Posts Tagged ‘history’

Genetics and education (part 2)

It’s Wednesday morning and time for my weekly contributor, Rambler5319, to take over with his guest post.

This week we’re looking at the second part of the subject I started last week (13.11.13).

If you didn’t catch it here’s the intro again and then I’ll go on to the second two speakers and the subjects they covered.

The results of a study (in the UK) and a recent book (G For Genes) about the academic achievements of 10,000 sets of identical twins have caused something of an uproar. Why? Firstly because the report was leaked to a newspaper when it was meant for internal use only and secondly because of its potential implications. The senior policy advisor to the UK Government’s Education Secretary reckons that genetics are the largest factor in educational achievement.

Let me explain. The identical twins were born 1994-96 and the results of their GCSE exams (at 16 yrs old) have been analysed. A recent radio programme (The Moral Maze, Radio 4) tackled the subject and one of the authors of the book quoted a figure saying that 52% of the variance in the results was down to genetics. Their suggestion was that we should consider the idea of “genetically sensitive schools”. Wow! Does that make you think (like me): “I wonder where this is going?”

If you fancy a listen to the discussion programme here’s the link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fdjsp

Ok so the next speaker (the third in the prog) was asked if he thought that using genetics for human enhancement is immoral. His answer was that it was immoral “not to use it”. He believes humans don’t want sickness and ultimately death so if there is a way to get round these by using genetic information he thinks we should. However the panel made a good point on this by saying that surely our humanity (and its limited lifespan) is what gives us the ability to display certain characteristics. The example was given of say a normal person who walks through a minefield is showing great courage but if that person is immortal they cannot demonstrate courage because they cannot be killed by stepping onto a mine. I think you can see the point – as humans with a certain lifespan we can demonstrate things that an immortal person cannot. The panel believed that imperfections in everyone are what make us what we are as humans and the idea of getting rid of these takes us into a very difficult area. His response was that certain characteristics (not all) should be got rid of.

He then took the discussion into the area of cruelty. He believes everyone would like to get rid of cruelty. If they could discover what makes people cruel then they could change something in the genetic make up to stop it. One of the panel’s responses was quite simply – the idea is mad. The research seems to be going into the area of altering what is a human being. Who is going to do the deciding of what (and who?) is changed? You? Me? The scientist? The Government?

The last speaker felt that this whole area is just a short step away from eugenics. History demonstrates that genetic research has definitely gone down the wrong road he said. However he did agree that if the genetic information seemed to suggest that a person may have a pre-disposition to a particular medical problem, say heart disease or something else it should be made available and used to hopefully treat that person. This sounds ok but what do you do if you find evidence of something which may have serious implications about the life expectancy of a person? Do you tell the person? There is certainly a moral issue there. Is it right to let them know or will they be happier not knowing? And once again who is going to make that decision? And who is going to have the conversation with the affected person?

The more I listened to the various points of view on this the more I thought that the implications are too far reaching for us to know the answers. It’s a bit like asking the early travellers on a railway train which ran at say 15 mph whether they could imagine a world in which trains would travel at over 100mph and even 200mph. (Incidentally, in June this year, it was reported that Japan is trialling a new series of magnetic trains which will be able to travel at over 300mph cutting the Bullet train times – between Tokyo & Nagoya – by just over 50%. However you have another 14 years before they’re due to come into service!)

Who could have imagined those first ships that were built to carry just a few containers would end up the monsters we have today. Ships launched this year are just short of 400 metres in length and capable of carrying the equivalent of up to 18,000 containers. If all the containers were laid end to end they would stretch for 110kms – wow just read that again 110kms of containers on one ship!

Imagine a conversation say 40 years ago when many people had to look for a phone box to make a call with someone and telling them that in the future nearly everyone will be able to be contacted at any time of the day or night because they’ll all have a device which they can carry around with them; it will track their exact position anywhere on the globe and enable many other things to be done. Of course it would have sounded fanciful but aren’t we facing a similar conversation now about genetic information?

