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A New Life - Restricted

Our head of estates is working hard to care for Shakespeare's family homes in strange new circumstances

Mark Ratcliffe

After the initial uncertainty, and what felt like constant change, we have now reached a new ‘normal’ for what’s left of us in the estates department at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Along with the small farm team and our security contractor, we are trying to minimise the risk and longer-term damage to our buildings, collections and livestock as much as it is possible to do with so few.

Our week now is a constant round of security checks, alarm tests, water tests, freezer checks and systems appraisals. Will everything last okay until the next visit, or do we need to try and persuade someone to come out for a maintenance visit or repair?

The post also continues to come in, and this too needs sorting, and then onward transmission to whoever really needs it.

Much of this we do alone of course.  

We now have a working life in separate offices...  separate vehicles...  always separated by at least 2 metre clear space, or else with masks and gloves where closer contact can’t be avoided. Coupled with a constant process of hand-washing and sanitisation to avoid transferring anything to our homes, our cars, from one site to the next site, or to our response contractors.

Walking what is slowly becoming miles around the deserted streets of Stratford-upon-Avon was a surreal experience for the first few days – the occasional person you came across would cross the street, or duck into a doorway to avoid us as we go about our work.  This now too, appears to be the new normal – almost completely gone is the cheery “good morning” we would get from passers-by in the past.

In week two, we found possibly the only place in town still selling coffee and donuts – through a hole in an acrylic sheet – for two hours a day Wednesday to Saturday and no cash.   Whether it’s supposed to be open or not, who knows? It’s tucked away, and a little off the beaten track and also makes bread, which is probably why they’re still working.

Shakespeare's Birthplace garden
The garden at Shakespeare's Birthplace is eerily quiet

One of us goes most days, as they certainly deserve some custom, and coffee made by someone else always tastes so much better!  Queuing, very often silently, 2m apart, watching the marks on the pavement and each other to ensure that we don’t impinge on someone else’s space – all for one proper cup of real coffee!

Why do we do this – not the coffee of course, as we’re already probably addicted to that – but why are we still here?

It’s what we do all the time of course,  but now we’ve lost our eyes and ears - our lovely site and unit managers, collections and archive specialists, house stewards – all of whom would normally be feeding us a constant stream of information through the Estates Helpdesk about what was and wasn’t working on their patch.

Now... each of our houses and shops and cafes are almost completely silent... but they cannot simply be turned off for a while. If they were completely abandoned, then we would be facing weeks of work, at significant expense, before they would all be safe to re-enter and use again.  

We could walk away I guess - but we don’t, as the ramifications don’t really bear thinking about for too long, and many of these buildings deserve much more than that. They’ve survived a myriad of threats in the past, and we need to do our part now to ensure they all pass through this unscathed if that is at all possible.

If we don’t visit each and every building and check the contents and all of its systems at least once in every seven days, then we effectively have little or no insurance cover. Okay, you may think, if all is well and functioning properly – but should we experience a burglary, or a fire, or even plain vandalism, then the consequences would be difficult to deal with at best. That’s also assuming that we even knew about it of course, as we also have few passers-by to report such things.

Part of the Birthplace stonework failed recently, and because this was spotted quickly enough, our team were able to complete a temporary repair that will prevent things from getting worse until such time as this can be fully rectified.

Our collections and archives also need a reasonably steady environment if the rate at which everything naturally deteriorates is to be slowed as much as is possible, and they’re to be available for future generations to see. This requires a significant amount of equipment to be in good working order, and regular active monitoring to ensure that things don’t drift too far from the ideal.

Cobweb Goat
Our rare breeds need care, including the new arrivals!

We also need to be sure the fire, flood and intruder warning systems are all fully functional, and connected to our remote monitoring stations at all times, 24/7.

We are however also learning all the time. For example, whilst its usually easy for us in estates to assume that our visitors are responsible for most of the wear and tear that befalls our sites, we now know this not to be entirely true.

In the first two weeks, and without a visitor anywhere to be seen, we have had two fire alarm activations (radio interference and probably insects), three intruder activations (a hornet, dodgy door contact and a control panel meltdown), a close-control air conditioning system failed in one of the stacks. Part of the Birthplace plinth started to break down, we had to replace a field drain, we received a report of escaped sheep eating someone’s garden (not our sheep in the end), a fridge failed in Anne Hathaway’s Café, a blocked sewer had to be pumped out and roots cleared at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. We followed up a report of a dead sheep at Wilmcote (also not one of ours), had a request to facilitate some urgent tree work, and dismantled a Tipi before the high winds of a storm hit!

And so... we continue to pound the streets... looking for coffee... and damage or malfunctions that can’t wait until this is all over, checking our monitoring stations are still monitoring.  We are drawing lots now for the chance to visit Mary Arden’s Farm, as there are reports of some real people out there – and if not, well at least the new lambs are quite cute! 

We are hugely grateful to everyone who has made a donation to help the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust carry on caring for our priceless historic properties and collections. If you're in a position to lend your support it really will make a difference. Thank you.