2014 and all that…

Well, here we are almost at Christmas yet again…….

Stopping to think about it makes me realise how much has happened in the past year. This time last year we were labelling, packing and moving hundreds of items belonging to the west end of the house. Many of them are in our normal show house rooms but as many again, if not more, are from the up until now private bedrooms situated in that part of the mansion.

Last January the contractors moved into this part of the building and started their work. Upstairs floors have been strengthened and re-wiring and re-plumbing have taken place. Then floor boards were replaced, the walls and ceilings were repainted as well as the doors and skirtings.

Then the rooms were returned to us and we started our re-instatement.

Paintings are hung on the newly painted walls, our regular visitors will see a big difference next year as we have many beautiful new paintings (on loan from the 10th Marquess) as well as several of our established ones now hung in a different place. Lady Londonderry’s Sitting Room, for example, is now furnished as Edith, Lady Londonderry had it years ago. The fireplace wall is covered with paintings – one of her son Robin, the 8th Marquess, the rest of Lady Mairi, her youngest daughter – a bit like a large family photo album!

Re-hanging Hambletonian in its new frame

Re-hanging Hambletonian in its new frame

Much of the furniture has been moved back into its room, maybe not into the exact place it will live in but close by. Hundreds of books are back on their shelves in Lady Londonderry’s sitting room and Lord Londonderry’s study, boxes of ornaments and smaller items have also returned to the rooms ready for being put out on display again. Carpets and flooring are also laid.

The contractors have been hugely busy this year and have made great progress; by Christmas they will have handed back all but two of the bedrooms (Archangel and Sebastopol) upstairs and their corridor, while downstairs they are only left in the kitchen plus entrance and central halls. They will also be moving into the chapel in the New Year – their last area to start work on!

That means, of course, that we have to clear the chapel and find new storage for the items there – space in the house is getting tight again!

In the middle of all the above we have also welcomed over twenty seven and a half thousand visitors into our house this (shortened) season. A massive well done to our guides for such a fine job in very unusual circumstances.

2014 has certainly been a year to remember in Mount Stewart house!

Sheena

Our volunteers come from far and wide!

We benefit from the work of many volunteers at Mount Stewart. Some have been volunteering here for a long time; others have arrived more recently – especially in relation to the project.

Most of our volunteers are local people who give their time regularly to us (whatever they want and can spare), others are people who come and stay in our volunteer accommodation and work for a specified number of weeks or months.

Many of these live in volunteers come to work in the gardens, others in the house and/or on the project.

One of the most recent was Laura Tohila, a Finnish girl who worked here for some fifteen weeks over two different spells, summer and then autumn – she was determined to come back!

Elaine Hill FR80 Hague Before Conservation 01

Laura comes from the town of Oulu, which is situated on the Western coast of Finland, slightly over half way up the country. Founded in 1605, it is the fifth most populous city in Finland with over 190,000 inhabitants. Her parents run a chemistry company where her elder brother and sister both work.

She attends Kymenlaakso University of Applied Sciences in Kouvola, which is on the East coast of Finland, facing Russia. She is taking a course in general conservation, having already studied painting.

Laura has an interest in history and likes working with her hands so conservation is an ideal career choice. In her free time she likes to draw, read (especially myths and legends), play the piano and do handcrafts.

While she was here at Mount Stewart she worked mostly with Fergus Purdy, our Furniture Conservator. Fergus told me how quickly she picked up things and how he valued her assistance, in fact it seemed strange to see Fergus working on his own again after she left!

After all her on the job training with Fergus, Laura would like to specialize in furniture conservation and has been doing some more in this after her return to Kouvola. She is currently working on a small table and a long case clock from her school’s storage collection.

Conservation in Finland is a small, individual type business with people running their own firms, probably similar to the UK and Ireland where conservators operate independently and are employed by those who need their skills and services.

Laura’s work was much appreciated and all of her friends at Mount Stewart were sorry to see her leave. We hope she enjoyed her time with us and benefited from the experience.

Sheena

If you would like to find out more about volunteering at Mount Stewart, please visit our website and click ‘Join In’.

A dab of paint here and there

The painting contractor is Joseph Hughes, he can employ up to sixty painters on a job. Here at Mount Stewart it is normally up to ten that are working each day, led by Sam, the foreman.

