I sometimes think there is a bit of a misconception about pre-season in the heritage industry. The assumption is that – with no visitors around – the properties themselves fall quiet and cold. It’s a logical enough theory but one that is most definitely unfounded.
In the absence of the general public, other departments are free to move in; the deep-cleaning team, maintenance, the specialised repair crews.
Out on the grounds the gardeners can get down to the planting and the heavy lifting; there is painting to be done, re-surfacing and all of the general signage needs updating. Never in my life have I seen a laminator so busy!
For the last eleven seasons I have worked at Hever Castle and Gardens in Kent; the childhood home of King Henry VIII’s ill-fated second wife Anne Boleyn who was executed in 1536 at the Tower of London on charges of adultery.
At Hever we have a particularly short pre-season turn-around – only about six weeks in total – which means that however big the ‘to-do’ list is, it must be to-done by the February half-term!
Those lists will differ from department to department. Marketing have to look at the pricing structures; familiarise themselves with upcoming events and begin the new publicity drive. Maintenance have to repair and rebuild; particularly those jobs that are more difficult to finish when surrounded by several thousand tourists!
In the Visitor Services office (where I am also to be found) the yearly events must be chosen and organised; old staff reemployed and new staff hired not to mention trained-up and prepared – as much as it is possible to prepare anyone for an industry in which you can be asked what period of history Game of Thrones is set in!
In my role I am in charge of the guided tours and with a slimmed-down team I often step in to take the bed and breakfast guests on a complimentary closed-season castle tour. Hospitality is the only side of the business that doesn’t change pace at this time and winter weddings are a common event; particularly since in the six week closed period there is the only chance to marry within the castle itself.
Of course for the most part, the castle in the closed season belongs to the conservation team, who meticulously deep-clean, polish and attend to every item, fabric and room in the building. In this they are often buoyed by the soft and lilting strains of Germany heavy metal music – to each their own!
We flung the doors back open on Saturday 11th February and the final week before the grand re-opening was easily the most frenetic as the final preparations fell into place. It ended late on Friday evening with the arrival of several thousand new leaflets which will be handed out liberally right through until the winter when the entire process will start again.
Despite all the hard work however, the pre-season is oddly exhilarating too as a real blitz spirit seems to take hold; every department in it together – huddled in a proverbial fox hole and watching expectant tourists gather on the bluff!
Now in my eleventh season I think it’s safe to say that Hever Castle is in my blood. But that is part of what makes working there so fantastic – people just don’t want to leave. People who are employed at Hever tend to stay there for years and as a result there is a real sense of community – a genuine sense of family as well. Many staff members live on site with their children, people bring their dogs in to work. For better or for worse there is really nothing like it.
The entire estate is a living breathing entity and just because the visitors aren’t present it doesn’t mean the life ebbs out of it. On the contrary; by the time the visitors finally step in again it feels like the place has never been closed, which is probably because – in reality – it hasn’t been. One hundred and thirty people never left.