Sarah Merriman, Visitor Experience Manager at Wimpole Estate, has done all sorts of things in the 8 years she’s worked for the National Trust.
Here she shares 10 weird and wonderful things she’s learnt how to do whilst working for Europe’s largest conservation charity – an insight to the less obvious things a career in heritage might include!
The beautiful Wimpole, where Sarah Merriman works. Lucky lady!
After my history degree, I never thought I’d learn:
10. The best way to Hoover a wall.
But the National Trust is a conservation charity, after all, and conservation of historic houses and collections can quite often be translated to ‘cleaning’ – on a day to day basis at least. I’ve only been entrusted with less delicate work – my experience is with people, not precious objects, after all – but there have been times when I’ve vacuumed with the best of them. Pretending to be a Ghostbuster with back-pack Hoovers isn’t at all what we spend our time doing. Honest.
9. How to mix powdered milk for pet calves.
The National Trust isn’t just about historic houses, castles and gorgeous gardens. We look after thousands of acres of countryside, parklands, woodlands, lakes and miles and miles of coastline, and the wildlife that lives there. We also have a farm at Wimpole (Wimpole’s Website), and I’ve mucked out the donkeys, Daisy and Clementine, fed the porkers and mixed milk for our pet calves. They have the longest lashes I’ve ever seen. Why do we look after these animals? Well, they’re rare breeds, so were conserving and protecting the bloodlines for the future.
Wimpole, and the National Trust as a whole, looks after many animals, including rare breeds.
8. How not to look psycho on TV at a minute’s notice.
My TV credits are limited but when local BBC news wants to do a feature on an event you’re running you don’t turn down the free publicity! Often it’s at a moment’s notice so you have to think quickly on your feet and hope you remembered to brush your hair that morning. When the camera’s rolling it can be surprisingly hard to string a coherent sentence together. There’s a series for ITV being filmed at Wimpole through this year but I’m keeping a low profile. Being called as an ‘expert’ on an episode of Alex Polizzi’s BBC series ‘The Fixer’ caused my Facebook page to explode!
7. What it’s like to collaborate on an album with Jarvis Cocker.
The National Trust and the Pulp frontman may not be an obvious combination, but Jarvis curated an album of sounds from 13 of our places (Click Here). One of the sounds was a Victorian symphonium from Lanhydrock’s schoolroom – a woman-height music box with punched-metal discs it reads to play a tune, and I was the one who wound it up to be recorded. He could also have chosen footsteps on the crunchy gravel, the chiming of a grandfather clock or the squeaking of the mechanical spit in the vast kitchens. Thinking of sounds to record was surprisingly hard!
National Trust: The Album
6. How to unblock toilets with nothing more than a wire coat hanger.
It’s a glamorous job, and someone’s got to do it. Working in a visitor attraction brings with it certain jobs that just need doing, and on very busy days I’m out from behind my desk and helping keep visitors happy in person – I love it – most of the time. Emptying bins and unblocking loos or responding to first aid shouts aren’t fun but they’re important in keeping the place running, and I wouldn’t ask my team to do anything I’m not prepared to do myself. And when you’ve a queue in the ladies a mile long, you just have to roll up your sleeves and get on with it. Not what I thought my history degree was preparing me for!
5. How to dance like a loon to amuse queuing cars – and keep it up for a whole bank holiday.
Much like unblocking the loos, car parking is essential but hard, often messy work, which gets little thanks. Great if the sun’s shining, but not so much in the rain, sleet or hail. Or especially, mud! I love it when lots of people choose to visit us, but when everyone piles in at once, it can cause queues all the way down to the A603 and people can get quite rude. Last year, I amused myself through the long day by bowing, pirouetting or coyly beckoning arriving cars into spaces. Not a single visitor arrived without a bit of fun – unless they looked very serious – and most lost their anger at having had to wait to get in. It starts their day off well. I look an idiot, but it shows the team they can still have fun doing what is quite a monotonous job. This year the stakes were raised and there was some very impressive car park dancing going on, all for visitors’ amusement.
4. That there’s more to Christmas than Santa. Really, there is.
In 2011 we took the brave decision not to have a Father Christmas at Wimpole. Yes, some were disappointed, but he did the business on December 24 without having to press the flesh here first. Now, when it’s easy money to charge visitors for a gift from Saint Nick, why turn him down? Well, because it’s not really what we’re about. I’d rather people came to be amazed by what the Victorians cooked for Christmas dinner or to hear lovely Georgian carols being sung in the Chapel, or made paper chains the way people have for ages past to decorate their homes. Sometimes it’s nice to put the commercialism on hold.
3. That dressing up is a LOT of fun.
I’ve been a Georgian, Victorian and can usually be found visiting WWII sometime in September. Corsets and petticoats or stockings and victory rolls – what’s not to like? I’ve even been the Virgin Mary in a ‘living nativity’– they don’t prepare you for that in your induction.
The annual ‘Wimpole At War’ event – dressing up is a must! Victory-Rolls at the ready!
2. How to make small-talk with complete strangers.
Seriously, I’m pretty expert now. I can make a conversation about a child’s bobble hat last from the front of the Hall to the car park. I can tell whether you’ll be satisfied with pleasantries about the weather or need some serious, individualised chat. The number of wellies I’ve praised, photos I’ve cooed over… It doesn’t matter if you start out shy, you won’t end up that way. When you get to the nurseries at Lanhydrock (Lanhydrock’s Website) it’s almost guaranteed you’ll comment on either the cute Victorian childrens’ boots or the mildly shocking but of-its-time ‘Gollywog’s Foxhunt’ story book – yes, it can be that predictable. And it doesn’t matter, because if that’s what you want to talk about, it’s what I want to talk about too.
1. How to make cupcakes that look like woolly sheep.
Because farmers like cake too. Possibly the most useful of all the skills I’ve learned over the last 8 years. Baa-rilliant.
Sarah’s ‘woolly sheep’ cupcakes…yum yum!
Source: Picture courtesy of Sara Merriman