Below Stairs Petworth House: The Big Spring Clean


Below Stairs

Andrew Graham-Dixon and the team leave the grandeur of the main house to tackle the servants' block, and he polishes some of the 1,000-piece copper cookware range.


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In an idyllic landscape, created by master gardener Capability Brown,

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sits one of Britain's finest stately homes -

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Petworth House.

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Thanks to the National Trust, it's now open to us all.

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Except during winter

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when, like most of the Trust's homes, Petworth shuts the public out.

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When the house is closed, however, it's far from quiet.

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HUMMING OF LOTS OF DIFFERENT MACHINERY

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Normally, nobody gets to see what happens here

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during the winter months. But this year,

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I've been given unique, privileged access

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to see what really goes on behind the scenes.

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When the public has gone, the National Trust's expert conservation teams

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get the chance to do some housekeeping on an epic scale.

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We get to see things up close people don't see.

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It's amazing. Who else gets to do it?

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I had no idea until I took on this task

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quite how filthy the visitors were.

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'And this winter, Petworth's got a new cleaner.'

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-I can see I've made a difference.

-Have you waxed it?

-No.

-No.

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'It's a rare chance to get hands on with history...'

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Oh, It's heavy!

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'..and glimpse the secret life of a great country house.'

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On this visit, we're conserving Petworth's servant life -

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scrubbing in the kitchens,

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going very deep below stairs

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and helping a stopped clock to strike again.

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I'm joining perhaps the biggest spring clean in the world,

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which all takes place during the freezing months of winter.

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As winter draws on, ever more of Petworth's grand state rooms

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have been methodically inspected, cleaned and covered up.

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This week, the conservation team faces a rather different challenge.

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They're leaving the main house behind and heading to the place

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where their predecessors would have worked and lived -

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Petworth's purpose-built servants' block.

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Upstairs were sleeping quarters, downstairs the kitchens.

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They're preserved now as they would have looked when last in use,

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just before the Second World War,

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although some of the equipment here dates back much further.

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The ironwork on this roasting range is 17th century

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and the brickwork probably Tudor.

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So in the 19th century, this sort of wonderful

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-cog and wheel, Heath Robinson thing would have turned it?

-Yes.

-But in the 17th century?

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-In the 17th century, it would have been a boy.

-A boy? Oh, poor boy!

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-Poor boy.

-Not the best job in the kitchen.

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Through here we have the Glow-Worm,

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it's like an Aga, and that's from about the late 1930s, early 1940s.

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And then we have the gas range, which is from the 1920s.

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So it's like slices of the house's history in the kitchen as well.

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Yeah, you can read the progress of cooking technology.

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-It's amazing.

-It is. And here we have the bain-marie

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which is from 1872. Basically, it was filled with water

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so the cooking sauces would be kept warm,

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-but wouldn't continue to cook and spoil.

-How fantastic.

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The kitchens are big enough to serve a grand hotel.

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35 people would once have worked in these rooms,

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producing an average of 100 meals a day and, when guests came, up to four times that.

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So the conservation team split up to tackle

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different sections of this domestic production line.

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The still room was where bottling and preserving took place,

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and where staff made breakfast and beverages.

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-Is this a coffee grinder, Jacky?

-Yes, it is.

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Oh, yeah, It's got a little drawer.

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I'd be the size of a house

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if I had a kitchen like this. I wouldn't stop baking.

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Sue's working in Petworth's specialist pastry room.

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You can even still see the residues of cooking left on these moulds.

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It's a real part of this very utilitarian object's history

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which makes this just as interesting as some of the fine art in the house.

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Practical antiques like these call for a different

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kind of conservation technique.

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This is clearly not a job for cotton buds.

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It's the filthiest task of the winter clean.

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Is this one of your favourite jobs, or...

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-I love this job!

-You're like Cinderella in a boiler suit.

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'I'm worried these overalls

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'will make me look more like an ugly sister.'

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Oh, help!

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Ooh! Oh, my God.

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That is seriously tight!

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'But I need the protection to carry out my first task of the day -

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'black leading.

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'The first stage is to get the surface rust off.'

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So if you just use this brush here.

