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Putting Shaw to bed in Ayot St Lawrence

PUBLISHED: 17:55 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:01 20 February 2013

Emily covers the furniture with cotton dust sheets

Emily covers the furniture with cotton dust sheets

After the doors are closed for the winter months at Shaw's Corner, The National Trust leaps into action to put the house firmly to bed with a strict cleaning regime ready for its spring opening, as Josephine Murray discovered

After the doors are closed for the winter months at Shaw's Corner, The National Trust leaps into action to put the house firmly to bed with a strict cleaning regime ready for its spring opening, as Josephine Murray discovered

ALL the furniture in the dining room at Shaw's Corner, dramatist George Bernard Shaw's Hertfordshire home, is covered with dust sheets and, like the rest of the
usually bustling house, silent. The silence only becomes eerie after we learn that Shaw died while sitting in this room, 57 years ago.
I am one of seven people at a 'putting to bed' event at the Edwardian house in the village of Ayot St Lawrence, near Welwyn, which is now owned by the National Trust and open to the public. All Trust properties which are open to visitors are 'put to bed' when they close at the end of October. This process involves covering objects and furniture with dust sheets, then cleaning each room from floor to ceiling, and all the objects in between.
Everything is checked for deterioration and damage and, if necessary, treated by conservators. Closing the house until March allows lighting and heating, normally at comfortable levels for visitors, to be reduced. Only the room being cleaned is exposed to light, to protect the contents from fading and particle damage, while the temperature is adjusted to a little above outside temperatures to control humidity levels and protect objects from mould. For Trust staff, winter is far busier than open season, when houses are regularly given a basic dust and vacuum.

'Each sheet is labelled to show which item it covers and small objects are covered with acid-free tissue paper hats'

Shaw's Corner is put to bed by assistant house steward Emily Watts. She covers all the furniture and large objects with cotton dustsheets kept in the cellar in a separate bag for each room. Each sheet is labelled to show which item it covers, to prevent cross-contamination with particles and dust. Small objects are covered with acid-free tissue paper hats.
Once everything is covered, Emily uses an ordinary vacuum cleaner with a very long pole, and suction which can be turned very low, to clean ceilings, walls, carpets and rugs. Items needing a ladder to reach are cleaned with a small vacuum cleaner nicknamed the 'bat vac' because it is worn around the waist and looks like a super-hero's weapon. Frequently used floorboards and tiles are waxed and buffed by hand.
Emily, who did a history degree, says she never imagined she would work as, essentially, a cleaner. It's certainly not a glamorous job; to cope with the low temperatures in the house over winter she wraps up in thermal underwear, fleeces, Ugg boots and gloves - she jokes, 'I look like Fagin.' But she says the job has taught her about entomology and science as well as housekeeping.
Emily demonstrates how she vacuums textiles such as curtains and cushions through a layer of gauze so the fibres are not damaged. She cleans the flat surfaces of furniture with lint-free dusters, adding a fine layer of protective wax if needed. Small objects and intricate parts of furniture, such as the carving on the chest of drawers in Shaw's bedroom, and the wicker chair in his writer's hut, are cleaned with brushes made by a Welwyn firm. Each brush is labelled to denote its use; pony hair for books and hog's hair for wicker chairs. Emily dusts into the nozzle of the vacuum cleaner, getting rid of the dust altogether rather than moving it around the room.
Items needing more than a dust may be wet-cleaned using a little sensitive-skin washing up liquid diluted in luke-warm water, applied with a brush or cotton wool. Bronzes are given a thin layer of Renaissance wax micro-crystalline polish if needed.
Emily, who came to Shaw's Corner in December 2006, says, 'Putting the house to bed is nothing new. In the 16th century if the family was not there for a season the house was covered up. Even then people knew that things suffered from light. These methods would have been used by the servants of grand houses.
As she cleans, Emily records what she does, for example to avoid waxing furniture too often and to check how many and what sort of insects are in the traps in each room. Devices in each room constantly monitor temperature and humidity levels and send a report to her computer and to the local Trust environmental control and conservation staff members, to ensure conditions are correct.
All the cleaning methods Emily uses are in The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping, available from publisher Elsevier. Emily explains, 'Modern cleaning products are usually full of chemicals. Spray polishes can build up a layer of plastic on furniture, which can cause long term damage. I don't use aerosols at all, just Harrells furniture wax. I don't have any old furniture myself at the moment but if I had a 200-year-old table I'd want to look after it. I want to educate people about taking care of history.'

Shaw's Corner
Ayot St Lawrence, nr Welwyn AL6 9BX.
Open March to October.
01438 820307


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