Inside the National Trust with Michael Buerk is exactly the kind of Sunday afternoon scheduling that, as a child, would have filled my heart with dread.
Please, Dad, don’t make me watch a one-hour documentary about stately homes and ramblers’ paths when Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is on the other side. But with every year that passes, one becomes less interested in anthropomorphic reptiles and more interested in what goes on behind closed doors at the National Trust. That’s how you know you’re getting on.
It’s clear to me now that Assistant House Steward Jess really is living the dream. The perks of her job at Wimpole Hall, a 17th-century Trust property in Cambridgeshire, include accommodation in the house itself. Along with her partner, Head Ranger Simon (Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons), she resides in an apartment above the drawing room. It’s draughty in the winter. Oh, and it’s haunted, of course – but what a small price to pay for such a privilege!
It was February, so Jess and her staff were busy preparing the house to receive visitors after a three-month winter closure. Meanwhile, Buerk stood idly by, marvelling at Jess’s attention to detail. Each drop of each chandelier must be painstakingly cleaned with cotton buds and a pony hair brush, 700sq metres of flooring must be hand-polished, and Perspex cups are placed on every chair leg to prevent them being scruffed by the ’orrible visitors.
At Wordsworth House, in Cockermouth, Cumbria, Buerk was persuaded to takes a more active role in proceedings. After getting decked out in an 18th-century manservant uniform of waistcoat and breeches, he tried his hand at starting a fire. “I was in a rather elite troop of Boy Scouts. We can do these things,” he announced before making a total pig’s ear of it and resorting to a plastic cigarette lighter instead.
No, Buerk didn’t quite cut it as a National Trust volunteer, but then they are a rarefied breed. Every year more than 60,000 individuals collectively donate more than three million hours of time to safeguard our national heritage, when they could be in the pub instead. New volunteers Chrissy and Ruth both looked fit to explode with enthusiasm at the thought of standing in a draughty old house directing tourists. Even more inexplicable were ranger Ian and his hardy team, who spend their free time repairing walking trails in the Lake District. They’re out there every day, getting soaked to the bone, and they absolutely love it, the nutters.
Any one of the National Trust’s delightful country homes would have done as a venue for Astra and her fiancé Anthony’s nuptials. Unfortunately this Yorkshire couple made the risible decision to entrust all the arrangements to a Channel 5 programme called Celebrity Wedding Planners. Astra dreamed of a Cinderella dress and fairy-tale wedding. Channel 5 obliged on one count, at least: they found a better pair of pantomime Ugly Sisters, otherwise known as the racing pundit John McCririck and the 1980s pop star Pete Burns to direct proceedings.
It would be a mistake, however, to deduce from their involvement that either man had any interest whatsoever in weddings. Out of sheer laziness, they chose a purple velvet Bedouin-themed tent for the reception. It looked like the guests were having a party in Ali Baba’s knicker drawer. When the entertainment arrived – a snake charmer with a live python – the bride ran screaming from the room, and things didn’t get any less terrifying when Pete Burns took to the stage to perform his 1985 hit “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”. Still, everyone lived happily ever after and the groom even had a smile on his face by the closing credits. “It were definitely different. That’s all I can say.”