Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide

Ashdown 1 Nicola here. Now that we are into May, I’ve restarted my volunteering at Ashdown House, the 17th century hunting lodge in Oxfordshire where I work for the National Trust. It’s a great pleasure to be back, not least because we have only been open intermittently during the last two years of the pandemic and I really missed being in one of my favourite places.

I love visiting historic houses myself and when I go, I’m always curious to see the tour guides and volunteers in action. So often, things seem to run so smoothly yet when you’re behind the scenes you know it isn’t always the case at all. As with organising anything, there’s mad paddling going on below the surface!

I’ve worked at Ashdown for 20 years now. For years I drove past the stunning little 17th century white stone house that sat looking mysterious in the middle of a wood. I wondered a lot about its history but I always seemed too busy to visit. It was seldom open to the public and then only by guided tour. However when I gave up my job to become a full time author I was looking for something to do that would get me out of the house and meeting real people. Since history was my obsession, volunteering with the National Trust seemed like a good option.

Working at Ashdown isn’t like volunteering in most country houses, or at least I imagine not. For a start the house has a tenant, which means that the National Ashdown bluebells 2 Trust staff are only allowed in fifteen minutes before the visitors arrive, so we scurry around the visitor centre, setting up the displays, putting the benches outside, trying to get the video to work and all before we open the gates at 1.45pm. We can only take 16 people on each guided tour because this is a very small “stately home” so there can be something of a scrimmage for the timed tickets! But there is plenty for people to see at Ashdown whilst they wait for a tour. We have an Iron Age hill fort with connections to Alfred the Great to explore, we have woodland that at this time of year is thick with bluebells, primroses and wood anemones, and there are the parterre gardens where our costumed re-enactors demonstrate lace making, wood turning and other historic skills.

Ashdown Roof 1On the tour we tell our visitors the extraordinary story of the rise of the Craven family from rags to riches, and the love story of William, First Earl of Craven, and Elizabeth the Winter Queen. The house contains the exquisite portrait collection that Elizabeth bequeathed to William. The view from the roof platform is the literal highlight of the visit, hundreds of feet above the surrounding countryside.

Our most commonly asked questions are: “Where is the loo?” and “Do you have a teashop?” Occasionally there will be academics wandering in who ask such challenging things as “Could you give us some detail on the causes of the Thirty Years War?” Well no, not if I don’t want the rest of the tour group to fall asleep! My favourite question of all time, though, happened during a windy day up on the roof. One lady fixed me with a curious eye and said: “Could you tell me what lipstick you’re wearing?” My reply of “I don’t have any on” caused consternation at the back of the group where they had not heard the original question. Other gems include me asking: “Did you enjoy the guided tour?” To which the answer was “Not much. I don’t really like history.” And “What did you think of the view from the roof platform?” Reply: “I’ve seen better on the road into Swindon.” You can’t please everyone.

Most of our visitors are absolutely fantastic – interested, engaged, out to enjoy their day and full of questions or indeed Ashdown as a basis for a dolls house
information about Ashdown House and the Craven family. Sometimes they are people with a family connection to the house or the estate, and are able to help us fill in a part of the history of the place. We learn a lot from them. It's also a place that has inspired a lot of artwork as it is such a pretty house. There are cards, advent calendars, models and even dolls houses (pictured) all based on Ashdown's design.

Craven and Nicola at AshdownI’ve had my share of “adventures” at Ashdown over the years. One time I accidentally locked a visitor on the roof. He was hiding behind one of the chimneys at closing time and we didn’t notice him! Luckily, we spotted him before everyone left the premises. On more than one occasion we’ve found people exploring parts of the house that are private, such as the kitchens – they’ve just wandered off and not noticed the “no entry” signs apparently. We’ve had a number of celebrity visitors, some of whom have been very eccentric! (My lips are sealed!) There was one occasion when some of us were arrested for breaking and entering. There was a new security system in place and the alarms went off at the local police station when I took a guided tour inside the house. I was described as a “suspect wearing odd, old-fashioned clothes including hat” (it was a 17th century Cavalier’s outfit!) Fortunately we were released without charge! And then there was the Halloween tour when the actual ghost of Ashdown put in a surprise appearance and gave us all a scare…

I’m wondering what challenges and excitement this season will present. Whatever it is, it will be another chapter in my ongoing love affair with Ashdown House and its history!

