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Behind the scenes at Scotney Castle

A close-up of a hand gently brushing a dusty surface with a specialist brush, at Tyntesfield in Bristol
Careful conservation cleaning with a specialist brush | © National Trust Images/Peter Hall

Behind the scenes at Scotney Castle the staff and volunteer team is hard at work caring for every aspect of the estate, from making decisions about how best to protect collection items to maintaining the Picturesque garden. Find out about some of the work that goes into looking after this special place.

Our work in the house

‘Putting the house to bed’ refers to the process where surfaces are dusted, furniture and artefacts are covered with dustsheets and acid-free tissue paper, and the light is reduced, to allow a property to rest.

This is what happens at Scotney’s mansion house when we close over the winter and, although we have no visitors to welcome, from a conservation point of view this can be our busiest time in the house. Rugs are rolled so the pile can relax, floors are waxed to give protection against wet boots, and artefacts are sent away for specialist conservation.

Aiming for balance

When the house is closed, the items in the collection are in their best environment but, of course, when we are closed, visitors are not able to enjoy them. For our conservation team this highlights the constant balancing act between being open for visitors and caring for a historic building and its collection.

How the house looks when you visit is important to us and, although we don't want you to be faced with dusty surfaces and objects, we have to make sure we get the correct balance between cleaning and conservation.

Damaging dust

Dead skin cells are a major source of dust, along with outdoor contaminants like soot, pollen, carpet fluff, clothing fibres and pet hair. At first sight, dust may just appear unsightly yet harmless but, if left unchecked, it can become a major cause of deterioration in the collection, responsible for encouraging pests and causing mould to grow.

Some objects don’t get cleaned every day as they are more fragile than others and repeated dusting can cause damage. You may also see objects that look like they need cleaning, but we’ve decided to dust these less frequently in order protect the object and to reduce the risk of accidental damage. When we close the property, dust levels are lower. This means surfaces don’t have to be cleaned as frequently and the risk of damage reduces.

Controlling light levels

Light is another significant agent of deterioration for our collection; it bleaches fabrics, making them brittle and prone to splitting, and bleaches and dries out wooden furniture. Its effects are cumulative and cannot be reversed.

The collection at Scotney has been assessed for how much light (lux) it can be exposed to each year. As a result, we measure the amount of light on a daily basis and close the shutters to reduce the amount of light entering.

If it is very bright, we measure three times a day and move blinds accordingly. If at times it seems rather dark inside the house, it is purely because we are caring for the collection so it will continue to give pleasure to generations of visitors yet to come.

The Red Bedroom at Scotney Castle in the process of being 'put to bed' to help conserve the collection.
The Red Bedroom in the process of being 'put to bed' to help conserve the collection. | © Amanda Glubb

Our work in the garden at Scotney Castle

The focus of the garden team at Scotney post-lockdown is to re-invigorate all the beds and borders across all areas of the garden and bring them back to peak condition for visitors to enjoy.

Planning ahead

It may sound odd, but the start of our gardening year is at the end of summer when there is less day-to-day garden maintenance work and our development work starts to increase. Winter one of our busiest times of year when we start to focus on the various development projects we have planned. We also use winter to prepare the garden for the next year ahead, and most of our tree planting happens at this time of year, too.

A close-up of hands pulling beetroot from the ground at Scotney Castle in Kent
Harvesting beetroot at Scotney Castle | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Working sustainably and encouraging biodiversity

The garden team use modern horticultural practices that are more climate resilient. We mulch all bare soil to retain moisture, prevent weed growth and add nutrients to the soil.

Most of our planting is done in autumn. This saves a huge amount of water as we have the whole winter season of rain to allow roots to establish themselves. We also follow the Beth Chatto approach of ‘right plant, right place’ which means all new plants should thrive.

All our plants in pots are drought-tolerant and we favour perennials over annuals. Any watering is only done in the mornings and evenings, and we try to re-use our garden waste – hay, mulch and compost – as much as possible.

With such a large site to look after we also look for quick wins such as:

  • renovative pruning of overgrown shrubs
  • chipping cuttings for use as mulch
  • being more tolerant of long-grass areas as mowing less is great for biodiversity
  • having a no-dig approach which helps with weed control.

SSSI and green-winged orchids

Scotney is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) which means we need consent for all our gardening activities, and everything we do has to help improve the plant and wildlife diversity of the site.

There are several conservation meadows across the garden which are renowned for their orchid species, notably the rare green-winged orchids as well as common spotted orchids.

When the last owner of Scotney, Betty Hussey, found green-winged orchids growing on the formal lawns behind the mansion house she was quick to stop all mowing and encourage other wildflowers to establish themselves.

While we understand longer grass against the formal setting of the hosue may look a little untidy, we continue to treat these terraced lawns as meadows and in May the green-winged orchid meadows are spectacular.

These meadows are cut once in late summer. The hay is left to dry for a period of two weeks and then used as mulch under trees on the estate. As a result of this practice, these rare orchids are starting to sprout in new areas of the garden.

A gardener with a wheelbarrow working in the walled garden at Scotney Castle in Kent
A gardener at work in the walled garden at Scotney Castle | © National Trust Images/John Miller

The benefits of companion planting

At Scotney Castle we avoid using herbicides and prefer to hoe on a hot day to kill off weeds but, in the Walled Garden, we also like to follow the principles of companion planting to keep the soil healthy and help in the battle against pests and diseases.

The allium family (onions, garlic, leek, shallots and chives) are particularly acidic and release strong chemicals into the air as well as in the ground. This can often deter some plants from thriving next to them. Growing a broad range of crops and herbs close together can be a way of deterring some pests, such as carrot root fly.

Companion planting can also encourage a range of pollinating insects. Borage, nasturtiums, thyme, phacelia, mint and lavender are all magnets for bees, butterflies and other insects which help in the garden.

Caring for the moat

The moat, with its beautiful reflections of old castle, is a favourite place to take photographs at Scotney, but keeping the moat picture-perfect requires maintenance from the garden team too.

As well as ensuring the inlet and outlet points are kept clear and well-repaired, there are the attractive but invasive bulrushes to keep in check and we also have to manage erosion of the banks.

You may sometimes see the gardeners in a boat on the moat, sprinkling a white powder across the surface of the water. This is a form of plankton which eats the algae that sits at the bottom of the moat; catching it early means we can stop the algae from spreading and forming an unsightly and suffocating blanket over the water.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

View of house at Scotney Castle, Kent


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