A team at home with housework

Sibh Megson the Head of the Visitor Experience at Harewood House and head gardener Trevor Nicholson, below.Sibh Megson the Head of the Visitor Experience at Harewood House and head gardener Trevor Nicholson, below.
Sibh Megson the Head of the Visitor Experience at Harewood House and head gardener Trevor Nicholson, below.
In the first in a new series taking a peek behind the scenes of Yorkshire’s country homes, Sheena Hastings gets to grips with the housekeeping at Harewood.

THOSE of an organised turn of mind will probably spend some time each year - maybe at New Year - jotting down a list of jobs that need to be done around the house during the next 12 months. Then they’ll probably look at their finances and decide which of the most urgent tasks they can afford. Some sort of scale of priorities will be arrived at within the limits of available funds, and over the months maintenance work and improvements will be done.

Planning the upkeep of the more ordinary house can be testing at times, 
but imagine that your house has 181 rooms, many of them vast (and 24 of them open to the public), and that it is the nucleus of a huge property that includes a church, ruined castle, lake, cottages, woodland, a Himalayan garden, an acclaimed collection of rhododendrons plus a bird garden surrounded by rolling landscape that includes 700 acres of arable farmland.

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Imagine too that hundreds of thousands of visitors will arrive every year (paying up to £14 for a single day ticket to see your house and grounds), and they will have the highest expectations of how your lawns, trees, herbaceous borders and pathways are kept.

They may well have something testy to say about litter, problems with parking or any dust sighted on the Chippendale furniture or on the frames of the Italian Renaissance paintings.

You must order light bulbs (energy-saving ones these days) by the hundred, teabags and scones by the thousand, 
and remember to safety check every inch of the children’s adventure playground regularly.

Your ‘spring clean’ - done in the winter - involves towers of scaffolding as well as industrial quantities of wax and polish, and you have expert conservators on hand to advise on the care of artefacts that range from marble sculptures to 11,000 books in your three libraries, as well as delicate porcelain and glassware, sumptuous silk chairs and carpets and precious paintings by JMW Turner.

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Back in Victorian times Harewood House had a staff of 40, and by the 1930s this had dwindled to 27, presided over by a head butler and housekeeper. Today the house and estate are staffed by six permanent members in the House and Collections Office, four housekeepers, a florist, a decorator, one technician, an electrician and two duty managers plus the head gardener and staff of five.

There are also House Stewards and Tour Guides who work on a seasonal basis, as well as a fleet of enthusiastic and dedicated volunteers who are on hand in the public rooms, gardens and estate.

Harewood is (along with Castle Howard) designated one of the 10 ‘Treasure Houses’ of England, a status which can only heighten visitors’ expectations.

Perfection and Harewood’s air of magnificent serenity are underpinned by a ferocious amount of planning, strategy and cleverness with available funding, says Sibh Megson, head of visitor experience, marketing and sales.

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With a few new faces on the executive team (including chief executive Mike Schafer) in recent times, it was decided that a five-year plan should be formulated.

“It was felt the time was right to refocus and take a look at how things were done here,” says Megson. “In some ways it was a case of things being done a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. We considered new ways of making the business self-sustaining and relevant, looking at everything from education work to conservation. We peeled back the layers to see what is the gem at the heart of it all - and that is the House.”

Membership numbers had been falling for several years, and feedback revealed that members “felt we didn’t care about them,” says Megson. Members, who pay £95 as a family annually, or £30 in individual membership, felt they were getting little in return for their loyalty.

“They now get to come for free to previews of exhibitions in the House and events that they’d previously had to pay for in addition to their membership.” Numbers started to improve, and Sibh reports with satisfaction that membership has just gone over 5,000 for the first time in years.

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Marketing messages are now much up front than they used to be, but still, Megson says, Harewood is a place where the “world of perfect serenity” must never be broken by any kind of brashness.

Statistics show that family entertainment is mostly dictated by the whims of the youngest child. The recent introduction of good old-fashioned family play with a Festival of Play has gone down a storm. But still, you can’t afford to ignore the needs of adult visitors.

A vital factor in preserving the world of perfect serenity is the extreme care that’s taken in ensuring the conservation not just of the thousands of artefacts, but the Robert Adam interior of the House and the Capability Brown landscape that seems to stretch as far as the eye can see.

