Volunteer Room Guide, Claydon, Buckinghamshire
A volunteer at Claydon in Buckinghamshire, Frank Preece knew very little about this grand country house when he began here. He now volunteers each week as a Room Guide, passing on his in-depth knowledge of the sumptuous 18th century interiors to visitors, whilst also doing a little research of his own.
I’ve been a Volunteer Room Guide at Claydon for 11 years now. I was widowed but remarried in 2004. We wanted to start fresh somewhere new and we ended up in Winslow, around five miles from Claydon. My wife was still working but I’d retired and decided that I needed to find myself something to do. I’d been a member of the National Trust since goodness knows when and I thought that would be a good place to start.
My wife has now also retired and she’s become involved as part of the volunteer flower group who arrange the fresh flower displays in the house. It’s been fun for us to travel and occasionally work together.
Going the extra mile
There are several parts to my role. We want to be good representatives of the National Trust to our visitors. We’re the face of the organisation for many of them and the warm welcome we provide is important. We also provide some safety and security. We need to make sure that the house, the objects and our visitors are all safe and happy in their environment.
Perhaps most important, and the trickiest to get right, is the information that we provide. Everyone has different needs, some will want to know every nut, screw and bolt, and others just want an overview. We need to engage with people, understand quite quickly what their interests are and cater for that. You don’t want to baffle someone who’s there for a short time with tons of information. Equally, you don’t want to leave a history buff who’s there to learn all they can feeling short-changed. We’re always willing to go the extra mile if required.
A lifetime of experience
It’s a difficult skill to teach but I enjoy that challenge. In my working life I was a high street banker, serving customers over the counter. You had to get to know their foibles and those interpersonal skills that I developed serve me well now. I think the key is being prepared to listen.
Before my banking career I’d had experience in the newspaper industry. I love writing so I now edit and produce a monthly newsletter for our volunteers. I try to keep them up to date with what’s happening at the property, people’s experiences and new faces in the team. I’m also involved in helping to research and write new information folders for the rooms and I travel to give talks about Claydon to societies and groups in our local area.
A special place
This house has a unique place in British history. My favourite story is about the 2nd Earl Verney who’s responsible for building the most grandiose parts of the house.
An Irish peer who sat in the Commons, he inherited a huge fortune, and married into another, but spent his life living beyond his means. Bankrupted in the 1780s, he couldn’t be prosecuted because he was a sitting MP. When he eventually lost his seat, he fled to France to avoid his creditors. At the time of his death in 1791 he was £115,000 in debt, in the region of £7 million today. It’s a classic tale of great wealth and a rise to fame, followed by a crashing fall from grace.
Claydon’s also connected to Florence Nightingale. Her sister married Sir Harry Verney and she was a regular guest here. It’s even alleged that she used to bring her cats with her. Florence is a figure who’s attained almost mythical status as ‘the Lady with the lamp’ and so people love to hear about her.
Time well spent
At the end of a day sometimes I’m tired, sometimes exhilarated, but I just really enjoy it. I have to tell my wife to shut me up if I’m talking too much - I’ll catch myself still telling the stories that I’ve been talking about during the day. Those local stories from that period of English history have become something I’m really enthusiastic about.
It’s the relationship with the visitors that’s really my greatest satisfaction. It gives me an opportunity to meet people from many different backgrounds and walks of life, find out about their passions and interests, and maybe help them to develop that. It’s something I’ll continue doing for as long as I’m able to.