Elaine Hill GR19 Drawing Room Before Decorating 05

(c) Elaine Hill

Painting Mount Stewart is a bit different from your average house job! Brushes are used instead of the more normal rollers. There are bespoke colour matches to be made and the painters contribute their skills and knowledge to help match previous paints used in the house. Sheen levels and finishes are carefully studied. Case and Distemper (which is being used) is an old type of paint with a chalky type; it is supplied by Farrow & Ball.  Barry is the man doing the mixing, he looks at the colour, goes away and returns with the correct shade – or sometime two versions for Frances, our curator, to choose between.

There are several specialists who come on board to do certain tasks in the project:

  • PJ Burns enamels the baths.
  • Nichol Plaster Mouldings are working on the mouldings – especially in the drawing room.
  • Tommy Stevenson of CDS does the lime plastering of walls and ceilings.
  • Trade Mark Mason will be repairing the South Terrace.
  • K Contracts have installed the new safety system up on the roof.
  • Glass Marque are working on the skylights and have done a great job on the central hall dome.

Sheena

European Heritage Open Day 2014

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Last weekend, 13 -14 September 2014, was European Heritage Open Day (EHOD for short).

This is an annual event which started in 1984. It takes place over the second weekend in September each year and is an opportunity for people to visit interesting places that they may not normally think of going to see.

There are a few variations on the opening weekend. Some places (like National Trust properties) open on one or other of the days and others open on both. Some places (again like National Trust properties) are normally open to the public for an entry fee but are open on this occasion for free; others are normally closed to the public but open for one or two days only each year during this event!

National Trust properties open for free on Saturday only, Sunday is a normal entry day again.

It is a popular event, over 60,000 people in Northern Ireland avail of the opportunity to investigate their heritage. This year here at Mount Stewart we had 1687 visitors to the property, of which 779 entered the house. With our show house smaller than usual because of the ongoing building work, we were probably at full capacity for the day.

Happily most of our visitors this season seem to have enjoyed seeing behind the scenes, watching some of our conservators in action and learning about the project and are keen to return in the future to see the end result – which is going to be rather fabulous (not that I am biased or anything…)!!

We are starting to get some of our showrooms back again which is very exciting and encouraging for us. We are starting to clean and prepare these rooms and furnishings are being returned to them. We have a busy winter ahead of us as we re-instate all the rooms ready for next season.

Next Sunday, 21 September, will be the last open day for our house this season as our contractors have work to do in a few of the areas that are currently open to the public. This needs to be completed before we open again next Spring.

Then, from next week onwards, it is all hands to the pumps as we get down to work. Everything has to be ready for the re-opening of the showrooms, which will be back to ’normal’ – except even better than ever!

Sheena

Busy, busy, busy!

Amongst the busiest of the ‘subbies’ are the electricians (fondly known as the sparks) – Irwins Electrical Contractors. They are a local family business currently run by John Irwin.

They are a busy firm with both commercial and domestic contracts, doing both installation and maintenance. They work in large jobs such as in government buildings as well as smaller jobs in private homes.

Our team leader is Brian. Brian started as an apprentice over 25 years ago and has worked for Irwins for 11 years. At the moment he has a team of ten – four apprentices and six electricians. Last year the team was smaller and also some of the personnel were different. Brian can often be seen pouring over maps of the house as he figures out the routes for all his wiring.

The whole building is being rewired and also with pyro wire, which is incredibly stiff and hard to bend and work with. So pushing the electrical wires under floor boards and through gaps takes a lot of time and effort! However it is the toughest and most fire proof wiring about, so Mount Stewart should be safe from electrical fires for many years.

They also have to set up any temporary lighting that is required. A good example is the lighting currently in our Central Hall. But there is lighting required all over the building so that the work can be carried out. So the sparks can be found beavering away anywhere – roof space, basement….

Part of the electrical work is for the upgraded alarm system, Irwins put in all the wiring and then Crane Communications, our alarm company, attach and commission the new sensors. This is ongoing as they have to come in behind the building work. We currently have two systems (old and new) in operation – which is great fun (not)!

Our plumbers are local firm Maurice Stevenson & Co, another family firm founded in 1921 and currently run by Mrs Stevenson.

Peter is the head plumber in charge, but not on site every day. Stephen is the on-site plumber; he and his assistant can be found laying pipes and peering under floorboards around the building.