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There's some rust on the dog's bum. We'll start with that, shall we?

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-How come there's rust on this?

-Well, it's a cast-iron object

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and kitchens are quite damp cos over here it's a much colder environment.

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'With any flecks of rust removed,

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'now we need to take the roasting range back to black.'

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-So am I going to use this stuff?

-Er, no.

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This is the traditional black lead, the original they used to use.

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Oh, I like that.

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-So what am I going to use?

-You're going to use some of this one.

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-It's a modern equivalent.

-"Black grate and barbecue polish."

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I suppose this is a kind of 17th-century barbecue.

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And the idea is you want to mainly cover the rust bits.

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It creates a protective layer

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and it stops the oxygen from rusting the surface of the cast iron.

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The thing about this house, Anna, don't you feel spoilt?

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In the sense that there's just art everywhere.

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I've got a kind of little bas-relief here.

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There's a dog under someone's arm,

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a bloke going, "Eurgh!" and a little boy screaming.

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Maybe that's the little boy who used to have to turn the spit.

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Oh, he wouldn't have dared cry, Andrew. He'd have lost his job.

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OK, next you need to buff it off.

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-Is it going to end up shiny?

-It does have a bit of a shine to it.

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-Like a dull shine.

-Dull, yeah.

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Cos the whole effect here is of a kitchen that's, as it were, in use.

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We don't clean the soot off the chimney back, do we?

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We leave it because it's part of the history of the kitchen.

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Yes, yeah.

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-So I'm getting it?

-You are, you're getting it.

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'The servants' quarters seem to have

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'almost as many rooms as the main house.'

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I actually managed to get lost. Where am I now?

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-Well, you're in the chef's sitting room.

-At the end of a hard day,

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toiling over his sort of industrial-scale hot stove,

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he sits down. It feels very domestic, this space.

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It makes me feel as if the people who once filled that kitchen,

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-it's as if they just got up and left.

-That's right.

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-It's a very human sort of space.

-How much do we know about them?

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We know a fair bit. In fact, here, we've got a few photographs

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of some of the male members of staff, particularly, from Petworth.

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-Including one of the chefs.

-That's wonderful.

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That reminds me of that famous line, "Never trust a thin chef!"

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Were they from this part of Sussex?

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Well, apparently, they were often French

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because French chefs were considered to be the best.

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And it was, you know, a sign of great prestige

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to employ a French chef.

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-Do they get paid loads of money as well?

-They do. No-one was paid more than the chef.

-Really?

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I wouldn't like to get on the wrong side of him.

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-Are these also portraits of those who worked here?

-Yes, indeed.

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His name was Joseph Pattinson and he was the house steward in about 1890.

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God, that facial hair! I mean, goodness me!

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-He was as bald as a coot under that hat.

-Was he?

-Yes.

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He ran everything. He did the accounts,

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all the ordering. So he was in charge, basically, of what was

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quite a reasonable-sized business.

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Gosh. And who's this?

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Well, that's the housekeeper, Mrs Rawlinson,

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who was the most senior of the female staff. She earned far less,

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less than half the amount that Mr Pattinson earned.

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Mrs Rawlinson. She looks very Victorian.

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She doesn't look as if she'd be easily amused, does she?

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Well, the housekeeper had to keep quite strict discipline.

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Who are these fine, upstanding gentlemen? Who are they?

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They're the footmen. They would wait at table and run errands round town

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and they would be the visible face of Petworth House

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around the town and the community.

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Were they actually specifically selected

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because they were rather dashing and slim?

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Footmen were supposed to be very tall

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and to have rather fine calves, so they looked good in the uniform.

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So where would you be in this hierarchy?

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I'd probably be a housemaid.

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Housemaid!

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The closed season is the ideal time for specialist conservators

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to visit National Trust houses

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to inspect the subjects of their expertise.

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Horologist Jonathan Betts has come to check the condition

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of Petworth's clocks.

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They should be pretty good time keepers, these.

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Though the kitchen clock still works well after 220 years,

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another in the main house is more of a worry.

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So this is the boulle clock that we've been having some problems with.

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We've had problems turning the key. It's very stiff.

