re-opened. It is now looking for 20-25 new garden volunteers.

New volunteer programme at Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire will begin in April 2014.