You can’t go to a heritage site without being aware of volunteers these days. They are everywhere. Hudson’s publisher, Sarah Greenwood has been a volunteer and bets you have too. So she decided to find out just what they were up to.
When Tamara McNeil lost her job, she wanted to do something useful while she looked around for her next job. So she volunteered to help English Heritage compile a report about volunteering,. What she didn’t realise was just how much that report would reveal about how crucial volunteering has become to our communities and our heritage. And it’s not just English Heritage; volunteers have been working with the National Trusts, with CADW and Historic Scotland and with private owners all over the country for nearly as long as places have been open for us to visit.
Helen Timbrell is Head of Volunteering at the National Trust in England. She has 67,000 volunteers working at properties around the country, contributing at least 4 million hours to the upkeep and visitor experience at sites every single year. She admits that as the work of the Trust expands they “just couldn’t do it without them. People have been volunteering for the Trust for over 40 years and visitors love how the knowledge and passion of volunteers enhances their visit.”
£10 million worth of time to UK projects
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the volunteering programme at the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies (NADFAS). Chloë Bevan, Volunteer Manager, calculated in 2011 that members of NADFAS contribute about £10 million worth of time to projects in historic houses and churches in the UK. NADFAS Heritage Volunteers have three core programmes: historic houses; church recording and Young Arts. NADFAS volunteers work in houses on all sorts of projects: making replica costumes at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, wallhangings at Cardiff Castle and crewelwork curtains at Hellens, Much Marcle; cataloguing textiles at Cadhay in Somerset, costume at Southside House in Wimbledon, books at Lambeth Palace and responses to exhibitions at Eastbourne’s Towner Art Gallery.
The NADFAS Church Recorders group has become rightly famous for its pioneering techniques for recording every minute detail of the interiors and objects in parish churches, often providing vital evidence for insurers or making discoveries. Last year a collection of rare 17th century books was found in a locked box in All Saints’ Church, Swallowfield. They also devise Church Trails. Watch out for the Ride and Stride festival in London dioceses developed with the Historic Churches Trust this year. The Young Arts programme helps youngsters get involved with arts and heritage through trips, competitions and commissions.
Wide variety of volunteering roles
Ask what volunteers actually do and you are mown down with a list of tasks. Most of us think of the patient guide in the corner of the room, indeed the National Trust has 18,000 regular volunteer room stewards, but increasingly volunteers are slotting into a wider variety of roles. They work outside as rangers, gardeners and buggy drivers, inside in education roles, in shops and cafés and as researchers, cyber-stewards, social media managers and administrators. At Croome Court in Worcestershire, the volunteer programme has been transformed by the development (by a volunteer) of a skills register which surveyed all 250 volunteers at Croome to find out just exactly what they can do.
The result was extraordinary and volunteers are now involved in every aspect of Croome’s life, freeing up staff to do more. Croome now even has volunteer day leaders who manage other volunteers, organising rotas and keeping in touch day-to-day. Last year, a volunteer maintenance team redecorated the visitor centre as well as being on hand to fix tap washers and do simple repairs.
At English Heritage’s Brodsworth Hall in Yorkshire, volunteers help with conservation cleaning when the house is ‘put to bed’ in the winter and this year have done much of the research for a new exhibition of the World Wars, tracing and interviewing local people with childhood memories of the house. Sometimes having a volunteer with real knowledge of the property has surprising dividends. In 2012 the Kiplin Hall Trust in Yorkshire could not afford to purchase an early chronometer which had once belonged to the house when archive volunteer, Nick Ellis, produced correspondence which showed that the chronometer had been stolen from Kiplin in 1976. Thanks to him, this important object is now back home.