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If in doubt, it's always better, under those circumstances,

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to leave it stopped and call a conservator to have a look.

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This clock has been ticking since 1710. Its boullework case

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is fashioned from tortoiseshell with bronze inlays.

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It was made in France, as a plate inside reveals.

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The next thing to do, really, is to get the clock out.

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The cause of the problem must be within the mechanism, known to horologists as "the movement".

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To allow a good look inside, the curtains have been raised.

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a rare privilege in winter.

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-Now, I think you said that it was very stiff to wind.

-Yes.

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So we'll see what's going on with the main springs.

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The clock needs to be wound at two points.

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The right-hand side controls the time keeping.

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There is some wind in the going side.

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The other side controls striking the bell, which remains in the case.

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-This is actually wound right up tight.

-Might be why the key is bent.

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That's probably why the key is bent

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and that is definitely a sign that somebody's going too far.

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-It wasn't me, it wasn't me!

-No, I'm sure it was done a long time ago,

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clearly there's been a long-term problem with this clock.

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The striking is certainly in trouble.

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Don't quite know why that is at the moment.

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Ah! Yes, I do, yes, I do. I can see what the problem is.

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Just noticed something.

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The main spring is trying to escape from the barrel,

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horror of horrors. That means we're going to have to take it all apart.

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Jonathan needs to get beneath the dial of the clock.

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Experts like him never call it the face.

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Now, an absolute golden rule with all spring-driven clockwork

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is before you go any further, you must always let the power down.

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If this clock were taken apart without releasing the energy in the springs,

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there would be a very, very loud bang.

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Clocks have been known to hurt people.

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In fact, when I was a boy I lost the top of my thumb

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for a short while, after having let a clock down inexpertly.

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Eventually, Jonathan digs out the spring which has caused the problem.

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You're not supposed to see that. That's supposed to have a cap over it,

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which is here lying loose.

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If you're vigorous at your winding, it's possible then for the spring

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to push the cap off again, and it does look as though

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this spring has tried jolly hard to do that.

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So it's necessary to get the spring back down, And the way you do that

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might sound rather brutal.

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We would call it, you know, applying appropriate force.

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That should do it.

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Next, he adds a synthetic lubricant to the spring,

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which had dried out while its cover was off.

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We tend to think of high-performance oils

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as being oils used in car engines, but actually,

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they're the sissies of the oils, really.

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Horological oils are much more demanding.

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That small quantity has to last for perhaps 10 or 15 years.

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It mustn't evaporate. It mustn't turn acid,

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otherwise it will corrode the metals it's trying to lubricate.

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20th-century oils are, of course, a great deal better

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than 18th and 19th-century equivalents.

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They used to be animal fats.

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That's it.

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OK. That's the main problem sorted.

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All Jonathan has to do now is put the clock back together again.

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I think I'll put that one in later.

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Which, not surprisingly,

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is rather more complicated than pulling it apart.

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Meanwhile, Anna's dusting the case,

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itself a miracle of craftsmanship from the period of Louis Quatorze.

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The Sun King's cabinet-maker, Andre Charles Boulle,

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was such a master of elaborate marquetry

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that any work in this style now bears his name.

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The sculpted details are moulded from gilt bronze,

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or ormolu as it's been known since the 18th century.

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And the winged figure on the top is none other than Fame.

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After an hour's painstaking engineering,

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Jonathan finally has the clock back in one piece.

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It's tremendously satisfying.

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You feel as though you've given it new life, you know.

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It is a very rewarding exercise.

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When the public return in March,

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they'll hear the timepiece strike once again. And yet, surprisingly,

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what visitors like to hear isn't what's best for the clock.

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There are very few objects in historic houses

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which are still expected, to this very day,

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to perform their original function.

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And it's a big ask. All these functional objects

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are slowly wearing themselves out.

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But with clocks stopped throughout the houses,

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the houses would have a very dead feeling.

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There's something very emotive about a stopped clock

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and as long as the mechanisms are regularly inspected,

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we can reduce that deterioration

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to an absolute minimum.

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That's what conservation is all about. It's a compromise, basically.