Are you involved in a volunteer job or activity that you particularly enjoy? Do share your experiences with us!

90 thoughts on “Confessions of a Country House Tour Guide”

  1. Thanks for brightening my morning with your amusing stories, Nicola.
    Most of my volunteering has been book related. Most recently, I volunteered at the public library shelving returned books. In a prior location, I used to tutor adult literacy students.

    Reply
  2. Thanks for brightening my morning with your amusing stories, Nicola.
    Most of my volunteering has been book related. Most recently, I volunteered at the public library shelving returned books. In a prior location, I used to tutor adult literacy students.

    Reply
  3. Thanks for brightening my morning with your amusing stories, Nicola.
    Most of my volunteering has been book related. Most recently, I volunteered at the public library shelving returned books. In a prior location, I used to tutor adult literacy students.

    Reply
  4. Thanks for brightening my morning with your amusing stories, Nicola.
    Most of my volunteering has been book related. Most recently, I volunteered at the public library shelving returned books. In a prior location, I used to tutor adult literacy students.

    Reply
  5. Thanks for brightening my morning with your amusing stories, Nicola.
    Most of my volunteering has been book related. Most recently, I volunteered at the public library shelving returned books. In a prior location, I used to tutor adult literacy students.

    Reply
  6. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kareni! There’s little better than book-inspired volunteering! Books and history together is my dream.

    Reply
  7. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kareni! There’s little better than book-inspired volunteering! Books and history together is my dream.

    Reply
  8. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kareni! There’s little better than book-inspired volunteering! Books and history together is my dream.

    Reply
  9. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kareni! There’s little better than book-inspired volunteering! Books and history together is my dream.

    Reply
  10. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Kareni! There’s little better than book-inspired volunteering! Books and history together is my dream.

    Reply
  11. That’s a very funny story about being taken in by the police! I imagine you told them you were giving a guided tour, but then a clever burglar would say that!
    I am a volunteer trustee at an environmental education center. We do all types of outdoor activities with children, and adults too; summer day camp, science field trips for school groups, Scout badges, tent camping, guided nature hikes, and the latest trend which is “forest bathing”. Look it up, there is no actual bathing involved!
    I sometimes lead a little history tour of our property, however mainly I am doing unexciting behind the scenes things like paperwork, attending meetings and applying for grants.

    Reply
  12. That’s a very funny story about being taken in by the police! I imagine you told them you were giving a guided tour, but then a clever burglar would say that!
    I am a volunteer trustee at an environmental education center. We do all types of outdoor activities with children, and adults too; summer day camp, science field trips for school groups, Scout badges, tent camping, guided nature hikes, and the latest trend which is “forest bathing”. Look it up, there is no actual bathing involved!
    I sometimes lead a little history tour of our property, however mainly I am doing unexciting behind the scenes things like paperwork, attending meetings and applying for grants.

    Reply
  13. That’s a very funny story about being taken in by the police! I imagine you told them you were giving a guided tour, but then a clever burglar would say that!
    I am a volunteer trustee at an environmental education center. We do all types of outdoor activities with children, and adults too; summer day camp, science field trips for school groups, Scout badges, tent camping, guided nature hikes, and the latest trend which is “forest bathing”. Look it up, there is no actual bathing involved!
    I sometimes lead a little history tour of our property, however mainly I am doing unexciting behind the scenes things like paperwork, attending meetings and applying for grants.

