Jenny Porrett, employee at Arundel Castle, West Sussex, gives us an exclusive insight into life behind castle walls…
I don’t start work at the Castle until 9.30 which suits me perfectly as it gives me time to do a bit of genealogy or a blog post before I need to get ready. My drive to the Castle can take anything from 20 to 45 minutes, but even the most stressful of commutes is quickly forgotten as I walk up the path with a fantastic gothic Castle towering over me.
It’s hard to summarise a ‘typical’ day for me, mostly because I work on the entrance ticket office, in finance, Admin, group bookings and taking photos. I’ve even done a bit of emergency outside guiding. While it may seem a bit strange to be doing so many things in one job, something that many people don’t realise is just how small the castle team is. My manager is the entire HR and Finance departments all by herself! And whilst the castle has lots of room guides the rest of the management team is equally tiny.
Today I arrive a little flustered and late, possibly because the hill to the castle feels like it’s doubled in size, which it does on occasion, especially on a day when you have lots to do and it’s hot and sunny – you can ask anyone!
After signing in with security it’s normally straight up to the Medieval Keep or Fitzalan chapel to take photos of the ‘Living history man’ in his various guises, then I scurry back to my office to make up a poster for the ticket office so the visitors know he’s here. We’ve been doing this most mornings through August, because our old posters were outdated and we thought having Paul’s friendly face on them would be better than the stock images we had before. It may not seem like it but he is very camera shy…
However today we having a big living history event, so I’ll wait until lunch to wander around and take photos. Instead, after a few more flights of stairs getting mugs and filling the kettle for the all important ‘tea cupboard’, and sorting out the cash tins for the Chapel and the Bedrooms, I get straight on to the emails and answering the phone. We have all sorts of enquiries at the castle, most are group bookings and overseas visitors, however we occasionally get asked things like “where is the best place to propose” or “how my Great x 6 Grandfather is related to the Dukes of Norfolk” (sadly they often weren’t), filming enquiries from overseas TV gardeners and sometimes we get enquiries that aren’t even for us! Although I’m sure nearby Amberley Castle get lots for us too…
Depending on how busy we are the emails and invoices can take all day, but today there aren’t too many, so I spend some time going through the visitor surveys, type up a document for the conservation manager detailing which windows are too fragile to be opened and then make some reserved signs for the open air theatre that’s on later in the evening. Tonight it’s A Comedy of Errors, and the Duke is coming to watch, so I have to be inventive and through a combination of place cards with the Arundel crest on, sticky labels, dark red gauze ribbon and the laminator I manage to make something reasonably ducal for the occasion.
I can honestly say I don’t know what we’d do without that laminator; to prove my point next on my to do list is making 60 temporary car park passes for the living history group!
I generally take my lunch around 2.45pm, mostly because time flies when we’re busy, but also because by then the gardens are generally quiet and my Pheasants are out and about. They are very partial to Min Cheddars. The large male is called Phil and he was shot in the bum during the last shooting season, which is why he has no long back feathers, and this year we had some Pheasant chicks.
Anyway, by now the event is in full swing, and there’s a real feel of an encampment, the smell of woodsmoke is wafting up to the office and the sounds of swords clashing and birds of prey calling really give you the feel of stepping back in time, although today is a little different as it’s a multi-period event, so Roman Gladiators are mingling with 19th C soldiers, which is a little surreal. I’ve learnt a lot from so many of the people at these events, as well as being entertained by the melees – this is never so true as during what was probably my favourite week at the castle; Joust Week, which is a 6 day international Jousting tournament, with an adjoining encampment of people practicing traditional crafts like basket weaving and leather working, a fantastic story teller, a resident Medieval Doctor (who has given me far better advice than my 21st century one!), medieval music and enthusiastic experts in Medieval weaponry and armour are on hand, in between fighting in their own tournament.
You may think it’s all staged, like I did, but blood was drawn on the first round this year! Working at the castle has shown me that sometimes just having a passion for your chosen historical subject is enough to make it a large part of your life, possibly even your sole source of income, which is something I’d never considered before.
I tear myself away and it’s back upstairs to count the takings from the car park machines, which can take anything up to 1 ½ hours, but has left me with the uncanny ability to accurately weigh 20 £1 coins and 50 20p coins in my hand – amazing I know. Then, as my manager and I are both volunteering for the evening theatre we move Cakey Friday a day forward and have a completely nutritionally necessary muffin from the coffee shop to keep us going.
I quickly type up a list of people collecting their prepaid tickets that evening for the second ticket office to check, and then instead of being off home by 5.30pm it’s up to the High street entrance, which is usually shut, to welcome the first visitors who have arrived as the gates open 2 hours before the performance is due to start, after deciding they are too British to allow a little cloud to put them off a picnic.
I then catch a buggy up to the gardens, where the performance is taking place, to put on my very attractive high-vis vest and collect a torch for directing people as it gets dark.
My boyfriend arrives as those volunteering are allowed one free ticket which I have ever so kindly donated to him, and I stand with him for a while eating the crackling from his hog roast until the gates to the Collector Earl’s garden opens and it’s time to usher people in – and direct them to the toilets if necessary – glamorous! Once the sun goes down it gets chilly, some sensible people have even brought sleeping bags with them, and indeed by the interval I have gained a scarf and a ski jacket.
Neither of us had seen Comedy of Errors before, and you could not ask for a more picturesque stage setting than Oberon’s Palace, with the Cathedral lit up in the background.
Once it’s finished I stand on the corner half way down the path at the fork, making sure people don’t take the wrong turn, until everyone but the actors have left, and at 10.15pm it’s home time.
I can honestly say that every day at the castle is different, whether it’s sitting with people from the BBC whilst they film a painting, taking photos of a visiting Royal for the archives, or in much smaller ways day to day, but I have never enjoyed a job as much. Everyone I work with is lovely, which I have to say I’ve never been able to say before, and everyone appreciates each other’s role, for example at I’ve previously been in a position where those at the front of house can mention a problem time and again without anything being done, here I can pop in to our property managers office and tell him something on the website is confusing people and I’m getting lots of questions about it, and he’ll go straight on and change it. One of my favourite things to do is just sit in one of the rooms for a moment just before we open whilst it’s empty, especially the gorgeous library with all those wonderful books. In fact I’ve been known after a 6 day week to then visit the castle on my day off! I actually got my job because of my Finance Admin experience, which just goes to show that when it comes to getting jobs in heritage, it’s not always a straightforward path, and that even if you feel, as I did, that you had no hope of ever getting a job in heritage that you enjoy, you may well be wrong, and you should never give up!
*All images authors own