Meet the people behind the scenes at Sizergh Castle
PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 August 2019 | UPDATED: 16:31 09 August 2019
©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler
Staff and volunteers give an insider’s view of what makes Sizergh Castle special
Family homes don't get much more impressive than Sizergh Castle and that may go some way to explaining why the Strickland family have lived there for more than 800 years.
The medieval house, which stands a few miles south of Kendal on the A591, was based on an impressive 14th century pele tower. It contains some of the finest Elizabethan carved overmantels in the country as well as a collection of English and French furniture and family portraits.
The house and its 648 hectare estate were gifted to the National Trust in 1950 the family now share it with more than 200,000 visitors each year.
There are now about 80 staff and 230 volunteers at the house and Sam Sharples, a ranger who has been with the conservation charity for eight years says: 'Sizergh has lots of wonderful walks, especially for families, where you can get up high without climbing a mountain - and that's unusual for the Lake District.
'You can join a volunteer led walk or set off and explore. A one and half mile walk to Helsington Church, gives you epic views to the Lakeland fells, Blackpool and across the Kent estuary. Even those with little legs will be impressed,' Sam adds.
He also has recommendations for nature or history lovers; a walk to Brigsteer Wood, through prehistoric sites at Sizergh fell, is a perfect place to see butterflies basking in the sun. And Sam says there is good birdwatching for families at Park End bird hide, on the Trust's award winning wetland, a four mile round trip from Sizergh's visitor car park.
The Galloway cows, which can be seen there, are grazing to improve natural habitats, preventing unwanted vegetation from taking over so birds and wildlife can flourish. It's one example of three Trust tenant farmers who are farming with nature on the Sizergh estate.
'Working at Sizergh is amazing,' says Sam. 'The estate is so varied with ancient woodlands, species-rich grasslands, wetlands and rivers. It's a pleasure to help conserve these habitats and watch as they change over the seasons.'
Rachel Hunter - a senior visitor experience officer whose son is not quite old enough for the Trust's self-guided wild play trail - says it's a great way to tick off some of the 'National Trust's 50 activities to do before you're 11¾'. She also recommends the family-friendly 'Plants, Poisons and Potions' garden trail, which sheds a light on the deadly but popular medicines of the 18th century.
Having worked up an appetite it's a good time to hear from Debbie Robertson, Sizergh's food and beverage manager, who has been in post since 2004. She says so much has changed in that time, and yet the place itself is timeless. 'When I joined the tea room was in the castle. In 2006 we moved into a purpose built, smart, contemporary café with toilets and gift shop in the car park. We are now open all year round, offering lunches, snacks and delicious cakes all made from scratch here.
'Our visitors love the fact that so much of our produce comes directly from the kitchen garden - everything from the Brussels sprouts served with Christmas lunch to edible flowers on a summer salad. The sense of working as a team with the garden staff and volunteers to create delicious food is a very special part of my job. It's also good to know that every penny of profit we make is reinvested into Sizergh, its collection and the wider estate,' says Debbie.
For the last seven years Georgina Gates has been Sizergh's house and collections manager, looking after its incredible fixtures and furnishings. They include, and on show for the first time, a bedspread which once belonged to King James II and rare 17th century Antony and Cleopatra Flemish tapestries which need restoring. Georgina is hoping a fundraising campaign will mean that can happen soon.
For Georgina, the jewel in Sizergh's elaborate crown is the Inlaid Chamber. 'It's so special, and possibly the finest example of Elizabethan craftsmanship in the world,' she says. Georgina's top tip for enjoying historic interiors, and the wealth of treasures they hold and the emotions they can evoke, is to really look, and to be properly inquisitive.
Georgina is lucky enough to live at Sizergh, in the 18th century converted stable block. She thinks the medieval solar tower provides a fabulous backdrop to her little cottage garden, where her four rescue hens live.
Another staff member who enjoys her surroundings when not working is Rachel Hunter. She says: 'In a break I try to get five minutes in the garden, there's something very therapeutic about watching rows and rows of fresh vegetables growing.
'It's also a place I enjoy with my toddler. We potter around together, usually looking for Charlie the cat, and learning a bit about where food comes from. We don't live far away so it's easy to pop in for an hour armed with a few snacks, and when we get home we feel like we've been out for the whole day.'
Find out more about visiting Sizergh at nationaltrust.org.uk/Sizergh or by calling 015395 60951.