Army of helpers to ensure survival of sites

Liz Page from English Heritage at Rievaulx Abbey. Picture by Gerard Binks
Liz Page from English Heritage at Rievaulx Abbey. Picture by Gerard Binks
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ENGLISH HERITAGE has already begun work to recruit a new generation of helpers to ensure its survival as an independent charity - and Yorkshire is leading the way.

Earlier this year National Trust volunteer Miranda Spatchurst criticised organisations and charities for ‘asking too much’ of exhausted retirees, sparking fears the busier baby boom generation and their offspring will be unable to take up the mantle in decades to come.

English Heritage, which has some staffed sites but is largely reliant on those who give their spare time to help out, has conceded that changes to work patterns and lifestyles which rules otherwise willing candidates out of taking on volunteering roles, presents a challenge.

But in recent years it has stepped up efforts to engage communities and offer opportunities for everyone from families, to students, to pensioners, so there are enough to cater for the needs of visitors in the future.

“People are working longer hours and the retirement age is increasing, so it is vital that we adapt to that, that we are flexible, but also ensure we’re engaging with people of all ages and backgrounds,” said Michael Murray-Fennell, head of communications at English Heritage.

Liz Page, English Heritage’s historic properties director for the north of England, said: “We’ve always relied on the work of our volunteers and it’s definitely something we see as a key part of our future as a charity. “Although a lot of our volunteers are retired because they tend to have more spare time, we’ve also got young families and students.”

One of the region’s recent success stories came with a project at Mount Grace Priory, near Northallerton, this year, to open up the attics of the manor house on the site of the 14th Century ruins.

University student Marguerite Whalley, 20, trained as a visitor guide when her parents moved nearby.

She said: “I didn’t even know about the priory until my parents moved close by, I was home from university for the summer and thought it’d be great to get involved with something in the local community.

“I had no idea how much history there was. I loved being able to build up my knowledge and then share it with visitors. I only wish I’d discovered volunteering earlier, but I am really keen to go back again. It’s something I’d recommend to fellow students.”

The team of 10 people were loaded with information and given training before the grand opening of the rooms, which give a glimpse of the architectural details of the roof and a prime vantage point from which to view the priory ruins and gardens.

Working alongside Miss Whalley was Phil Burton, a 68-year-old retiree who works at the priory two afternoons a week.

He said: “I had worked for the National Trust for 12 years and so I was keen to keep that interest in heritage going. The attics hadn’t been opened to the public before, so it was such an exciting thing to be part of.

“One of the best things is meeting all of the different people who come through the door.

“Over the summer there were huge parties of American walkers coming to visit. You feel proud to have all of this history on your doorstep and to share it with people from across the UK and the world.”