Internships and work experience appeal to students and young adults
The 2012 English Heritage volunteer survey found that three quarters of its volunteers were over 55, still the age group with the most time to offer, but this may be changing. Volunteer holidays which focus on a specific conservation task, perhaps building a dry stone wall or conservation cleaning fit busy lifestyles so tend to attract younger volunteers. Internships and work experience appeal to students and young adults. In 2011 Rosie Gibbs volunteered to help English Heritage retail buyer Stella Barritt revitalise their jewellery range, designing a necklace for sale at Stonehenge in the process, “a very big privilege!” There is an ongoing oral history project at the National Trust’s Tyntesfield in Somerset as well but this time it is run by Young Tynt, a group of 13 to 25 year olds whose involvement with this and other projects at Tyntesfield has transformed its appeal to younger visitors.
Among other ideas, they’ve added a discovery box full of tactile objects in each room and run a music festival. Building skills is very much a part of volunteering. Liz Jones, Volunteer Manager at Tyntesfield recruited a journalist and an aspiring journalist to launch a bi-weekly newspaper, “Tyntesfield Times”. “One is using existing skills but the other is having hands-on experience of a job they want to do.” Volunteering has to have mutual benefit. Using existing skills and acquiring new ones is satisfying. Ann Hay worked on the crewelwork hangings for the Music Room at Hellens, Adam Munthe’s mediaeval house in Herefordshire last year. “I did not expect to be involved with such a huge project, learning a new skill in a beautiful old barn, surrounded by fruit trees, fields, inquisitive geese wandering around and the company of an enthusiastic group of accomplished needlewomen.”
Most volunteers are local and Kate Davies, head of volunteering for English Heritage has found that they have usually lived in the area for over 10 years,so contributing to the community is a major incentive. Amy Forster, Visitor Services Manager at Croome Court describes her volunteers as “an important part of the community jigsaw.”
Creating brilliant working relationships with volunteers takes time
There are problems too, “Creating brilliant working relationships with volunteers takes time” explains Helen Timbrell. “But people who don’t fit, don’t stay”. She welcomes the fact that volunteers tend to be opinionated. “Without them telling us what they think, we wouldn’t improve.” Kate Davies at English Heritage agrees, “I believe it is crucial that we listen to each volunteer and involve them in how we shape our volunteer programme.” Volunteers all receive training, at least one and sometimes two days of induction, buddying with an experienced volunteer and helping to understand the ethos and values of the organisation or family they work with.
Often volunteer commitment lasts a long time. At St Mary’s Bramber in Sussex, owner Peter Thorogood has built up a tight knit group of about 50 volunteers who help with tours, teas, ticketing and events. “We are very fortunate. All our people become friends and they in turn make friends. We look after them and continue to keep in touch when they have resigned or retired. We give them a party once a year, we visit them if they are in hospital and sometimes we even go to their funerals.” Some of the NADFAS volunteers working in the Library at Lambeth Palace are now in their 90s. Tyntesfield is celebrating 10 years since it opened to the public with long service awards for up to 25 volunteers who have been involved since the beginning.
Without volunteers we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our historic places the way we do
It is clear that without volunteers we just wouldn’t be able to enjoy our historic places the way we do. If you volunteer, you will find yourself with a chance to use existing skills or acquire new ones alongside people of all ages. You commit as much time as you have; the property in turn will treat you well, with social events, camaraderie and new experiences. And of course you have the satisfaction of helping preserve the past, being part of a community and involving visitors in Britain’s heritage in the most direct way possible. The last word goes to Helen Timbrell, “People don’t do it for the perks; they do it because it is fun!”
Special offer for NADFAS members
NADFAS members find Hudson’s guide very useful when planning trips and holiday for either for themselves or societies.
The 2013 Guide also has a very interesting article on volunteering and which features NADFAS along side other major heritage partners.
Hudson’s 2013 features more than 800 historic houses and gardens in the UK supported by special indexes and maps as well as over 100 pages of illustrated editorial.
The Full retail price for this guide is normally £15.99 but NADFAS may purchase this guide at the special price of £9.99 from the end of January from Hudson’s website www.hudsonsheritage.co.uk/NADFAS.