And so it is with this whole area of genetics. How can we possibly imagine what will be in 50 or 100 years time? Will those people look back on us as short-sighted & resistant to change. They probably will. By then any moral issues will have been passed by in some way and that new world will be functioning very differently to the one we know today. We may or may not be part of it (well the 50 year one for younger folks) but would we want to be?

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Will there be any history left?

When I think about my trip to Ightham Mote the other day, part of it’s attraction was how they didn’t definitely know who’d built it, they didn’t definitely know if Henry VI had visited, they thought that probably the new chapel was built as a guest bedroom.

They had done some cool dendochronology thing where they had managed to work out the date of origin for each part of building. There were lots of theories about when the ceiling in the new chapel had been built and painted. Had it been built for another building? A ceremonial outdoor thing for the king perhaps? But the exact same proportions as the roof in the room at Ightham Mote? They worked out eventually it had been built for the room and painted in situ.

There was a lot of mystery, a lot of research. I often wished, when reading history books, that we knew exactly what had happened, exactly what kind of people they were, exactly what they were thinking. But I also recognised that if I did know all those things, the mystery and intrigue would be gone. I’d probably go, “I wish I knew what they were really thinking at that moment? O, here it is. She was a bit bored. Ok, then. Ummm.”

And this is my worry. Are we making our history boring by recording everything? There’s no mystery. If someone in a few hundred years wanted to know what the World Famous Writer/Baker/Farmer Laura Maisey was thinking about at 7:26am on September 24, 2013, it’s all here. I’m going on about making history boring.

The stuff that’s most interesting for me in Ham House is the stuff that they don’t know for definite yet or the stuff that has numerous different stories attached to it.

And there’s Time Team to think about too. I mean, what will Baldrick do if he doesn’t need to dig sections of soil up anymore? People will have been rabbiting on about their new houses and gardens and there will be no need to try and establish where the outside walls of the castle were anymore. He’ll be able to just Google it.

Is that ok? That we are turning future historians into Google lovers? Maybe we should kill the internet briefly in a hundred years or so and start afresh, erasing everything and so creating some mystery for the poor bored historians of the year 2500?

Llangollen (Part 2)

Morning, readers. It’s time for Rambler5319 to finish a story he started telling us a few weeks back. Enjoy!

 

If you remember my post from a couple of weeks ago (The Aqueduct, 4.9.13) well this is part 2 of that trip (or the rest of day 1). After the aqueduct we headed out of town just a couple of miles to what is called Valle Crucis Abbey. It means valley of the cross. (You’d never have guessed that would you?) The cross in question is actually another ancient monument which we’ll come to later. Now LLM was mentioning old stuff in her Monday post so I couldn’t resist this as I can beat her, twice actually! Firstly this Cistercian abbey was built during the reign of King John in 1201 – that’s 14 years before the Magna Carta and beats her sink by about 124 years! (If you remember the post from 15.5.13 on St Winifred’s Well, Basingwerk Abbey was also Cistercian & Welsh, from 1132, so pre-dated Valle Crucis by about 70 years.)

Here’s a pic.

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You’ll prob notice things like no roof or glass in windows. Apparently there were about 3 fires in its early days and that’s the reason for some of the damage and the brown tinge on the light coloured stone around the arched doorway. However the chapterhouse around the grass quadrangle is in better condition.

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Here’s the arch at the end of that block. You can see the different types of stone and the crack above the arch. And a view looking inside

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As part of their subsistence living the monks at Valle Crucis had a large fish pond; apparently monks were forbidden to eat meat from animals with four legs. For any of you searching for monastic fish ponds in Wales look no further – I can tell you this is the only surviving one!

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This small building, next to the pond, had a date stone showing 1773 over the door so much later than the original abbey.

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Coming out of there we walked along the road to find the “cross” which the abbey is named after. Here it is unfortunately surrounded by railings so you can’t get close up to it. It is called Eliseg’s Pillar and is built on top of a burial mound.