Nothing can ever be allowed to look shabby, even if the cleaning/maintenance/improvements schedule is punishing.*

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Like most such houses, Harewood depends on the energy and enthusiasm of its volunteers (more always needed), who need to know they are valued, says Megson. For 67-year-old Janet Allenby from Wetherby, a retired accounts administrator who has worked at Harewood House one day a week for five years, it was her love of history that made her sign up. “I always loved visiting the house, and it is wonderful to learn more about it through working there. It’s a lovely place to come to, I’ve made many friends, and most of the people who visit are lovely, too.

The man in overall charge of the magnificent gardens and grounds at Harewood is Trevor Nicholson, head gardener, who’s been on the staff for 19 years.

“To my mind these are the most beautiful formal gardens in England,” he says, standing in front of the West Terrace’s perfect parterre. “The variety is second to none, and each season the visitor has something different to look at and appreciate. Our gardeners and volunteers work so hard to give that pleasure to people.” He points out how motifs in the architecture of the house, such as acacia heads, are reflected in the muted dusky pink and mauves of the colour scheme in the herbaceous borders, which have a classic English cottage garden feel but also have a satisfyingly symmetrical rise and fall within them.

“It’s quite a domineering and masculine building, so it will look all wrong if the terrace is not planted with shrubs and flowers that are strong enough in their shape and form. But at the same time you can use the borders to add femininity and tone down the architecture.

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“We don’t make dramatic changes, rather ‘variations on a theme’. It’s great to see people of all ages, including small children, enjoying the plants, the patterns and the view from the terrace.”

Many of the plants used at Harewood, including dahlias and salvias, are grown in greenhouses on the estate –10,000 are needed for this terrace alone each season.

The vegetable garden grows top quality produce that’s supplied to the Michelin-starred Box Tree restaurant in Ilkley. All of the thousands of trees at Harewood are catalogued and inspected annually for signs of disease or other damage.

Some years ago he spent a month in Bhutan studying rhododendrons in their natural habitat. His study helped with the maintenance and development of Harewood’s famous collection, and the team continue to exchange seed samples with their gardening friends in Bhutan to this day, a relationship which helps the diversity of Harewood’s 200-odd species.

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Trevor says gardening at Harewood is “not so much a job as a way of life”...”a commitment to beauty in the landscape and to people enjoying it as well as learning about a healthy, more outdoors lifestyle.”

There are two interlocking businesses: The Harewood House Trust - an educational charitable trust set up by the last Earl, George Lascelles - which runs the House and gardens and ploughs any excess back into the Trust.

But the Trust needs the financial support of the commercial side of Harewood’s business, which includes Home Farm, property rental and events such as weddings, business conferences, concerts and the upcoming VW Festival.

The BBC has just paid to film intensively for a week (mostly from late afternoon to the wee hours of the morning) a three-part adaptation of PD James’s Pride and Prejudice sequel Death Comes To Pemberley, which will be screened at Christmas. In 2010, Harewood broke the £1m mark with 200,000 visitors for the first time. But in 2012, as with most other visitor attractions, the box office took a big hit due to the wash-out summer.

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“The recession has been tough, and last year was a very bad year (for visitors) because of the weather,” says David Lascelles, Earl of Harewood. “But numbers are up 12 per cent this year so far, and I am reasonably optimistic for next year, too. We are very pleased that the Tour de France will be coming come through the estate.

“I feel that as custodians of Harewood we have to try and have a contemporary approach. It’s always about the next generation as well as today.”

When Lascelles’s father, the late seventh Earl, inherited the mid-18th century House and estate that had been built out of his forebears’ fortune (made in the West Indies from the work of enslaved Africans growing luxury goods), he also inherited nightmarish death duties.

Today it has to be run as a proper 21st-century business, one which has many strands,” says the present Earl. “We have a commercial property business - renting out buildings as office space, and part of the estate for the filming of Emmerdale, for instance - and we are about to start a green energy company, using wood chips from felled timber to burn and eventually supply heat and hot water not only to the House but to the whole estate.”

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His philosophy is a simple one: “Like many big houses we have become much more accessible in different ways and we are much more actively engaged in the environment and community around us. Everything we try to do is quality - and heritage with a contemporary outlook.”