This week we’ll be opening seven houses in England and Northern Ireland to visitors for the first time since lockdown. They're part of our phased reopening, to ensure we can safely welcome you back to the houses we care for. John Orna-Ornstein, our Director of Culture and Engagement, explains what we’ve been doing to prepare to reopen the doors again.
It's just over 16 weeks since we closed all our houses back in March to help restrict the spread of coronavirus. We know our supporters are keen to get back inside and see their favourite properties and collections once more. The houses we care for are remarkable places, full of hidden corners and many packed with treasures – but that creates challenges for us to reopen safely.
Life in lockdown
When we first went into lockdown our teams had to quickly work to close the houses and make sure they were safe and secure for however long lockdown would be in place. That meant closing blinds and curtains to protect them from light damage and using dust covers wherever possible. While they’ve been closed to visitors, a small team has been working behind the scenes to keep an eye on them with regular checks. We’ve already repelled a moth infestation at Blickling in Norfolk and averted a threat from mould to books in the library at Lanhydrock in Cornwall.
Opening the doors again
Now we’re beginning to reopen a few houses. Seven houses in England and Northern Ireland will reopen from Monday 13 July. The house experience will necessarily be rather different for the moment. Visitor numbers will be limited so not all those who book a visit to the property will be able to view the house. We know people will be disappointed if that's the case but we ask for your support and patience while we test this phased reopening.
We’re starting with a small number to make sure we can do it right. Houses present us with a unique set of challenges to overcome. They’re indoor spaces and sometimes very confined which makes social distancing difficult in certain rooms and corridors in the house. They're full of precious historic objects which are sensitive to cleaning. Even some of the floors and doors are so old that they require very careful cleaning. So reopening with these new changes needs to be done with great care.
Most of the houses we care for were built as family homes and each is different, with its own quirks and challenges. To ensure safety, before each house can open, we need to review all elements of our visitor route to identify which rooms can be safely opened and the best route for visitors to take around the house. In places where potential pinch points might be, such as where you might want longer to view particularly important collection items, we need a plan to ensure social distancing can be maintained. New cleaning regimes need to be put in place and adjustments made to ensure the houses are always well ventilated while also keeping their collections protected.
When you visit you'll find one-way systems in place and in many cases only part of the house will be open. ‘Hands on’ elements have been removed and you may see fewer members of staff and volunteers in some places. And, of course, you’ll see hand sanitizers, clear signage and anything else needed to support safe visiting.
Opening more houses is going to take time. We expect to build on this month’s pilot, but we'll do so carefully and safely. We need to be ready to make adjustments if government guidance changes and we may find better ways of doing things as our trial reopening progresses. We'll gradually be able to open more houses over the next few weeks as we complete our safety reviews and reopening plans for them.
Welcoming you back to parks and gardens
In recent weeks we’ve already been able to reopen many of the gardens and parks that we care for. Thanks to the help of our members and supporters, we safely and gradually reopened more than 125 gardens and parklands in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. We’re so pleased to have been able to welcome back over a million visitors and we've had a great response from members, delighted to be back.
Throughout the process we’ve been following government guidance and putting the safety of our visitors, staff and volunteers first. The use of a booking system is vital to manage safe visitor numbers. We’ve an intensive cleaning regime and one-way systems are applied where necessary. We’re also managing to introduce outdoor kiosks for tea and coffee. The two places I’ve been lucky enough to visit so far, Wimpole Hall and Anglesey Abbey, show how well this is working. So far, so good.
But, however large the estate and however interesting the landscape, for many the house is a centrepiece. It’s the place that most reflects the personality, taste and world view of one or many owners. Think of the carefully prescribed approach William John Bankes took to the decoration of Kingston Lacy, while living in exile on the Continent. Or the personality that exudes from Shaw’s Corner in Hertfordshire. I, along with other visitors, enjoyed safely exploring the reopened gardens at Anglesey Abbey recently, but the house remained closed. As it so clearly reflects the tastes of the 1st Lord Fairhaven I felt I was missing something of the character and personality of the property.
Supporting the nation’s love for cultural heritage
The lockdown has taught us how important it is for people to engage with our cultural heritage and connect with cultural activities. The recent weeks have seen a flowering of creativity. Hand-painted signs have appeared in many windows. Poetry has been shared online. Musical instruments have been dusted down and played. And home baking is at an all-time high.
The greatest expression of creativity across the National Trust is the houses we care for. They’re full of paintings, photographs, embroidery, hand-annotated books and more, produced both by the master craftsman and the humble amateur. They’re places that inspire people today to be creative, so we’re determined to get the houses we care for open for visitors to enjoy once again.
We look forward to welcoming you back.