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Volunteer Stories: Alex and Esme

Last month, two local students volunteered at Middleton Hall for their work experience placements. Both Alex and Esme had worked with us before, and we were delighted to welcome them back! It’s really great to be able to support young people and help them achieve their future ambitions.

Alex, aged 17, is currently completing his A-Levels, and is interested in pursuing a career in wildlife conservation. He spent two days with the Head Gardener and his team of volunteers doing gardening and grounds maintenance. He did jobs such as weeding and planting, and helped layout new information signs in the herb garden. He then spent two days researching the conservation of bees and producing notice boards that are now on display in the walled garden.

Why did you want to volunteer here?

I volunteered here because I wanted to gain experience in conservation and working in the natural world, such as gardening and grounds maintenance. I also wanted to study the local wildlife.

What have you enjoyed most about volunteering at Middleton Hall?

I have enjoyed meeting the other volunteers and getting to work with them, also because I had met some of them the first time I came here.  I have also enjoyed working outdoors because it’s the field of work I would like to pursue.

What do you feel you have gained from volunteering at Middleton Hall?

I feel like I’ve gained more of an understanding on the need for conservation and why it needs to be protected. I’ve also gained confidence when talking to new people such as the other volunteers and I’ve gained experience in working as a team.

Esme, also aged 17, is currently doing her A-Levels, and wanted to gain some valuable work experience for future university and job applications. Esme worked with our visitors, selling admission tickets at Front of House, and also helped set up for our group visits. She also completed office admin tasks such as making phone calls and data entry.

Why did you volunteer here?                  

I volunteered at Middleton Hall to gain experience of working with the public. I am quite shy, so wanted to boost my confidence. It’s a friendly organisation and the location is beautiful.

What have you enjoyed most about volunteering at Middleton Hall?

I really enjoyed talking to visitors and catering for guests. It was nice to hear feedback about their visit. The Tame Valley Wetlands celebration event was hectic, but it was great to experience working in a fast-paced environment.

What do you feel you have gained from volunteering at Middleton Hall?

I have gained confidence in speaking to a variety of different people and experience of how events are run. The experience I have gained will look great on university and job applications, and will prepare me for future interviews and public-facing roles.

Thank you, Alex and Esme, we really enjoyed working with you. Are you interested in gaining work experience? Get in touch!

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Volunteer Stories: Betty

Middleton Hall has over 950 years of history, but arguably its most rapid transformation has taken place over the past 37 years. A trust was founded in 1980 to restore the historic house and gardens that had been abandoned in 1966. As a new member of staff, I still have a lot to learn about the renovation of the hall and was interested to learn more about the people who had dedicated their time and energy to bringing the hall back to life. Betty has been volunteering at Middleton Hall for over 32 years, so I was eager to hear about her experiences and contribution to the restoration. Betty began volunteering in 1985, along with her husband, Geoff. She has witnessed Middleton Hall grow from dereliction to a magnificent historic site, open to the public and hosting weddings.

When she first began volunteering, Betty worked in the tea rooms. The hall was only open on Sunday afternoons, and only parts of the building and gardens were renovated. When she was not needed in the tea rooms, Betty would do other jobs such as monitoring the book room or checking tickets at the entrance. She would often bring her spinning wheel to use whilst sitting in the Old Kitchen and admissions hut. Meanwhile, Betty’s husband, Geoff, played an important part in restoring the building and he used his carpentry skills to create the spindles in the renovated Great Hall.

After about ten years of volunteering in the tea rooms, a catering company were brought in and volunteers were no longer needed for this service. Although disheartened by the loss of her role in the tea rooms, Betty became interested in another aspect of Middleton Hall – the history. With the assistance of her knowledgeable friends and fellow volunteers, Audrey and Yvonne, Betty learnt a lot about the hall’s long history. Since then, Betty has played an integral part in developing our museum displays, and in recent years has helped create displays in the History Room and the Exhibition Room. She also volunteers as a tour guide when we have group visits, and she has noted this as the role she enjoys the most. This is because ‘not every historian has the same interpretation of things’, and she enjoys listening to how her fellow museum volunteers and visitors interpret the hall differently.

Betty’s best memories of Middleton Hall centre around Christmas time. She loves seeing the hall decorated for Christmas and has many fond memories of carol concerts and Boxing Day walks. Equally, she enjoyed the hours spent at her spinning wheel, watching the hall grow and talking to visitors.

When asked about her hopes for Middleton Hall’s future development, Betty noted that it has made great strides in recent years. She would love to see the hall continue to develop in the coming years, especially the Tudor barn.

