Our work at Ham House and Garden
Ham House and Garden has stood the test of time for the last 400 years. Find out what happens behind the scenes to keep the historic house, collection and garden in top condition for future generations to enjoy. From using scaffolding for dusting at heights to gathering hay with Shire horses, our work at Ham House and Garden is really varied.
Our work in the house
Throughout the year every intricate detail of Ham House needs to be inspected, cleaned and conserved. The conservation team have a huge amount of knowledge about the collection and the specialist skills needed to care for it.
One day might involve inspecting the moulded ceilings, with their fine cornicing and gilding. The next day might be spent analysing the condition of intricate objects or polishing the marquetry floors walked on by centuries of past inhabitants and visitors.
When working on an object or piece of furniture, the conservation team use specialist tools and techniques to carry out their work. Some of our tools are adapted to our specialist needs, such as low suction hoovers which remove dirt without damaging objects.
If you spot us using some of this equipment or examining an object, feel free to ask us what we’re doing. It’s a privilege to get so close to these extraordinary objects but it’s even more of a joy to share the hidden details with visitors.
The winter clean
The winter clean allows us to carry out delicate and more complex conservation tasks, such as putting up scaffolding to access the hard-to-reach places. It’s also a great opportunity to look at objects and spaces from a different perspective and notice signs of wear that need our attention.
When we start the deep clean in the winter, we work in a logical way from the top to bottom of a room. It is amazing to see how much dust can accumulate after one year.
We have a large collection of condition reports for each object in the house. Historic objects have their own personalities and quirks, and condition reports allow us to the track small but significant changes that tell us how an object is doing over the course of its centuries-old lifespan.
Our work in the house includes, where possible, preventing damage from happening in the first place – whether it's due to light, humidity or pests. Take a walk around the house and you might notice the subtle ways we monitor these things.
Light is one of the main causes of damage to objects – leading to faded colours in fabrics and tapestries, in particular. The effects of light damage on paintings and furniture were well understood by people in the 17th century and we carry on the tradition of covering the collection during the winter to let it ‘sleep’.
Our work in the garden
Ham’s historic borders, wilderness and productive kitchen garden re-create and reflect the garden of its 17th century residents. The garden team use a Conservation Management Plan to guide the garden’s development, making sure to balance its important history with the needs of visitors in the context of a changing climate.
Gardening for nature at Ham House
The team at Ham have gardened using organic principles for over a decade; here are some of the ways we put nature at the centre of what we do:
- Flowering plants
- We grow as many different flowering plants as we can so there’s always something in bloom, giving food to wildlife all year round. We choose plants that produce lots of flowers for a long time so that every space works as hard as it can.
- Homemade compost
- We make all our own compost for the garden. Recycling all our green waste helps create healthy soil and healthier plants.
- Tree planting
- We are planting more trees because we know this is the single most impactful thing we can do for wildlife. If a tree has to be taken down, we will leave the stump if we can, as this provides homes for insects, and food and shelter for birds.
- Habitat creation
- We are reducing our mowing and keeping some areas of long grass as habitat and food for insects. We’re also creating ‘everlasting’ log piles in both shady and sunny areas – when they break down, we add to them creating the perfect places for fungi, moss and lichens to grow and a valuable home for insects and rare animals, such as frogs and toads.
- Peat free
- All plants grown at Ham House are peat free. Peat is an incredible material that, if protected, provides a natural habitat to a wealth of wildlife, preserves ancient relics beneath the ground and helps keep today’s air clean.
Battling to keep the box trees healthy
Ham House’s Cherry Garden is a spectacular box parterre, filled with lavender and hundreds of metres of clipped topiary. Using a design inspired by the 17th century, we care for 80 large box cones and 250m of dwarf box hedging. When an eagle-eyed visitor spotted an unusual caterpillar on one of the box hedges, the garden team was concerned.
‘We identified the specimen as a box tree caterpillar, the greenish yellow larvae of a moth that feeds on box (Buxus) plants. A year before, I had seen the same insect cause similar devastation in gardens in northern Italy, so I knew what was coming.’
– Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener
Box tree moths
Native to Asia, the box tree moth (Cydalima perspectalis) was first reported in the UK in 2008. The caterpillars can turn a plant completely leafless, before damaging the wood and causing it to die. The plants in the Cherry Garden were quickly beginning to show patches of dieback.
After talking to a range of experts, the garden team starting using pheromone traps to catch male moths, monitor their numbers and lifecycle and help reduce the numbers reproducing. They also trialled a biological spray using a naturally occurring soil bacteria to control the population.
Help was also discovered from a surprising source – jackdaws. The small black crows were spotted feasting on box moth caterpillars, reducing fears that the insects weren’t attractive to native predators.
‘We had wondered if the caterpillars would be unpleasant or even poisonous to native birds – but the jackdaws have clearly developed a taste for them… It’s a really encouraging sign that there may be a homegrown solution yet.’
– Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener
A new approach to box pruning
After noticing that the jackdaws were most effective on hedges that had been partially stripped of leaves, making the caterpillars easier to spot, we’ve been exploring pruning in a more open style that allows increased air flow and gives the birds easier access to the caterpillars.
Sharing the benefits of hay
Working together with English Heritage on its Marble Hill Revived project, we’ve been putting freshly cut hay from the meadow at Ham House to good use.
Our wildlife and nature-rich meadows are now very rare and by sharing the hay – full of flowering plants and delicate grasses – with Marble Hill, it’s hoped that a similarly abundant grassland will flourish in their park.
The meadow at Ham House was mowed by London’s last herd of working Shire horses. Cutting the meadow in this traditional way helps maintain the ideal conditions for native wildflowers to flourish. The mowed grass was then raked and collected at Ham House before being sent across the Thames, where it was spread out in the south-west corner of Marble Hill park.
Marble Hill Revived is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Lottery Community Fund.
With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.
Thinking about volunteering at this special place? Here’s what you need to know.
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Explore the well-preserved interiors of one of the grandest Stuart houses in England, created to impress in the 17th-century by the Duchess of Lauderdale and her husband the Duke.
Games, activities, adventures – find lots of fun things to do for all the family this winter at Ham House and Garden.
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Read about our strategy 'For everyone, for ever' here at the National Trust, which will take the organisation through to 2025.