One time recently when, one Saturday, there was no hot water in the house, Stephen came in and tracked down the problem. A hot tap had been knocked on very slightly the previous day and because the bath was well wrapped up and protected from all the work going on, this was not seen or realised. Stephen turned off a couple of taps and soon the boiler temperature was rising fast, back up to its proper level.

Sheena

Meet our hard working sub-contractors!

Our main contractors are local firm H&J Martin. They are a family run business dating back to 1839, around the time the Stewarts were adding on to their house at Mount Stewart.

This is not the first time that H&J have done work here, they were the firm who did the work on our new reception area in 2001-2. Also they did the work on the Temple of Winds in the mid 1990s. They also did some work for the Londonderry family over the years up to the 1950s.

H&J now work in many countries – such as the UK, Republic of Ireland, Germany, Romania, Saudi Arabia – both in building and property maintenance, it’s great to see a Northern Ireland firm do so well internationally! One of the best aspects for them working on our project is that they are all presently living at home instead of having to live abroad/away from home and family as is fairly normal.

The team here is headed up by Maurice, who is the Project Manager. Maurice has been with H&J for forty years, starting as an apprentice joiner in August 1974. He has worked on many commercial projects over the years including hospitals, schools and shopping centres and was involved in the refurbishment of The Opera House after it was bombed in 1993.

Kelly-Ann is the Site Manager; she has been with H&J for about eight years and started in a more office type job as a document controller before moving into the more hands-on management side of the business. Kelly-Ann is working towards her CIOB (Chartered Institute of Builders) qualifications and takes a practical approach to training, learning on the job from her experienced colleagues.

Brian is the Assistant Site Manager, he is with H&J for one year, and his background is in a degree in Construction Engineering & Management.

They are the main three managers onsite, but there are others occasionally ‘passing through’ – such as Doreen, who is a Quantity Surveyor.

R&M Joinery are our hard working joiners.

R&M are Rab and Marty, both former H&J employees now in partnership for some three years.

This is a very busy section as there is much joinery (some temporary, some permanent) to be done on any building site. They build temporary doors, frames, platforms and barriers, as well as working on floors, skirting, windows and all the wooden parts around a house.

At Mount Stewart they employ several joiners as well as a labourer/stone mason.

Sheena

Our wonderful subbies!

As mentioned before in my earlier diaries, Mount Stewart House is currently in the middle of a huge restoration project.

After a couple of centuries of being lived in and over 35 years of National Trust visitors, the house was in need of some TLC. This is a very exciting time for those of us who work there, as we are seeing our house being ‘done up’ and secured for the future.

Our main contractors are local firm H&J Martin. They have several sub-contractors (known as ‘subbies’) who carry out the specialist work such as joinery, painting, plumbing and electricals.

There is also the firm DJV Insulation who have been working on the asbestos removal.

Asbestos removal has been a major challenge, taking about twice the time it was expected, as at the time (1920’s and 30’s) the bathrooms were installed in the house; asbestos was the miracle substance being used in building work. It was only many years later that it was realised how dangerous it can be (it is fine when in undamaged condition, the danger starts when it breaks down or gets damaged) and many older buildings are riddled with asbestos – including Kensington Palace in London!

DJV are a family run business from Hillsborough with over 20 years experience in asbestos removal. A major reason they won the Mount Stewart contract was the experience of their foreman, David.

They work (and have to) in a very careful and particular manner. Areas have to be sealed off with tents, the men work in safety gear (goggles, helmets, suits, breathing apparatus etc.) and stringent safety procedures are followed – it is always better to be safe than sorry!

The tents need to be air tight, so a smoke test is done before the work starts to make sure. A controlled exit route is established for removal of contaminated material and nobody else should be within the route during the specified removal times. This contaminated material is carefully disposed of later.

It is very detailed work. For instance, absolutely everything under the floorboards needs thoroughly cleaned (pipes, wires, beams, plaster) and this takes a long time.

I remember one Friday last year, when the DJV boys told me that (after a week working at Mount Stewart) they had to go to Ballyquintan beach the next day. Sadly it was not to enjoy ice-creams or build sandcastles but to remove asbestos that someone had dumped there!

Father and son team, Bill & William McAllister carry out the all-important air tests to ensure that, firstly, asbestos is present and then that the area is clear after removal.

It is good to have responsible & skilled people to carry out such potentially dangerous work.

Sheena