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Memories of Middleton

We love hearing stories of people’s memories of Middleton Hall. We have heard tales of New Years Eve dam failures, aerial photography from a kite, dances given in the Great Hall and recently this tale from John, who remembers a day spent fishing on Middleton Pool in 1944. 

“Pop (my father) was very good at making things and in the war matches were difficult to get and cigarette lighters were impossible, so he used to make them whilst he was on fire watch.  He hammered a piece of copper tube into an oval and made end caps to be soldered to them and even made the hardened flint wheels.  My Uncle Mac, who lived at Hunts Green Farm Middleton, was in the Home Guard with the owner of Middleton Hall which had a large pool covered with lilies which were picked and sent to London to put on tables at big hotels.  It also had super pike fishing.

Lily harvest on Middleton Pool

Pop was talking to Mr. Averill, the owner, one day whilst at Uncle Mac’s and he expressed a liking for Pop’s lighter. Pop, never one to hold back, said “You can have it if we can do a bit of fishing on your lake” which was instantly agreed.

This led to one of the most memorable days of my then 11 year life. We went off to Coleshill and fished the Police Waters on the Blythe with our neighbour Mr. Bessant who had permission to fish there as he was a special constable.  Having caught a good bait can full of roach, we set off for a day’s fishing at Middleton.

Pop and I proceeded to bait up (live bait was the preferred way to catch Pike in those days) and caught a few small jacks, but about mid day I said I wanted to put my line as far out in the pool as I could. Pop said that pike stayed by the banks and  in weeds so it wasn’t a good idea. Anyway I persisted and we took my line right out using a water lily punt. A little while later I noticed that both of my floats had disappeared, Pop said “don’t do anything the pike takes the bait sideways and you have to wait for him to turn it round to get ready to swallow”. I hung on getting very excited and then, after what seemed ages, Pop said “right strike now”.  All HELL LET LOOSE!! The line streaked out at an alarming rate rattling my knuckles on the reel. Eventually it stopped, PANIC the reel had carried on and I had a load of unwound line hanging on the floor. The line went limp. As quickly as I could I rewound the spare line but it was all loose and I carried on winding it in with a loose line, I HAD LOST MY BIG FISH phew!!!

Then, as I carried on winding in, I suddenly FELT HIM ON AGAIN . He had swum back towards me, he made another dash but not as far as the first and I kept him under control . After a few more runs and about 20 minutes later we had him close enough for Pop to gaff him and he was landed.

John and the ‘monster’ pike

The Pike was a monster!  We weighed it up at Bert Harris the Butcher’s on his accurate scales at 16lbs 1½ozs.  Lots of photographs were taken and Mr. Bessant got the Birmingham Mail and the Dispatch to report the event.  Pop took the pike to work and it was raffled to eat for a bit of extra protein and the proceeds were sent to a Forces’ charity.”

We would love to hear any memories that you may have of Middleton Hall, get in touch with us by talking to our volunteer room guides when you visit or sending us your tale to enquiries@middleton-hall.co.uk

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A view from the garden

Another month has flown by in the grounds and gardens of Middleton Hall with hopefully many of you visiting our winter open day and enjoying the snowdrops.  Snowdrops really start the gardening season in earnest with their beautiful white flowers.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) earned their name from the combination of two Greek and Latin words.  Galanthus, from the ancient Greek means milk white flower, while the Latin word nivalis means resembling snow Carl Linnaeus classified the flower in 1753.  Carl Linnaeus was not the first person to try to start classified plants, our very own John Ray did this before him and Linnaeus classification which we use today may not have happen without John Ray’s work, which just makes working hear so interesting and special with its association with Mr. Ray Walking past his portrait every day is a great reminder of the importance of the work the great man did and I personal find it a great encouragement with the work we do at Middleton Hall. Back to snowdrops, in many countries they use the flowers in medicinal treatments and is currently been investigated for its use in the treatment against Alzheimer’s,  so like so many plants which we all enjoy there are hidden story’s.  One of the tasks we will be doing this month is lifting and dividing the snowdrops, March is the best time to do this, choose a large well established clump dig it up carefully, the bulbs should be deep so take care, soak the clump in a bucket of water then tease it apart, then replant small cluster of bulbs 10cm apart and at the same depth as before. Our display has been really good this year but by doing this year in year out we hope to be able to establish the snowdrops even more in the coming year, so very early plug remember to come and have a look in 2018, not to wish the year away, we are only getting started.

