What is it like working with the house team at Nostell Priory?

Guest blog post from Alice Matthews, a student placement in conservation who spent four weeks with the house team at the start of 2013. 

I really enjoyed working with the conservation team at Nostell.  Here is a bit of what I did.

From day one, I was thrown straight in cleaning some of Nostell’s numerous chairs and learnt lots of new cleaning skills. I can safely say that cleaning chairs will never be the same again!

Cleaning one of the chairs on the North Staircase

Throughout the weeks, I enjoyed exploring the parts of the house that you don’t normally get to see and was surprised at how much goes on behind the scenes when the house is closed.

Sorting out dust covers – they all looked the same!

It was great that Nostell was running conservation workshops while I was there which were great fun, slightly hectic, but also it was very rewarding to see how much work got done.

Gauze vaccuming a bedspread from the Peacock Bedroom

Insect hunting was an eye opening experience and I never realised how many different bugs lurked in houses.

The sausage making (of the tissue kind) was obviously one of the highlights of my placement. Always been a big sausage fan but this was new a variety for me!

Making acid-free tissue paper sausages to help store curtains correctly

The weather definitely made things challenging, not only getting there, but also working when it’s so cold. It did look very pretty though in the wintery weather and the view I got walking down the drive every morning made it worthwhile.

It was a pleasure to work with the team for four weeks and I just want to thank all the house team and volunteers for making me feel welcome. Thanks for the white gloves, I’m sure they will come in useful in the future!


Thank-you Alice – you were a real help and we enjoyed having you as part of the house team during your placement.

Good luck with your future career in conservation/heritage!


In which the team from East Riddlesden Hall lend a helping hand…

As you know, the National Trust is responsible for caring for hundreds of historic buildings and their contents, thousands of acres of countryside, and many miles of coastline.

It’s a very supportive network, and a great organisation to be part of. Properties, whilst independent, work with each other sharing skills, knowledge, and ideas to improve the way we care for and present our properties ‘for ever, for everyone’.

With this in mind, we invited the conservation team from East Riddlesden Hall to visit Nostell for the day. East Riddlesden Hall is a lovely 17th century manor house in West Yorkshire. You can find out more info about East Ridd on the National Trust website here: http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/east-riddlesden-hall/

The plan for the day was to spend the morning getting to grips with Nostell’s winter clean, followed by a tour of the house, derelict servants’ quarters and extensive cellars. I’d also show one of their conservation assistants, Jackie, how to create a blog of their own in order to share stories about what they get up to at East Riddlesden. Skills-sharing is how we like to define it!

Jackie gets to grips with our Small Dining Room chairs

The team from East Riddlesden helped us begin this year’s winter clean. We divided into two teams, one to begin in the Breakfast Room and one to make a start in the Small Dining Room.


Volunteer Lesley uses a piece of gauze to protect the chair cushion as she vacuums it. The gauze ensures that no loose pieces of thread or material disappear into the vacuum.

Nostell is a little behind in our winter clean programme because we have spent the past few weeks up scaffolding cleaning our historic plasterwork (more about this in a future blog post). So it was fantastic having willing helpers from East Ridd for a day – we managed to brush vacuum and cover all of the furniture in the two rooms. Many hands do indeed make light work!

Conservation work

Our second team, led by Angie, get to grips with the Breakfast Room

Dining table

We definitely worked them hard!

Conservation work

It’s a team effort to manhandle the dust cover which protects the Small Dining Room table – it’s very big!

Conservation work

Dust cover in place. Now the fun can begin!

After the strenuous morning, we rewarded the team with a tour of Nostell, including a behind-the-scenes look at our derelict servants’ attics and extensive cellars. We also took the time to show them how to create a WordPress blog of their own, as blogs are a great way to share aspects of the collections and their care which visitors don’t normally see (but find really interesting!)

Here is the link to the East Riddlesden Hall WordPress blog: http://eastriddlesdenhall.wordpress.com/

We had a great day – thank-you East Riddlesden!


Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 7

As well as considering the conservation of more immediately recognisable objects within National Trust properties such as books, textiles and furniture, the housekeeping study course also covered what could be conceived of as the fabric of many buildings – stonework. This included things like stone floors (often forms the flooring of entrance halls and ground floors) and stone busts (a large number of properties have stone statues and busts). This part of the course was really fun – it’s rare we get the chance to put substances on marble slabs and have a go at trying to remove them! The photos below show a taster of what we got up to.

Sacrificial marble slab where we were taught how to remove different substances, including ash, lipstick, mud, boot polish, olive oil, and red wine (which you do pour white wine over after sponging it up to remove it – it’s not a myth!)