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And here’s the info board

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Now the number is not that clear but it does say the 9th century. Yep, read that again, THE 9TH, which means built in the 800s. This is the second time I beat LLM’s sink but this time by about 500 years!

Think it’s worth saying though that it’s not just the age that is interesting. I agree with LLM that once I’ve told you it’s nearly 1200 years old and you’ve said “Wow!” you do just move on. No, for me the interest is in the stories behind the object, building or place and their connections to the present day. I’m imagining how in the 800s a guy commissioned a stone mason to make the pillar and then for it to be moved to where they put it up. I wonder how much he was paid as it was a royal commission. Was it put on a horse and cart to take it there? Did the guy work on the stone first then move it or work on it at the spot where it is now? What made the man who commissioned it want to do it? A person? An event or historic victory? It’s all those sorts of things which make it interesting.

Another thing which makes historical things interesting is their rarity or in some cases uniqueness: the fish pond for instance being the only one in Wales; the pillar, as we’ll find out later, celebrating a king and a victory. If you know there’s only one of something and you’ve seen it you kind of feel as if you’ve achieved something in finding it or coming across it if you hadn’t gone looking for it.

At the Abbey I’m wondering how these monks actually got all the work done to build the place and then to grow, fish or hunt enough to survive in what is a fairly isolated place. Some questions can be answered by referring to other historical documents and sources but some remain cases for speculation. Basically I suppose I think places of historical interest are as interesting as you the viewer want them to be. One person can be very excited at the surroundings and the stories associated with them but another may just think it’s boring. (“Each to his own” comes to mind.) I think the most interesting historical bits you come across are those that relate to your own family history. Knowing about the history of the area around Llangollen is one thing but know about where your actual ancestors (grandparents, great-grandparents etc) lived makes it so much more relevant and personal to you. It’s your story and it means something because your family is associated with that place. If any of you watch that programme Who Do You Think You Are? You can’t fail to notice how emotional some people get when they’re taken to places their ancestors lived or worked or had something tragic happen there or meet living relatives of their ancestors. There’s a kind of bond even though they’ve never met before.

So, back to the pillar. I can tell you that it was erected by Cyngen, the last king of an area of Wales called Powys, in memory of his great-grandfather Eliseg who recovered the land of Powys from the English. It commemorates a great victory. The inscription also tells us that Eliseg was a descendent of Vortigern, a 5th century warlord, who after a tragedy in his own family apparently took refuge in North Wales and also, via marriage, of the 4th century Emperor Magnus Maximus one of the last Roman rulers of Britain.

Then it was back to the hotel and a quick change. We met up outside for a short walk to our evening meal. It was in a converted mill. Here’s the info sign. You might recognise a connection with our earlier visit to the abbey.

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You see how those bits of history link up. The monks from the Abbey we’d just visited 2 miles up the road were responsible for building this.

Not surprisingly it is called The Corn Mill. We had a great meal & good service – no complaints at all. While we were sitting at our table I noticed an old advertising sign which had been framed and was hanging on the wall.

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If you can see it (or enlarge it) at the bottom it says the firm is based in London. In my own family history I am researching a possible connection with the company. My paternal grandmother, who lived in London in the area near their factory, may have worked for them back in 1901 so that made this sign very interesting for me. There we were eating in a mill originally founded by the monks who built the abbey we had visited earlier in the day and with a possible connection to my family ancestors. For you it’s very probably a shrug and move on to the next bit because it has no connections for you but for me it’s those connections that make it interesting and that’s history. Getting things into a context with events at the time and a historical timeline are what bring the story together. And that’s as interesting as you personally want it to be.

We did a brief walk around the town before heading back to the hotel.

Here’s an interesting little building.

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And then there was this display in Gale’s of Llangollen Wine shop window

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I could only get the first three in the display. There were another 6 going down in size so a total of 9 bottles.

