i work for Martin Drury

Click to follow
Sarah Collier is PA to the director-general of the National Trust

I always wanted to work in Conservation or Art History, but decided to do a secretarial course as a fall-back. Fifteen years ago my agency told me that the Historic Building Secretary at the National Trust, said to be a "rather trying" man, was looking for a secretary. I was so keen to work for the National Trust that the description didn't put me off. I found Martin very likeable at the interview and have happily worked for him ever since.

The title Historic Buildings Secretary was misleading. Martin's role was to look after curatorship, conservation and presentation of all National Trust houses varying from huge country estates down to tiny farm buildings. It always amazes me how much expertise, care and research is required to care for and preserve both the properties and their contents.

Martin became director general of the National Trust in 1996 and the move was a challenge for me. Whereas we had previously been responsible for one corner of the National Trust's work, we were now in the hot seat, dealing with the broadest picture possible. Martin's work now includes overseeing open spaces, the coastline, membership issues, volunteers, organising and attending meetings with all kinds of important people from Chris Smith to donor families. I was lucky to have the secretary to the former director general on hand to ease me into the job.

I am always aware that the Trust is a charity and, like everyone else within the organisation, I care deeply about our work. Aware of our 35,000 volunteers working out of love of our heritage, we are all extra-committed and conscientious. Martin receives a lot of letters of appreciation: people write in to say that they had a particularly good time at National Trust properties such as Chartwell or Wallington, for example. Such compliments are always forwarded on to the people working at the properties.

We also get some letters of complaint, the presence of dogs in open spaces and cold quiches seem to be popular concerns of the moment. I log all the letters and each one is carefully researched before replying. We also get many letters from equivalent organisations overseas requesting advice. I probably shouldn't read the letters I'm typing in detail but they are just so interesting.

I don't get out of the office very often, but I make a point of visiting a National Trust property or landscape while on holiday. We have 15 regional offices and, as a result, I have telephone friends all over the country. I get so used to their voices that it is always something of a shock to see them in the flesh for the first time. It's only when you meet people working on a heath in East Anglia or conserving tapestries in a stately home that you see the combination of commitment, dedication and tremendous knowledge which goes in to conserving the national heritage. It puts me on a high and makes working in an office all the more worthwhile.

If a building or place of historic interest or natural beauty is given to the National Trust, we have the power to protect it in the state it was intended to be in forever. For example, we recently acquired Prior Park, a wonderful landscaped garden just outside Bath which will now remain true to its original eighteenth-century design.

We get a tremendous number of letters requesting our properties as locations for films and TV, which can be helpful. The number of visits to Lyme Park trebled after it was used for Pride And Prejudice. It amuses me that visitors can even go on a "Mr Darcy" walk, tracing the footsteps of the actor Colin Firth, before he dived into the lake.

Martin is a super boss. He has a real gift for getting on with people regardless of their position. He always comes to work on the bus, likes to keep up with technology, laughs louder than anyone and is also a great teacher. I could quite happily spend the day sitting at his desk and listening to his anecdotes about his visits and the characters he encounters. One of the highlights of my job is to select slides from our vast picture library to accompany his lectures.

Martin flies in and out of the office, his coat tails flapping behind him. He used to be known as "the late Mr Drury" because he had a habit of arriving for meetings just in the nick of time. His diary is often stiff with Tippex from re-scheduled appointments, and the only real time I get with him is at the end of the day. I often see from his disks that he has been working at home until two in the morning. I know that he is a sensible chap and I'm sure his wife makes sure that he doesn't overdo it. However, I do try to see that he has an odd day free and books his holidays in advance. Last year there was a holiday disaster which still makes my knees tremble. Martin was booked to go to Russia for a conference and I sent his passport off for a visa - overlooking the fact that he was holidaying in France in the interim. He rang at midnight the day before setting off, to ask where his passport was, and I had to tell him it was still at the Russian Embassy. I felt quite sick, but he managed to postpone his trip and was terribly understanding.

Martin will be retiring in three years time, which is a very strange prospect, as I'm so terribly used to his ways of doing things. Perhaps I may involve myself in a different aspect of the Trust's work when Martin goes. I really can't believe how lucky I have been. I never meant to be a secretary and yet I have had the most exciting, varied and rewarding job imaginable.

Interview by Katie Sampson