    Reply
  14. That’s a very funny story about being taken in by the police! I imagine you told them you were giving a guided tour, but then a clever burglar would say that!
    I am a volunteer trustee at an environmental education center. We do all types of outdoor activities with children, and adults too; summer day camp, science field trips for school groups, Scout badges, tent camping, guided nature hikes, and the latest trend which is “forest bathing”. Look it up, there is no actual bathing involved!
    I sometimes lead a little history tour of our property, however mainly I am doing unexciting behind the scenes things like paperwork, attending meetings and applying for grants.

    Reply
  15. That’s a very funny story about being taken in by the police! I imagine you told them you were giving a guided tour, but then a clever burglar would say that!
    I am a volunteer trustee at an environmental education center. We do all types of outdoor activities with children, and adults too; summer day camp, science field trips for school groups, Scout badges, tent camping, guided nature hikes, and the latest trend which is “forest bathing”. Look it up, there is no actual bathing involved!
    I sometimes lead a little history tour of our property, however mainly I am doing unexciting behind the scenes things like paperwork, attending meetings and applying for grants.

    Reply
  16. From following How To Renovate A Chateau (Without Killing Your Partner) on Youtube for the last year, I have a real interest in the architectural details of historic houses. For example, the transoms at the tops of tall windows. The style and look of Ashdown are similar to the larger French structure, which is also originally 17th century. I would love to spend quality time at such fascinating homes. Lucky you, Nicola. Glad ‘your’ house is back in business. Your description of the visitors reminds me of the zoo: They’re looking at you, but you’re looking back at them. Hard to say who’s the more intriguing,

    Reply
  17. From following How To Renovate A Chateau (Without Killing Your Partner) on Youtube for the last year, I have a real interest in the architectural details of historic houses. For example, the transoms at the tops of tall windows. The style and look of Ashdown are similar to the larger French structure, which is also originally 17th century. I would love to spend quality time at such fascinating homes. Lucky you, Nicola. Glad ‘your’ house is back in business. Your description of the visitors reminds me of the zoo: They’re looking at you, but you’re looking back at them. Hard to say who’s the more intriguing,

    Reply
  18. From following How To Renovate A Chateau (Without Killing Your Partner) on Youtube for the last year, I have a real interest in the architectural details of historic houses. For example, the transoms at the tops of tall windows. The style and look of Ashdown are similar to the larger French structure, which is also originally 17th century. I would love to spend quality time at such fascinating homes. Lucky you, Nicola. Glad ‘your’ house is back in business. Your description of the visitors reminds me of the zoo: They’re looking at you, but you’re looking back at them. Hard to say who’s the more intriguing,

    Reply
  19. From following How To Renovate A Chateau (Without Killing Your Partner) on Youtube for the last year, I have a real interest in the architectural details of historic houses. For example, the transoms at the tops of tall windows. The style and look of Ashdown are similar to the larger French structure, which is also originally 17th century. I would love to spend quality time at such fascinating homes. Lucky you, Nicola. Glad ‘your’ house is back in business. Your description of the visitors reminds me of the zoo: They’re looking at you, but you’re looking back at them. Hard to say who’s the more intriguing,

    Reply
  20. From following How To Renovate A Chateau (Without Killing Your Partner) on Youtube for the last year, I have a real interest in the architectural details of historic houses. For example, the transoms at the tops of tall windows. The style and look of Ashdown are similar to the larger French structure, which is also originally 17th century. I would love to spend quality time at such fascinating homes. Lucky you, Nicola. Glad ‘your’ house is back in business. Your description of the visitors reminds me of the zoo: They’re looking at you, but you’re looking back at them. Hard to say who’s the more intriguing,