For those of you who are not familiar with champagne bottle sizes. The standard measure is 75cl (0.75L) and is actually called a bottle (should serve 8 glasses). All the sizes going up from this one are multiples of the “bottle” size so it goes Magnum (2 bottles, 16 glasses) = 1.5L, Jeroboam (4 bottles) = 3L, Reheboam (6 bottles) = 4.5L, Methuselah (8 bottles) = 6L, Salmanazar (12 bottles) = 9L, Balthazar (16 bottles) = 12L & finally Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles, should serve a whopping 160 glasses!) = 15L. The full Nebuchadnezzar is going to weigh you down a bit as it tips the scales at 38 kilos! Not something your plastic supermarket bag is going to cope with. And I guess it’s going to empty your wallet too! (I checked on line and some brands retail at about £1200/$1911!)

In case you’re wondering where the names for these sizes come from there seems to be no definitive answer. One source thinks it’s because a French Benedictine monk (Dom Perignon, 1638-1715) was involved. One Bordeaux wine maker says that they have been using the name Jeroboam since 1725 and that the Champagne region then adopted it. The larger sizes, it is said, came in during the 1940s.

So who were these guys who got champagne bottle sizes named after them (going in order):

Jeroboam (3L) -The nation of Israel had been just one nation until after the reigns of King David & then his son Solomon. During the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam there was a revolt. The kingdom split into two. Jeroboam became the first king of the ten tribes who revolted and formed a completely separate nation in the north of the country. He reigned from about 931BC-910BC.

Rehoboam (4.5L) – His dates seem to be somewhat disputed but from anywhere from about 937BC to around 907BC. After Jeroboam’s revolt he ended up king over the two tribes who remained in the south of the country.

Methuselah (6L) – You probably all know of this guy. He’s the person who has lived longer than anyone else. The book of Genesis gives his age as 969 years. He was the grandfather of Noah (of Noah’s Ark fame).

Salmanazar (9L) – He was king of Assyria 727-722BC and defeated the ten northern tribes who had revolted against him. They were taken into exile.

Balthazar (12L) – Might refer to one of the three kings (Balthasar, Gaspar (or Casper), and Melchior) who came to see the baby Jesus. Could refer to Daniel (of lion’s den fame) who was renamed Belteshazzar by the Babylonians who took him and his three friends away from their homeland to live in Babylon.

Nebuchadnezzar (15L) – This is probably Nebuchadnezzar II (605BC-562BC). He had a number of dreams which Daniel interpreted for him as his own “magicians and astrologers” couldn’t. (His son Belshazzar was the king who saw “the fingers of a man’s hand writing on the wall” at a feast he was having. Very probably this is where we get our expression “the writing’s on the wall” from.)

And there you have it. Some strange connections but interesting I think.  

Show me the Old Stuff

“Wow, is this the original table that was here in the chapel in 1330?” I asked the room guide in the Old Chapel at Ightham Mote.

“It is definitely of that period. You can see it was quite stylish for the time because….”

“Yeh, but is it the actual real table from 1330? From here?”

“Well, it has been acquired by the Trust to replicate what would have been here but it’s not the original from this room, no.”

“Ah.”

And I wandered off, looking for some actual old stuff. I found one of the sitting rooms and a lovely little fireplace.

“Is this an original fireplace?” I asked the room guide, all excited.

“Yes, it was built in the Victorian times.”

Pfft! Victorian times! Whatevs. I need medieval or nothing.

When I reached the kitchen, I found out the sink had been built in 1330 and I just stood looking at it going, “O wow. What an old sink.” I wanted to get my Indiana Jones on and start having an archeological adventure but the truth is, I’m not equipped with the historical knowledge to really draw any fascinating conclusions about the development of sink building by looking at the sink.

Actually, after about 30 seconds of going, “O, wow,” the people I was with had moved into the next room so I just walked off.

There is the same thing when I am demonstrating in the Ham House kitchen. People always ask which bits are the oldest. Once they’ve looked at the table, I tell them that the mantelpiece thing over the range is original.

