Spick and span for the new season
After six months of hibernation, the dust covers are off at Audley End House, just outside Saffron Walden in Essex. Unlike National Trust properties, which are open all year round, seven days a week, such English Heritage sites are shut to the paying public during the off-season. But, despite the seemingly deserted corridors between October and Easter, this is the busiest time of year for the organisation’s 500 cleaning and maintenance staff.
Rather than a Kim and Aggie-style blitz, the English Heritage spring clean to get each of the 400 properties ready for opening at the beginning of the Easter holidays, is a like a military operation. No oil painting is left unturned. Every fixture, fitting and stick of furniture, from the 17th-century ceiling panels in the saloon to the antique rocking horses in the nursery wing, are covered in dust blankets during the winter.
This is part of what it is called “putting the house to bed”, an old practice to protect the precious contents of the house. A procedure that gets increasingly important as each item gets older and such properties grow in popularity and are exposed to sunlight and people on a far more regular basis.
“Traditionally historical houses were not used all year round,” says Mia Jackson, collections curator at Audley End. “They were somebody’s country house, who might spend more time in London. When they went away, they would send someone up to cover the furniture.”
In the early days of Audley End, a visitor’s status could be judged by how much of the furniture was uncovered. “They would only uncover everything for the King’s visit,” Jackson says. “You could come for coffee and find out what they actually thought of you,
Spring cleaning English Heritage’s 400 homes is a herculean task. Eleanor Doughty gets her hands dirty
Open for business: staff have been busy preparing Audley End House for its seasonal reopening. It is open noon-5pm daily until September 30. Adults £16.60, children (5-15) £10. Family £43.20 english-heritage. org.uk