Open house at Ickworth

PUBLISHED: 12:45 20 May 2014 | UPDATED: 15:10 20 May 2014

Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.

Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.

Archant

Historic home of the Hervey family and full of stunning furniture and art, Ickworth is also known for its acres of parkland and gardens. James Marston went behind the scenes

Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.

There’s nothing like a few visitors to get you to tidy up, is there?

But a bit of light dusting and a push of the vacuum cleaner isn’t enough to get a house like Ickworth ready for guests.

Now welcoming visitors for the 2014 season, Ickworth’s staff have been busy during the winter months cleaning, restoring and repairing as the historic rotunda gets ready to open its doors to an estimated 200,000 people.

The main doors were still closed when I and photographer Gregg Brown paid a visit to find out more, so we made an entrance through the basement. In a corner of the boiler room, janitor Brian Catton was busy in the coal bunker.

Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.Ickworth house getting ready to open - James Marston Feature.

Brian, wearing a miner’s lamp for working in the dark, said the boilers are no longer used but the coal is part of the display that visitors see.

For Sue Borges, marketing and engagement manager at the National Trust property, the annual opening is an exciting time.

She’s been working at Ickworth for three years and her job is to bring visitors to the house and get them to engage in various planned activities.

With walkie-talkie in hand she summons the team from all corners of the building.

Along from the boiler room is the kitchen – a popular part of the house where visitors can see how the large domestic staff served the Herveys – later the Marquesses of Bristol – the family who occupied Ickworth for more than 200 years.

“The table top has been sanded and we have got new equipment for the cookery workshops we have during the season,” said Sue.

I take the opportunity to try my hand at a spot of washing up, before going upstairs where, in the west wing corridor, there’s some more specialised work going on. Norfolk-based gilder and traditional finisher Jo Green is kneeling in a corner applying paint to the woodwork.

“In this area paint was peeling so I’m making good surfaces and restoring the original paint scheme.

“In November everything gets covered in dust sheets to stop light damage and degradation. We try to protect everything,” she said, uncovering a bust of the first Marquess of Bristol.

Outside work carries on in the Italianate gardens.

“We have a senior gardener plus four others,” said Sue. “Hedges have been cut and lawns have been mowed and seeds are being planted in the walled garden.” Last year the property welcomed nearly 200,000 visitors.

“We’ve just had the figures in for last year and we had 196,000 visitors and we sold 20,000 scones in the restaurant.”

Plans for this year include a new plant centre and new toilets close to the car park just a few minutes’ walk away from the house.

Inside the dining room – one of the 20 or so rooms that open to the public – house manager Chloe Woodrow gives me a brush to dust a gilded mirror. She’s proud of the sparkling chandelier that has just been cleaned at a cost of around £4,000.

“We’re very proud of the chandeliers at Ickworth and we’re currently changing all the light bulbs to LED bulbs to save energy.

“This one in the dining room dates from the 19th century. We had to have people here for a full week – they cleaned every single drop. We lost count, but there are more than 2,000 glass drops in the chandelier.”

Sue said the Hervey family used the dining room for entertaining.

“The dining room would have been the showcase of the house and we are trying to put more things into the room to show off how the room would have looked during a weekend house party.”

As house manager, Chloe works with a house steward and four conservation assistants. The house still employs a staff of 30 to look after it alongside a bank of 400 volunteers.

Chloe said her favourite room is the library – which would have been used as a sitting room – home to one of the house’s important paintings, a portrait of Prince Carlos of Spain by Velazquez.

“I’ve been here for four years and my job is to look after the long-term care of the house, conservation and cleaning. Every single room in the house is closed up in November and we have a very robust plan in place to go through each room and clean from top to bottom.

“There’s a real buzz as we count down to opening. I really love opening to the public and I get excited from about February onwards and look forward to showing people what we’ve been doing.”

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