    Reply
  21. You sound like the perfect tour guide, Nicola! The NT is lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from them when I’ve been lucky enough to visit a property. After retiring several months ago, I am training to be a textile conservation volunteer at a local museum that includes several historic houses. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time (my husband says I’ve never met a fabric I didn’t like), and I’m learning so much about not just the textiles in the houses, but also about the houses themselves. Every house has a story, or many, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  22. You sound like the perfect tour guide, Nicola! The NT is lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from them when I’ve been lucky enough to visit a property. After retiring several months ago, I am training to be a textile conservation volunteer at a local museum that includes several historic houses. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time (my husband says I’ve never met a fabric I didn’t like), and I’m learning so much about not just the textiles in the houses, but also about the houses themselves. Every house has a story, or many, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  23. You sound like the perfect tour guide, Nicola! The NT is lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from them when I’ve been lucky enough to visit a property. After retiring several months ago, I am training to be a textile conservation volunteer at a local museum that includes several historic houses. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time (my husband says I’ve never met a fabric I didn’t like), and I’m learning so much about not just the textiles in the houses, but also about the houses themselves. Every house has a story, or many, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  24. You sound like the perfect tour guide, Nicola! The NT is lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from them when I’ve been lucky enough to visit a property. After retiring several months ago, I am training to be a textile conservation volunteer at a local museum that includes several historic houses. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time (my husband says I’ve never met a fabric I didn’t like), and I’m learning so much about not just the textiles in the houses, but also about the houses themselves. Every house has a story, or many, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  25. You sound like the perfect tour guide, Nicola! The NT is lucky to have so many dedicated volunteers, and I’ve always enjoyed listening to and learning from them when I’ve been lucky enough to visit a property. After retiring several months ago, I am training to be a textile conservation volunteer at a local museum that includes several historic houses. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time (my husband says I’ve never met a fabric I didn’t like), and I’m learning so much about not just the textiles in the houses, but also about the houses themselves. Every house has a story, or many, doesn’t it?

    Reply
  26. Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching a couple of British mysteries on Britbox (Vera, Father Brown) and am in awe of the old country homes. Just beautiful. I’ve wondered if people actually lived in them. The cost of upkeep for some of them must be incredible.

    Reply
  27. Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching a couple of British mysteries on Britbox (Vera, Father Brown) and am in awe of the old country homes. Just beautiful. I’ve wondered if people actually lived in them. The cost of upkeep for some of them must be incredible.

    Reply
  28. Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching a couple of British mysteries on Britbox (Vera, Father Brown) and am in awe of the old country homes. Just beautiful. I’ve wondered if people actually lived in them. The cost of upkeep for some of them must be incredible.

    Reply
  29. Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching a couple of British mysteries on Britbox (Vera, Father Brown) and am in awe of the old country homes. Just beautiful. I’ve wondered if people actually lived in them. The cost of upkeep for some of them must be incredible.

    Reply
  30. Very interesting. Thanks for this post. I’ve been watching a couple of British mysteries on Britbox (Vera, Father Brown) and am in awe of the old country homes. Just beautiful. I’ve wondered if people actually lived in them. The cost of upkeep for some of them must be incredible.

    Reply
  31. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and experiences.
    Just consider the thoughts when people overheard “I’m not wearing any.” The possibilities are many.
    Hope everyone is well.

    Reply
  32. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and experiences.
    Just consider the thoughts when people overheard “I’m not wearing any.” The possibilities are many.
    Hope everyone is well.

    Reply
  33. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and experiences.
    Just consider the thoughts when people overheard “I’m not wearing any.” The possibilities are many.
    Hope everyone is well.

    Reply
  34. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and experiences.
    Just consider the thoughts when people overheard “I’m not wearing any.” The possibilities are many.
    Hope everyone is well.

    Reply
  35. What a wonderful post. Thank you so much for sharing all your insights and experiences.
    Just consider the thoughts when people overheard “I’m not wearing any.” The possibilities are many.
    Hope everyone is well.

