When I applied to take part in the new heritage work placement scheme being run by the History department, I didn’t have any idea what was in store, and I definitely had no idea that after my ten weeks I would enjoy it so much that I wouldn’t want to leave! Choosing Sizergh Castle for me was easy, being closer to my hometown than it is to the University, I had grown up regarding Sizergh as a local heritage site, and being a place so old (parts of the castle being built around 1310-1360!) and so beautiful it was like a historian’s playground (not literally – that wouldn’t have made a very good impression!) On my first visit to Sizergh, after meeting the National Trust staff (who were all really friendly) and our coordinator Matt, we were given a tour of the castle. I couldn’t help but be amazed by the castle’s rooms, in particular the Elizabethan Inlaid Chamber. Complete with oak panelled walls, heraldic glass windows and a carved, inlaid state bed, the room was stunning- the well-deserved showpiece saved until the end of the guided tours. What I loved the most about Sizergh, though, and the reason I believe it has such a unique atmosphere, is because it remains to this day (as it has been for almost 700 years) the home of the Strickland family. Although restricted to rooms not on the guided tours, it was fascinating for me when working in the library, home to hundreds of books and three huge seventeenth-century tapestries, to also be surrounded by modern appliances like TVs, electric radiators, and a huge array of family photographs in photo frames that still had price stickers on. I even met some of the family members myself, and all of them were lovely and enthusiastic to share their family’s captivating history.
During my ten weeks of placement, Matt and the team gave us a taste of everything that was involved in their work. We shadowed tours (which are run by a team of 150+ volunteers, a number of whom I had the absolute pleasure of getting to know), shadowed Matt to see what his job as House Steward involved, and we were also given two small projects of our own to complete. One of them was cleaning some of the mouldy books from the library (which was a lot more fun than it sounds – despite having to wear some pretty unpleasant protection masks). The cleaning was done using a small vacuum with a bristled nozzle – watching the mould disappear was weirdly satisfying, so I enjoyed cleaning the books a lot. Though there was obviously no way we would be able to get all of the books in the library done, working in a team with some of the volunteers meant that we got a significant bulk of them done, and it felt good knowing I was making a difference. The other project involved dealing with a bequest which had given Sizergh a small collection of ceramics. After condition reporting them (this unfortunately involved drawing pictures of the items – I never realised drawing a cup and saucer could be so traumatic but thankfully they didn’t have to very detailed), we then photographed the items and put them on to the Collections Management System that can be accessed across the National Trust Organisation to find out from anywhere to access information about the collections belonging to each site. Learning how to use the CMS was probably the most difficult part of the placement, simply because it was a lot to get used to, but once we had the hang of it we were fine (spending about 99% of my time on a computer probably helped). As well as finding it really enjoyable working closely with the ceramics for the condition reports, using the CMS made me feel like I had gained a useful skill (that even some of the staff didn’t have!) that I could take forward with me if I were ever to apply for a job within the National Trust.
After learning all that I have and meeting lots of fantastic people I would most definitely recommend to other students to get involved with a heritage work placement! Not only does it look good on paper to future employers but it gives you the opportunity to improve so many skills whilst having fun and gaining valuable knowledge that will help you make decisions about where you want to take your degree. I actually enjoyed my ten weeks at Sizergh so much that I asked to stay on as a volunteer – I will be starting in the summer after taking some time off for exams – but I can’t wait to get back there and continue the experience!