The walled garden re-development is going from strength to strength, February we have pruned the Wisteria on the pergola, double digging the planting borders with a mix compost and manure which is a job I love doing there’s  nothing better on a quiet still day then working with the soil, especially after winter.  The pick of all the plants in the garden this month for me has to be the Daphne, the scent is just amazing and I make ever excuses possible to have to walk past it to stop and enjoy it.  Daphne is a genus of between 50 and 95 species of deciduous and evergreen shrubs in the family of Thymelaeaceae its native to Asia, Europe and North Africa.

This month’s tips from the Head Gardener

So until next month’s Blog enjoy your garden, and plan your first visit of the season to Middleton Open seasons start April

Andrew

Head Gardener

Middleton Hall March 2017.

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A View from the Garden

Hello! This is the first of a series of my blogs telling everyone the exciting changes and events happening in the garden and grounds of Middleton Hall. Let me introduce myself, my name is Andrew and I have the great pleasure of being the Head Gardner here at Middleton Hall.

I have been here for only four months but am already really excited by the opportunity to create something really special here. I have been fortunate enough to work at and visit many great gardens around the UK and I am pleased to be working here as Middleton Hall is a fantastic location. It’s a place with so much horticultural and conversational history especially with two of the Hall’s famous residents John Ray FRS and Francis Willughby FRS.

The Walled Garden in the depths of winter

I am really looking forward to 2017 as this year is the start of our re-development plans for our eighteenth century Walled Garden. The beds will be planted with lush, texturally rich and colourful specimens as we are aiming to create a journey for visitors through the garden; as you walk around the planting will be cascading down from the centre of the borders. Using tall architectural plants such as Romneya Coulteri (Californian tree poppy) will help to create height and by highlighting focal points within the garden we will make the Walled Garden a great place to explore, discover and learn more about horticulture and Middleton Hall’s past residents. We already have the beautiful yellow John Ray rose with its scent and long flowing period is a real treat for any rose lover.

John Ray Rose

The John Ray Rose

The Walled Garden is a unique feature of our estate, we have an intimate romantic space which deserves to be visited and appreciated by garden lovers. It’s re-development is going to be a major project which we want everybody to get involved in, be you a novice or experienced gardner we welcome all. This early stage is a great time to get involved to be part of a team working together in creating a unique garden to do justice to this fantastic location.  If you feel you want to be part of our team we have a volunteer recruitment day on the 8th March or please contact us at enquiries@middleton-hall.co.uk for more details.

We really are at the start of something very special and I look forward to sharing our progress on our monthly Blogs and please come and visit to see how we are doing.

Hope to see you all soon

Andrew

Head Gardner

Middleton Hall. February 2017

The ‘before’ picture, come back throughout the year to see how we are getting on…

February Tips from the Head Gardner

  • Don’t get too cold/woolly jumpers
  • Read plant catalogues for inspiration it’s never too early to start planning your seasonal displays
  • Prune currants, gooseberries and autumn raspberries
  • Remember to ventilate greenhouses on sunny days
  • Stand houseplants on trays of damp gravel or stones to give the plants extra humidity in centrally heated homes
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A guided walk through 900 years of history

“The life of a tour guide is very rewarding. It is really lovely to be able to see people’s reactions when you tell them the story of the Hall’s repair and conservation to see their eyes widen when you show them the before and after pictures whilst telling them that it was all done by volunteers” – Jean

Every Group visit is different, but they all have a tour, given by our knowledgeable volunteer guides. It is always good having got off the coach, or out of the car, after a long drive to start with a cup of tea or coffee, so that is what we do! Once refreshed the tour can begin…

Each tour guide has their own special interest and of the hundreds of stories and facts we have about the Hall and Gardens they each have their favourites.

“The John Ray Room, dedicated to the father of Natural History, as he lived and worked in it the mid-seventeenth century, has its own hidden history. When the Building was being repaired and conserved the eighteenth century external lime plaster was removed. The weight of the plaster had caused the East and West walls to fall away from each other and ever resourceful, the volunteers working on the building came up with an ingenious and cost effective/environmentally friendly way of solving the problem. They had come across a length of wire used to launch aircraft from ships in a skip in Alrewas. It is best not to ask how it got there, or indeed why they were looking in a skip in Alrewas in the first place. This wire proved to be perfect for what they needed and to this day is tying two of the walls of the John Ray Building together.” – Nigel.