    Reply
  36. I’d love to take your tour, Nicola. I love historic homes!
    I volunteer for the Friends of the Library at my local library. I’m currently the bookstore manager. We take donations of used books, sell them, and use the money to benefit the library.We just reopened after a 2-year closure so I know what you mean about being glad to see people again!

    Reply
  37. I’d love to take your tour, Nicola. I love historic homes!
    I volunteer for the Friends of the Library at my local library. I’m currently the bookstore manager. We take donations of used books, sell them, and use the money to benefit the library.We just reopened after a 2-year closure so I know what you mean about being glad to see people again!

    Reply
  38. I’d love to take your tour, Nicola. I love historic homes!
    I volunteer for the Friends of the Library at my local library. I’m currently the bookstore manager. We take donations of used books, sell them, and use the money to benefit the library.We just reopened after a 2-year closure so I know what you mean about being glad to see people again!

    Reply
  39. I’d love to take your tour, Nicola. I love historic homes!
    I volunteer for the Friends of the Library at my local library. I’m currently the bookstore manager. We take donations of used books, sell them, and use the money to benefit the library.We just reopened after a 2-year closure so I know what you mean about being glad to see people again!

    Reply
  40. I’d love to take your tour, Nicola. I love historic homes!
    I volunteer for the Friends of the Library at my local library. I’m currently the bookstore manager. We take donations of used books, sell them, and use the money to benefit the library.We just reopened after a 2-year closure so I know what you mean about being glad to see people again!

    Reply
  41. That does sound interesting Karin. I realise I already do “forest bathing” even though I didn’t know what it was!

    Reply
  42. That does sound interesting Karin. I realise I already do “forest bathing” even though I didn’t know what it was!

    Reply
  43. That does sound interesting Karin. I realise I already do “forest bathing” even though I didn’t know what it was!

    Reply
  44. That does sound interesting Karin. I realise I already do “forest bathing” even though I didn’t know what it was!

    Reply
  45. That does sound interesting Karin. I realise I already do “forest bathing” even though I didn’t know what it was!

    Reply
  46. Well spotted, Mary – Ashdown was modelled on a French chateau!
    I do find the visitors very interesting and love observing them!

    Reply
  47. Well spotted, Mary – Ashdown was modelled on a French chateau!
    I do find the visitors very interesting and love observing them!

    Reply
  48. Well spotted, Mary – Ashdown was modelled on a French chateau!
    I do find the visitors very interesting and love observing them!

    Reply
  49. Well spotted, Mary – Ashdown was modelled on a French chateau!
    I do find the visitors very interesting and love observing them!

    Reply
  50. Well spotted, Mary – Ashdown was modelled on a French chateau!
    I do find the visitors very interesting and love observing them!

    Reply
  51. Constance, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’d love to know more about the different textiles and the processes by which they are preserved. What a great volunteer job!

    Reply
  52. Constance, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’d love to know more about the different textiles and the processes by which they are preserved. What a great volunteer job!

    Reply
  53. Constance, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’d love to know more about the different textiles and the processes by which they are preserved. What a great volunteer job!

    Reply
  54. Constance, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’d love to know more about the different textiles and the processes by which they are preserved. What a great volunteer job!

    Reply
  55. Constance, that sounds absolutely fascinating. I’d love to know more about the different textiles and the processes by which they are preserved. What a great volunteer job!

    Reply
  56. Hi Liz, yes the cost of maintaining these historic places is prohibitive. I admire families who make it their life’s work to preserve places and hand them on to the next generation- and who open them up for others to enjoy.

    Reply
  57. Hi Liz, yes the cost of maintaining these historic places is prohibitive. I admire families who make it their life’s work to preserve places and hand them on to the next generation- and who open them up for others to enjoy.

    Reply
  58. Hi Liz, yes the cost of maintaining these historic places is prohibitive. I admire families who make it their life’s work to preserve places and hand them on to the next generation- and who open them up for others to enjoy.