Removing ash from the marble slab

We were also shown how to safely transport and carry a stone bust. Here’s what you do:

The stone bust has a bin which it will travel in, lined with a soft blanket to prevent damage. When the bust is in the bin it is much easier for two people to transport together than if one person was carrying it alone

Putting the bust in the bin, nestled in blankets

Two of the group carrying the bust through the room, having made sure that the route was clear and any obstructions removed

Bust safely transported to the other side of the room and lifted onto a table

A similar technique is used when transporting a stone slab across the room, in a safe manner to protect ourselves and the object. It is upright which makes it easier to handle, and is carefully slid off the table with a blanket for protection, before being placed on the ground upright, resting on some wooden blocks

Stone sculptures in the gardens have protective plastic covers put on them over the winter period to stop deterioration caused by wind, rain, and snow

And that was the end of our housekeeping study days course 2012! We hope that you’ve  liked following our progress during the course, and enjoyed getting a view of how the National Trust conservation staff all around the UK are trained to look after the properties and objects in our care. You should recognise us putting these skills into use at Nostell Priory in some of the upcoming blog posts!



Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 6

Metals. Hard, cold, dull, inanimate – yet shining, malleable (at a high temperature!), practical and decorative at the same time. Nostell has a good collection of kitchen copper which is in need of a clean, so we were looking forward to finding out about how to treat and care for metals during the housekeeping course. Metals should be very rarely dusted, and so other treatment is needed to care for them. Here are photographs of some of our activities:

Techniques for moving a large metal object correctly, in this instance a kind of large metal barbecue!

Polishing copper – the golden rule is ‘whatever you put on, you have to take off!’

Cleaning, polishing, and waxing metal pokers

Having a go at cleaning silver with a silver cloth

Hardworking National Trust employees cleaning iron and polishing copper at the metalwork session

Applying Autosol cream to cotton wool to polish some kitchen copper. It’s very important to wear nitrile gloves whilst handle metals, as grease and dirt from fingers would speed up deterioration of the metal

The metalwork part of the housekeeping course was particularly good as it was very much a ‘hands on’ session, and showed how humble pokers and copper pans are as important as ornate silver salvers and candelabras. Cleaning the metalwork at Nostell will be easy now that we have the skills to do it!



Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 5

Ticking, chiming, whirring, striking, winding – there is something about having the sound of clocks in a National Trust property which really brings it to life and creates atmosphere.

The clocks session on the conservation course we attended was brilliant – it succintly informed us how to care for, clean, wind, monitor, and move both small carriage clocks and grandiose longcase clocks. Clocks are difficult objects to work with because they are in continual use, which means that they are subjcet to continual wear and tear. It is important never to leave clock doors open or the winding keys in locks, as curious visitors may open doors and fiddle with the hands, possibly snapping the winding key too if it is very delicate.

Here’s a quick snippet of what we learnt:

This clock had a very extravagant sounding chime, and would be difficult to clean as it is highly ornate with lots of gilding.

Demonstrations of how to dismantle and move a longcase clock safely and correctly

The internal workings of a small carriage clock

Different sizes of coils and differnt types of winding keys for us to examine

At Nostell Priory we a very important clock. It’s a longcase clock which was made by John Harrison in 1717. John Harrison was born in 1693, the son of Nostell Priory’s estate carpenter. He was christened nearby at Wragby church. Harrison’s clock is extremely rare as all of the workings are made of wood. The movement, frame and wheels are oak, the pendulum is mahogany and the pinions are boxwood. Nostell’s clock is one of only three early longcase clocks made by Harrison which survive.

Nostell’s John Harrison longcase clock, dated 1717

In 2011 a senior specialist in horology from the Royal Observatory at Greenwich came to do some routine maintenance on Nostell’s John Harrison clock. (If you click on any of the photos below, they will direct you to our Flickr photo website, where there are many more photographs of the wonderful intricacies of the John Harrison clock as it was being taken apart and examined).

Initial inspection of the clock, without its headpiece – see the clock’s winder in the horologist’s hand.

Removing the dial reveals the calendar, signed and dated by Harrison in 1717. He designed the calendar to move forward at the second strike of twelve in a day rather than the standard 24 hour clockwork mechanism.

Despite many attempts over the centuries to use other materials catgut remains the most reliable cord to use for suspending the weights in longcase clocks.

Time is ticking on, and so I shall end this blog post and begin on the new one. We have many more posts for you to look forward to, including ones about the care of metalwork and stonework in historic houses. Hope to see you again soon!