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Once the formal part of the tour is complete it is often time for lunch. Sometimes it is a buffet so the group can eat together, or if the weather is nice a picnic by the Lake, or trip to the Coffee Shop in our Courtyard Centre to combine lunch with a spot of shopping.

To rest of the day is then free for the group to explore the rest of the Estate. To go back to any rooms or parts of the Gardens not covered by the tour to see more. The day is not done for our tour guides however. After each tour they meet up and compare notes on the questions they got asked.

“We are forever learning new things about the place. A question asked by a visitor often sparks further research. The most memorable recently was one about someone who lived here in the early 1900s that was related to the visitor. I went back to our History Room after the tour and checked the census and parish records and found the person and where they, used to live. It was in one of the many cottages on site. These being listed in the 1924 sale catalogue I could go back to the person who who had asked armed with lots of information about their relative. It also got us thinking about our more recent past and the 1924 sale by the Willoughby family to pay death duties and we are now researching for a new display all about the 1924 sale which we hope will be ready for March 2017. It is amazing to see where one simple question can often lead you!” – Betty

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If you are interested in visiting with a group please click here for more details. If you ate interested in joining our volunteer tour guide team please get in touch!

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Every day is a school day…

The history of the Hall spans over 950 years. Although I have been working here for two years and have a good understanding of elements of it; I still enjoy discovering new information pretty much every day. I studied the First World War whilst at university but hadn’t looked at the Battle of Jutland in any great detail. It is the 100 year anniversary of the battle today and perhaps unsurprisingly it is part of our 950 years of history. 

I first learnt of the link between the Hall and the Battle of Jutland when one of our very knowledgeable volunteers asked me if I was willing to take a trip to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich to have a look at their new exhibition and take some notes for her. Having obviously responded with quite a puzzled look she explained more, and a few weeks later I found myself at the National Maritime Museum.

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Some background: The Battle of Jutland was the largest naval battle of World War One and was fought in the North Sea just off the coast of Denmark on 31st May and 1st June 1916. 155 British Navy combat ships lined up against 99 German vessels. The battle lasted two days but was tactically inconclusive, neither side clearly winning the engagement. The British, however, claimed it as a strategic victory as they managed to maintain their naval blockade of Germany and to keep the German fleet away from their own supply lines. During the battle 14 British and 11 German ships were sunk. One of these British ships was HMS Indefatigable (pictured below).

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HMS Indefatigable was hit at 16:02, during the ‘Run to the South’ phase of the battle, by three 11 inch shells fired by SMS Van der Tann, detonating a magazine and she started to sink. Soon after another shell fired by SMS Van der Tann hit and plunged through through HMS Indefatigable’s thin upper armour piercing another magazine the ensuing explosion ripped the ship apart. She sank immediately with her crew of 1,018 officers and men, leaving only three survivors. One of the men that died when she sank was Commander Henry Ernest Digby Hugh Willoughby.

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Henry was born in 1882, the elder son of the 10th Baron Middleton. Henry became a Commander in the Royal Navy in 1896 and was an officer on HMS Indefatigable at the Battle of Jutland. Very little else is known about Henry to the outside world, he was one of eight children and his younger brother Francis also died on active service in the First World War. The Willoughby family had owned Middleton Hall since 1435 and throughout the centuries members of the family had fought and often died on notable battlefield across the country. If you are interested in finding out more about our recent past, the Battle of Jutland and those that fought I can definitely recommend a visit to the National Maritime Museum’s new exhibition. Changing exhibitions are a great way for museums to share their often vast collections and help us mark important anniversaries in our history. We are in the planning stages of our own new exhibition to mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings and Middleton’s links to 1066, this year. Watch this space for more information…

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May’s ‘News from the Gardens’

The colour of spring flowers is currently brightening up the Gardens, even on a rainy day like today. Forget-me-nots, many different species of aquilegia and our ‘wedding cake’ tree are full of colour along the moat. Along our Nature Trail it’s bluebells, wood anemones and golden lesser celandine that are carpeting the woodland floor.

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The blossom in our orchard is attracting the bees to pollinate our many varieties of apple, pear, plum, damson and green gage trees. The Walled Garden is beginning to wake up and developing into the beautiful backdrop for many a wedding photograph over the course of the summer. The plants in flower at the moment include this lovely purple clematis montana. Over the course of the next few months the display in the Walled Garden will change on an almost weekly basis.

