We’re nearly there now!

It is full steam ahead towards the re-opening of the house on 20 April.

We on the house team are currently spending much of our days cleaning silver, loads of it!

We will have a new and amazing silver display for our visitors to see from next season onwards. Most of it has never been on public display before so it has been kept in a safe for many years and is in need of cleaning.

There are some lovely items amongst it and I’m sure many of our visitors will enjoy looking at it.

We have also been spending time on our knees – scrubbing stone floors.

The Black and White Stone Hall floor was in bad need of some TLC. Tracey, a stone conservator spent a total of four weeks here. Tracey and one of her colleagues spent the first week cleaning the floor, then in the second week she worked with the house team and volunteers showing us how to deep clean the stone. This is a time consuming job with lots of careful scrubbing, then it needs to be well rinsed off and left to dry.

This took us up to Christmas and then Tracey returned in the New Year. Now the floor was finished and she was working on other things, the Chapel ceiling and the alabaster lamps from the Central Hall.

The Chapel ceiling had a few holes that needed filling; this had been done before Christmas by another of Tracey’s colleagues. He worked some of the time from above in the roof space, which meant that he could do a much better and easier job in securing the gaps. He then resurfaced underneath and Tracey finished off by painting, carefully colour matching with the existing ceiling.

The four Central Hall alabaster lamps needed cleaning – a delicate job. I was interested to learn that you do not wash alabaster with water, as this will damage it.

Our friends from Linney Cooper are back again laying carpets and other flooring. There is a new carpet for both the East and West stairs and landings, as well as the first floor corridors connecting them.

We are also getting together the ceramics display ready for the new season. Again there are hundreds of ceramic objects in the house, dinner services, tea services, ornaments, many of which are really lovely and some of which again will be new to public view, so it will take some planning to get it right!

Winter has always been a busy time for National Trust house staff, but not usually quite as frenetic as the current one is at Mount Stewart!

Sheena

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

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