Blickling Hall, a sneaky peek

Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 4

The location of the National Trust’s housekeeping study days course for its employees changes each year. Past venues have included Lyme Park, Treasurer’s House and Felbrigg – the property is in a different region each year to give a greater number of employees from different areas the opportunity to attend. It also means that we get a sneaky peek at other National Trust properties when they are closed for the winter! We thought we’d share with our blog followers a few glimpses of Blickling as we saw it.

Glorious view of the formal gardens in front of Blickling’s striking exterior

Blickling Hall is a Grade 1 listed Jacobean house in Norfolk designed by Robert Lyminge, one of only a handful of known architects of this period. It has connections to the Boleyn family, and is thought to have been Anne Boleyn’s (second wife of King Henry VIII) birthplace and childhood home. In the mid eighteenth century the Norwich architects Thomas and William Ivory added new apartments and remodelled the interiors of the house. Now, Blickling remains much as the Ivorys left it. It holds one of the National Trust’s most important collections, and has the largest library.

One half of Blickling Hall’s main split staircase in the entrance hall

The rooms at Blickling looked much like Nostell, with most items covered up with dust sheets over the winter

Staircase repairs at Blickling

Peeking at the marvellously preserved crewel work on some of the bedclothes at Blickling

Unveiling the cabinets hiding beneath some of the dust covers

Peeping behind a secret door in the wall to look at the servants’ stairs. The servants’ stairs meant that the servants wouldn’t be seen by the family as they did their daily chores unless absolutely necessary

Having a sneaky look inside some of Blickling’s cabinets, which are not always as grand on the inside as they are on the outside!

Revealing the detailed model pagodas

Garden walk at Blickling

Blickling Hall was a great venue for the course – large enough to hold about one hundred National Trust employees and with a big enough collection to enable sessions on many different types of object conservation (which we have shared with you over the last few blog posts). It was fantastic to see a very different property to Nostell, and learn how it is cared for. We must also mention the tea room staff at Blickling, who provided us with lovely food on the days we were there. We only wish that we had a longer time to explore the extensive grounds and lake, although we did manage a quick walk around the formal gardens!


Textiles and Mould

Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 3

A key element of National Trust properties are textiles. These come in many forms, from curtains to clothing to wallpaper to furniture to bedclothes to tapestries – the list is endless. So it’s important for us to know how to care for textiles, and equally as important to know how to identify different materials, know of their construction, and how to recognise different types of textile deterioration (for example general wear and tear, pests, light damage, water, inherent structural damage). The photos below show some of the activities that we took part in during the Housekeeping Study Days course.

Examining samples of cotton and linen, learning of their construction and uses

Identifying water damage on bed clothes

Identifying materials and problems to textiles – this photo show silk, pest damage, wool, and in the very bottom right hand corner we looked at an example of inherent deterioration of silk due to the unstoppable oxidisation of the dye

Demonstrating how to clean a chair with a gauze when vacuuming to protect the tapestry material – upholstered furniture is one of the most common items of textiles in a National Trust property

Regular readers of Nostell’s conservation blog will know that we have already had a recent outbreak of mould in our museum room that we had to deal with. The mould session on the housekeeping course was very succinct and informative as to how mould spreads and how it can be cleaned away.

An unusual way of showing how a mould spore spreads, with a knitted mycelium and pipe cleaner fruiting spores!

Equipment used when removing mould, including nitrile gloves, masks and brushes

If you’ve been following our blog you’ll have seen how the housekeeping course covered specific topics that are concerned with country houses, yet the sessions were general enough to be relevant to every National Trust property, and indeed houses in general. The next blog post will see us having a sneaky peek inside Blickling Hall (where the housekeeping study course was held) when the house was closed over the winter period.


Dust, Carpets and Books

Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 2

One of the main enemies that National Trust properties fight with on a daily basis is cleaned away, but always comes back with a vengeance. It can be found high and low, from cornices to flagstones, and that enemy is…dust!

Dust sample of just one day’s dirt from Blickling Hall, collected from vacuum bags

Dust is a subject which was mentioned in almost every session during the housekeeping course – namely, how to get rid of it. It can be very scratchy and gritty, and is composed of many things from soil, grit, skin, hair, which makes it not very welcome at National Trust properties. When left for a long time without cleaning, dust can begin a process called ‘cementation’, where the dust actually sticks to the objects it has landed on. This cemented dust can be very difficult to completely remove and can stain, discolour, and scratch the objects underneath. We examined the properties of dust, how to remove it using vacuum and different types of brush (for example pony hair, goat hair and hogs hair), and what sort of objects we should wipe on a daily, weekly, and yearly basis (flat surfaces from about knee to shoulder high acquire the most dust and so should be cleaned daily, but items in cabinets get the least, and so can be cleaned less often).