    Reply
  59. Hi Liz, yes the cost of maintaining these historic places is prohibitive. I admire families who make it their life’s work to preserve places and hand them on to the next generation- and who open them up for others to enjoy.

    Reply
  60. Hi Liz, yes the cost of maintaining these historic places is prohibitive. I admire families who make it their life’s work to preserve places and hand them on to the next generation- and who open them up for others to enjoy.

    Reply
  61. Hi Annette! Thank you and I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, I did get some quizzical looks after that remark!

    Reply
  62. Hi Annette! Thank you and I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, I did get some quizzical looks after that remark!

    Reply
  63. Hi Annette! Thank you and I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, I did get some quizzical looks after that remark!

    Reply
  64. Hi Annette! Thank you and I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, I did get some quizzical looks after that remark!

    Reply
  65. Hi Annette! Thank you and I’m so glad you liked the post. Yes, I did get some quizzical looks after that remark!

    Reply
  66. It would be a pleasure to show you around, Janet. How fabulous to be the bookstore manager for the library; I would love that!

    Reply
  67. It would be a pleasure to show you around, Janet. How fabulous to be the bookstore manager for the library; I would love that!

    Reply
  68. It would be a pleasure to show you around, Janet. How fabulous to be the bookstore manager for the library; I would love that!

    Reply
  69. It would be a pleasure to show you around, Janet. How fabulous to be the bookstore manager for the library; I would love that!

    Reply
  70. It would be a pleasure to show you around, Janet. How fabulous to be the bookstore manager for the library; I would love that!

    Reply
  71. This sounds like a job made in Heaven to me!! I’d love to be able to do something like that. Unfortunately no qualifications so no go here.
    I love the country houses of yore. I like to visit as many historical places as I can here in Ireland. I really must start going again now that every place is open.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face with this post Nicola 🙂

    Reply
  72. This sounds like a job made in Heaven to me!! I’d love to be able to do something like that. Unfortunately no qualifications so no go here.
    I love the country houses of yore. I like to visit as many historical places as I can here in Ireland. I really must start going again now that every place is open.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face with this post Nicola 🙂

    Reply
  73. This sounds like a job made in Heaven to me!! I’d love to be able to do something like that. Unfortunately no qualifications so no go here.
    I love the country houses of yore. I like to visit as many historical places as I can here in Ireland. I really must start going again now that every place is open.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face with this post Nicola 🙂

    Reply
  74. This sounds like a job made in Heaven to me!! I’d love to be able to do something like that. Unfortunately no qualifications so no go here.
    I love the country houses of yore. I like to visit as many historical places as I can here in Ireland. I really must start going again now that every place is open.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face with this post Nicola 🙂

    Reply
  75. This sounds like a job made in Heaven to me!! I’d love to be able to do something like that. Unfortunately no qualifications so no go here.
    I love the country houses of yore. I like to visit as many historical places as I can here in Ireland. I really must start going again now that every place is open.
    Thanks for putting a smile on my face with this post Nicola 🙂

    Reply
  76. I think this title could suit a very funny (or improper) book!
    Ashdown is indeed a very special place and I hope it continues to give you inspiration.
    I will try to get over to see it again some time during this summer.

    Reply
  77. I think this title could suit a very funny (or improper) book!
    Ashdown is indeed a very special place and I hope it continues to give you inspiration.
    I will try to get over to see it again some time during this summer.

    Reply
  78. I think this title could suit a very funny (or improper) book!
    Ashdown is indeed a very special place and I hope it continues to give you inspiration.
    I will try to get over to see it again some time during this summer.

    Reply
  79. I think this title could suit a very funny (or improper) book!
    Ashdown is indeed a very special place and I hope it continues to give you inspiration.
    I will try to get over to see it again some time during this summer.

    Reply
  80. I think this title could suit a very funny (or improper) book!
    Ashdown is indeed a very special place and I hope it continues to give you inspiration.
    I will try to get over to see it again some time during this summer.

    Reply

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