Have you ever done work experience? When I told friends and family I was going to be doing work experience, they recounted their tedious placements, where they spent their time just watching people work or making an endless supply of tea and coffee. My experience at Chawton House couldn’t have been more different.
A few years ago I was a visitor at Chawton House myself and when I was tasked by my school with finding a week’s work experience, this visit sprang to mind – I decided to revisit. On my first visit I toured the house, but this time I was able to really discover its secrets (not only the disguised drinks cabinet and hidden passages, but how the place is run).
To be frank, on my first day I was nervous, but I soon realised I had nothing to worry about. The staff and volunteers are approachable and the atmosphere is welcoming. Louisa was there to greet me and she had put together a programme for Sam and me, which meant we were able to find out about as many different roles as possible.
I had a fantastic week which began with a tour of the stunning house and gardens. Andrew was able to point out the historical elements of the garden (such as the Library Terrace designed by Lutyens), so we were able to appreciate, not only its beauty, but also its significance. My favourite area is the “wilderness”, where the ladies of the house would have walked – a popular feature of seventeenth century gardens, which led to the saying, “take a walk on the wild side”. During the week, I was able to do everything from sitting in on marketing meetings, where I was even allowed to contribute, to preparing the house for opening.
I particularly relished discovering the wonderful range of books, which includes novels (such as Self-Control by Mary Brunton) read by Jane Austen herself. Darren also told us about the digital version of Jane’s library that will be launched in October so that the library Jane used at Godmersham Park (another residence of the Knight family) will be more accessible. This will be a really exciting opportunity to gain an insight into the literary context of Jane’s novels. Furthermore, Darren explained that the books had not been bought in their bound state, but rather in paper and with uncut edges – it was up to the owner to have them bound as they wished. However, the collection also houses some more recent books – owned by the last of the Knights to live at Chawton House – for example, a 1970’s copy of the Guinness World Records book. As well as learning about the collection, Yvette taught us some of the techniques used to conserve these books, even allowing us to have a go ourselves – a real privilege.
A notable highlight of my time at Chawton House was working in the tea room with the tireless Carol and Mandy. The kitchen was sweltering (thanks to the heat wave), but they both remained upbeat and I even overheard customers talking about when they would come back and comments about the quality and speed of the service (although the same cannot be said for me and my battles with the card machine).
Thank you to the whole team who were really supportive and went out of their way to make me feel welcome and share their knowledge of Chawton House. A special thanks to Anthony who let me do work experience here and to Louisa who organised the programme, which made my placement so enjoyable.