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It is not just the Gardens that are teeming with new spring growth, our lake is too. The covers 18 acres and is part of our Site of Special Scientific Interest. At this time of year the new growth of the reeds are a beautiful green around the edges and floating on the lake’s surface are thousands of lily pads. The lilies are yellow and called ‘Brandy-Bottle’ (nuphar lutea) and make great homes and cover for the smaller fish, such as tench and bream, that live in the lake. We also have white water lilies (nymphea alba) on our pond in the Walled Garden.

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Keeping everything looking great is the job of our wonderful team of volunteers. Even on rainy days like today they are here, doing even the most boring of tasks like weeding the gravel, to make sure that everywhere looks neat and tidy for when we are open to the public or hosting a wedding. An added bonus this month is that the fruits of our labour in the potting shed are also ready for sale, with all proceeds going towards the continued maintenance of the Gardens.

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Spring news from the Grounds

With spring most definitely here we are enjoying watching each sign arrive, and with the warmer weather our volunteers have been able to crack on with some jobs that just can’t be done in the winter. Here is what we have been up to over the last couple of months…

During the winter months the trees on our Estate can take a bit of a pounding from the weather. Storm Katie did cause a bit of damage on our Nature Trail so whilst we had our tree specialists in we got them to do a couple of other little jobs too. Our Monkey Puzzle Tree (on the left of this picture) was paid some attention and had a bit of a hair cut. It is around 130 years old and now looks like it’s siblings in its native Chile. As these trees grow to maturity their branches lower down their trunks fall off leaving just the crown. Most Monkey Puzzle trees in this country are still quite young so still have their lower branches.

Monkey Puzzle Tree

We have also noticed an increase in the bird life, with a pair of mute swans who have taken up residence on our Lake, a number of grey wagtails who enjoy sitting on the overflow of water into our moat and lots of lovely treecreepers hunting for insects on the trunks of our many trees. These birds you see from a distance but get too close and they will fly away. There are a few types of birds that we have here that are less shy, the robins of course but also some house sparrows (pictured) that like to investigate the crumbs dropped around our picnic tables.

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We have also conducted our small mammal surveys over the last few weeks, before the breeding season so that we don’t disturb them too much. We conduct surveys so that we can monitor the populations of field mice, field voles and water shrews that we have in the different habitats throughout our estate. We know that a healthy population means we are managing their habitats well and that those animals further up the food chain, especially the birds of prey, have a good chance to flourish as well. In the early spring and late autumn we make at least one of these survey mornings open to the public so that people can come and learn about why we conduct surveys and are with us when we open each trap to see what is inside. Our Small Mammal Survey at the beginning of the month saw us find 9 field mice and 1 field vole (pictured) and we had only set 15 traps, which is a very high number of full traps and a good sign of a healthy population size.

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All this has happened along with the weekly maintenance routine of mowing, strimming, clipping and cutting that goes into keeping our 42 acre site looking its best, it keeps us busy but we do enjoy it, especially when the sun comes out!

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Winter News from the Grounds

With winter almost behind us and spring to all intents and purposes already here we are looking back on all the hard work we have done over the last few months and looking forward to seeing the fruits of our labour this spring. 

With the gardens cleared and mulched they were put to sleep for the winter, the first signs of this hard work paying off have been the wonderful display of hellebores that we have had this year. We have quite a collection and look to add a couple of new varieties each year. They give a display of colour early in the year when most other plants are still asleep for the winter.

Hellebores

When it gets cold at the Hall our lake does ice over, we know when it is really cold as the moat ices over too. This happened only a couple of times this winter but it is always entertaining to watch our resident ducks indulge in a bit of ice skating. Our mild winter was advantageous to some species and encouraged an early flowering of our snowdrops but the colder snap more recently was a welcome relief to our volunteers in our orchard. This is because without a colder period our fruit trees were in danger of flowering to early and would then be vulnerable to any sharp frosts in early spring which would destroy there blossom and mean a lower crop yield this year.

Frozen Moat

Today has been the first day that we have cut the lawns, our volunteers pride themselves in getting the lines really straight. We have also cleared more self-seeded trees in our formal gardens this year, and have prepared the ground ready to seed new lawns. Have a look at our video to see how sometimes the old fashioned machines are the ones that still work the best.

Mowing the West Lawn

 

With all this hard work we will be ready to open this Easter Weekend for the start of our summer season. Our Food & Craft Market is our Easter Sunday entertainment and on Easter Bank Holiday Monday we welcome everyone to our Family Fun Day, with bouncy castles, circus entertainment and children’s trails galore! And for those that prefer a quieter visit we are open every Wednesday from March 30th with tours and talks on the history of the Hall available. We look forward to seeing you here soon.

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