They go up to it – it’s a peice of painted wood on the wall – and they look at it really closely and they go “O wow.” Then they walk off.

I could understand it if I was going to do a bit of dendochronology and start dating the origins of the room by looking at the wood. But once my insatiable need to see The Old Stuff has been met by something old, I just go, “O wow, it’s so old,” then walk off.

What is this Old Stuff obsession about? Is it a bit of one-up-manship?

“I’ve totally seen older stuff than you. I saw a kitchen sink built in 1325. Beat you!”

Even more cool facts about Ham House

(This is a follow on from two earlier posts about the house.)

A few days ago, after sorting out the harvest from the garden, I went on a Behind The Scenes tour in Ham House. It was fascinating. We squished and squeezed and poked about these little passages, learning about the world that the servants occupied.

We started outside the house, learning about how the West Door, which is the door on the side of the building that the volunteers and staff use, was a later addition. It was part of the refurbishment in which a whole new section was built on the back of the house.

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It reflected the changing attitudes to servants at this time. Previously, the servants had not had their own passages and rooms. They had walked around among the family doing their jobs. When everything French started to become fashionable, there was a move toward copying their system of the servants being out of sight so that the family did not have to witness a slop bucket or drying linen being carried around. It was believed that these things should happen behind the scenes.

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This affected the nature of the servants work. Up until this point, people had slept where their work was. The lady-in-waiting to the Duchess would sleep on a pallet on the floor next to the Duchess’ bed. The kitchen maids slept on a raised wooden plinth underneath the kitchen table.

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And the ladies in charge of the linen cupboard and wardrobe would sleep in a small room built in to the corner of the room in which the linen was kept.

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(It’s an office now but all the office furniture has been built in a non intrusive way so that it could be taken away and the room would still be preserved as it was.)

In the same office is this old fireplace from 1610 when the house was originally built.

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As I was saying, because the servants were starting to be kept out of the way more, there were secret passages built in when the refurbishments were made. There were also servants’ staircases and dorms and bedrooms in the very top floors so that they were hidden and out of the way overnight.

These areas are fascinating to look around. There are two lengths of roof and one side was the mens’ dorms and the other was the girls’ bedrooms.

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The little girl in me was bursting with excitement at being allowed into the forbidden secret parts of the house!

One of the bedrooms on the girls’ side had been made up to look how it probably would have at the time.

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There were a few later time periods also showing their faces. There is the lift that was put in during the time of the 9th Earl of Dysart (early 1900s) and a bell that was installed in 1789.

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(The date is on the top of the bell. You’ll have to zoom in a bit, probably.)

Whilst stumbling around in these fascinating rooms and corridors in the roof….

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…we came across a lot of rooms that are currently being used for storage, as Ham House has no external storage facilities. Back in the main part of the house, rooms that the Duchess’ sisters stayed in are full of beautiful old furniture or bits and pieces that are not currently on display. These rooms were part of the new build which had left windows marooned in the strange places and occasional telltale signs of the old outside wall, now in the middle of a suite of rooms.

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We finished the tour downstairs, in the servants’ dining room where some scenes from Downton Abbey were filmed. Any watchers of Downton may remember the scenes in the Crawley household, when they set up a soup kitchen during the war. Well, this is that very room! (Sorry, the light wasn’t great.)

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So there you go. A sneaky insider’s look at Ham House. Don’t tell anyone I let you in!

More cool facts about Ham House

Last month, I did a mini factfile-type thing about Ham House, where I volunteer as a ‘historic baker’. About two weeks ago, I went on a guided tour of the house, specially organised for the volunteers. So this is inside info I’ve got for you here.

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Ok, first things first, the house was built in 1610 by a man called Sir Thomas Vavasour, Knight Marshal to James I.

William Murray took over the lease in 1626. He was the whipping boy of Charles I and there is a painting of the king hanging in the Long Gallery, which was given to Murray by Charles.