Another session was about carpets and rugs – after all, most properties have some form of carpet somewhere inside! Skills learnt include the beating of smal carpets:

Modern day carpet beaters, much like a table tennis paddle, just a bit floppier (yet still rigid to beat away the dirt)

More intricate carpet skills were also taught, including how to roll a carpet or large rug for transport or storage:

How to roll a carpet: equipment includes a large piece of pipe to keep shape, and acid free tissue paper to separate each layer

When the carpet is large it can require three or more people to roll it so that no creases are made and it stays in line

It’s very important to roll a carpet with the direction of the pile, so as not to pull or put stress on the weave. Therefore, at the start of the rolling process our very first task is to identify and mark the direction of the pile so we know whether it is symettrical or asymmetrical, and in what direction the weave goes.

Carpet with a symmetrical pile

A further session was on book and paper conservation. We’ve written a few blog posts about how to clean and repair books on Nostell’s conservation blog so hopefully readers should be aware of some of the work that we do! On the course, we were taught correct techniques of removing books from shelves (no grabbing at the top of the spine, please!) and how to display books, check for pests, handle books, tie them together in case the covers were coming loose, and examine the hangings and fastenings of paper items in frames for weak points. It was especially useful for Nostell, as we have an extremely large book collection in the library.

Demonstrating the proper technique for removing old books from library shelves

The Long Gallery at Blickling, which holds the majority of their book collection

And so ended another day jam-packed full of conservation demonstrations and the sharing of knowledge – a little of which I hope that we’ve shared with you today. Happy reading!


Bugs, Pots and Wood


Housekeeping Training Blog Post No. 1 One of the questions conservation assistants are frequently asked is ‘how did you learn to care for the objects in your collection?’ A lot of our knowledge and skills is acquired by on-the-job training and conversations … Continue reading

How do the library books get cleaned?

Answer: with much patience, hard work and dedication. A love of books is also a must!

Scaffolding up ready to get books from the top shelves

Our volunteer book cleaning team were in today, to work their way through the library books. It’s an ongoing programme which has been going on for the last ten years! The team taught me the processes involved with caring for the books so that the collection will last for many more centuries and future visitors.

Once a book is selected and brought to the work area in the Billiard Room, a low suction vacuum cleaner is used to suck away excess surface dust on the book covers. There is a piece of gauze netting which is placed over the head of the vaccuum to stop large bits of loose material (which can be repaired) from disappearing into the machine. Then a shaving brush is used to brush dust off the top edge, fore edge, and tail edge of the books.

Terry uses the shaving brush – but not for him!

The cover is then lightly brushed with a pony hair brush, in the direction away from the spine and off the edge. Soft dusters can be used on covers to remove dirt very gently – dusters can also buff gilded patterns/pictures on covers, but not pressing so hard that the gilding is rubbed away. The book can then be opened, resting it on a foam book rests so as to not strain the binding and spine of the book. The inside pages are then examined, and loose bits of dust, dirt etc are brushed out using the pony brush. Each book is assessed individually – books that are in good condition can have most of their pages brushed, yet books that are in poor condition are usually left until they have been repaired by a professional conservator.

Carefully brushing the pages

Believe it or not but Terry is not wearing a butcher’s apron in the picture above – the stripey aprons are specially made from soft cotton, so that if a book accidentally touches against you it touches something soft and non-abrasive, and isn’t damaged (which it might be if rough material comes into contact with the book).

Smoke rubbers are used to remove any finger marks and general dirt from the pages

Using the smoke rubber

If any damage is found in the books whilst cleaning (e.g. the spine is becoming detached, cover slightly peeling away etc) this is recorded and the information passed to the in-house book repair team (we’ll meet them in the blog another time!) If the books are very badly damaged then they will go away to a professional book conservator’s workshop to be repaired and returned to Nostell at a later date. The book cleaning team meticulously record what work has been done to each book, what needs to be done, any significant features in the books, etc – they are extremely organised. And they have to be, as there are approximately 7000 books in Nostell’s library and billiard room combined!

After a book has been cleaned, if necessary (to protect the book from coming apart at the binding) it is tied with two thin lengths of specially dyed material (at Nostell we have a dark brown and a dark khaki green) which blend in with the library colour scheme, and so does not destroy the ‘look’ of the library for visitors to the house.

Jill carefully ties a book together

Once the team have finished working with a book, it is put back on the shelf, and the process is repeated 7000 times for each book in the library. When they have finished cleaning all of the books there is only one thing for it – to start all over again from the beginning!