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It was originally built in the shape of a H. As you can see in the picture above, it still resembles a H shape at the front. The back was filled in during the time of the Duchess of Lauderdale, in the late 1600s.

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(You can sort of see the back of the house here.)

After a time of popularity with influential politicians, the Duke of Lauderdale fell out of favour and the family found that they were no longer entertaining the large crowds that they had once accommodated in the banqueting hall, which ran the length of the middle of the H shape.

To allow more light into the hall downstairs, the Duchess had the floor opened up and created what is now the Round Gallery.

All the gardens were built in patterns which ran along straight lines as that was the fashion then. Order and symmetry was thought to be the most pleasing on the eye.

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The little statues in the walls at the front of the house were rescued when the original wall, which ran between Ham House and the river, was knocked down in the early 1800s.

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There are ghosts in Ham House! Tons, apparently. And quite a few in the kitchen, where I work. Apparently people have seen a dog running down the corridors which is thought to be the Duchess of Lauderdale’s dog as dogs are not actually allowed in the property as it is now.

And last but not least, when tea was first arriving on the scene in the UK, apparently it was drunk very often at Ham House.

Thank you, Ham House. Thank you for showing us the way.

A day in the life of a scullery maid

I’ve been volunteering at Ham House for a few weeks now so I thought I’d give you all a little insight to a typical day in the kitchen there.

I spend an hour or so in the morning, testing the recipe I’m doing that day so I’m prepared for any potential disasters. Depending on if I have spotted any, I will pack my bag of stuff to take and include things which may prevent anything going wrong, eg, a palate knife to save me fighting with a biscuit stuck on a tray in front of the visitors.

I walk to the river and take the pleasantest half hour commute I’ve ever known, alongside the Thames.

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When I get there, I’ve already worked out what I’ll need from the cafe kitchen so I head there, pick up my eggs and butter, leave my stuff in a locker in the main house then put on my apron and get a head start on my baking before the house opens to the public.

As the kitchen is at the end of the recommended walk around the house, I have 45 minutes or so to get my first batch done.
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During this 45 minutes, the other room guides and demonstrators will have followed their noses to the kitchen to try the biscuits/cakes and have a little chitchat.

Once the first visitors come downstairs to look around, I’m in it then. The questions are constant.

“What are in these biscuits?”
“Where did you find the recipe, they’re really good.”
“When would these have been eaten?”
“What would they have been eaten with?”
“How many servants would have been working in the kitchen?”
“Would they have eaten at this table too?”

And I love it. I totally get in the zone. I tell them the answers when I do know them and speculate on the possibilities when I don’t. Long discussions arise, about how much wine they drunk, whether they had a small digestive biscuit after dinner, whether they brewed tea in the dining room or whether it was brewed in the kitchen then taken up because surely it would have been cold by then and etc, etc.

And people say fabulous things before they leave the kitchen, the best being a variation on, “This really brings the history alive.” I love that I’ve taken part in a kind of ‘living history’ thing, where people become more interested or understand better the history of where they are because of something I have done or said.

The baking and the tasting and the chatting continues on for a few hours, when it starts to die down. As the remaining visitors walk around, I start packing up my stuff. Once the house is officially closed, I take everything back to the tea room except the butter and eggs, which I take to the cafe kitchen.

When I return from the cafe kitchen, everyone else has gone. There are only a few volunteers left upstairs, tidying things up for the evening. As I walk through the downstairs section and all the lights are off, I feel like an actual scullery maid from 1650 staying awake to keep the fire stoked overnight. I imagine what my life would have been like 400 years ago and what it was really like to work in a house like this.
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Some time after this, I stop daydreaming, change my smart clothes for comfy ones and walk home along the river. It is around this point that I realise what I brilliant day I have had and need to share it so Facebook something like, “What a brilliant day.” I’m so imaginative.

And that, my friends, is my typical day as a scullery maid in the Ham House kitchen. I would’ve done fabulously in Downton Abbey times. I wouldn’t be surprised if they called and asked me to be in the next series actually.