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Back in the kitchens,

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it's time to start work on the 1000-piece batterie de cuisine,

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some of which was in use when Victoria came to the throne.

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To own this much copper cookware was a sign of great prestige.

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Looking after it was highly labour-intensive, and it still is.

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So the pans are being moved to somewhere with enough space

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for a whole team of voluntary polishers.

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'These ladies are all members

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'of the National Association Of Decorative And Fine Arts Societies.

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'And today, they have a new recruit.'

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Hello.

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You tell me what to do.

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-You're the bosses.

-Put an apron on.

-Put an apron on.

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Right, now,

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you start with one or other of those brushes

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and you dust it off inside and out.

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'Dust must be banished, otherwise it could scratch the metal

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'when we rub the polish in.

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'We're using the least abrasive type possible, which is car polish.

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'Being soft enough for use on chrome, it's also ideal for copper,

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'as well as the inner lining material, tin.'

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You ladies cleaned all of these pieces of copper last year.

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Is that right?

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You didn't do a very good job because it's still...

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-Oh, thank you(!)

-Charming(!)

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'Of course, what we're taking off isn't dirt.

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'The tarnish is part of the metal itself,

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'the unavoidable result of its surface reacting with oxygen.'

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I am actually just taking off a tiny little layer of the object's skin.

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Everything gets thinner with polishing, exactly.

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-So, what do you think?

-I'm impressed. What is that?

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-Think of a raised game pie.

-Ah, isn't that great?

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So the pastry would have come out

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-with these gorgeous markings round it.

-Beautiful.

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I think, well, what do you think? I see I've made a difference.

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-Have you waxed it?

-No.

-No.

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-Well, that's the next process.

-I've got to wax it as well?

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Wipe it round inside. You don't want it thick. That's enough.

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Just swish it over the whole thing.

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That now gives it a surface

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that protects it.

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'The wax does the same job for copper that black lead does for iron -

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'it slows down the oxidisation of the metal.

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'Each object is monogrammed with an L for Leconfield -

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'the family title at the time, and either P for Petworth

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'or another L, indicating their London residence.'

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-Marks out of ten?

-Oh, definitely eight, I would say.

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That was a very precise half compliment that you paid me there.

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-Your next one.

-I feel like I've been promoted.

-Of course.

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Wow. What I love about this stuff is it sort of projects you

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back to a time when sort of food was sculptural.

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You know, the food was for display.

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Every jelly is a castle, every pie is fortified. So, OK.

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-I think the hog hair.

-You think the hog?

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-No this one's mine, that one's yours.

-Sorry.

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'The more complex the cookware,

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'the longer the cleaning takes.

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'My mould calls for cotton buds.

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'No wonder the volunteers will have to come in once a week

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'for the next two months.'

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Your houses must be very super, super clean.

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No, because we're too busy doing things like this.

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ANDREW LAUGHS

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That's... That's what I call sacrifice.

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Polishing the fitted copper is a task left to Petworth's

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conservation professionals.

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Jacky's working in the scullery,

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where all the copper would have been cleaned.

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Though she's not using the same polish as her historical forebears.

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They used some horrendous things. There is a recipe,

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used in this scullery, with sand, salt and vinegar.

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Jacky knows all this because when Petworth's open to the public,

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she sometimes demonstrates historic housekeeping techniques.

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We've got some fantastic polishes.

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This is the stuff they used in the old days?

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Yeah, these are from Mrs Beeton's books and other books that you get

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on household management. Have a smell of that one.

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Oh, actually, it's not bad.

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-What's in it?

-Beeswax, white wax,

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curd soap, turpentine and water.

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-Do you just like mix it all up or do you have to cook it up?

-You boil it.

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You boil everything except the turpentine.

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-I suppose my question would be, you know, does it actually work?

-Yes.

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-It might be all very nice...

-Yes, it does work.

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I actually use that on my oak table at home in the dining room.

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I know what goes in it and most of it's natural.

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Most of the spray cleaners that you can get have got silicone in them,

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which isn't good for the wood.

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So would you say that all of the cleaning recipes and remedies of the past

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are superior to what we use now?

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No, definitely not.

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Things like this, which was a marble cleaner,

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it's got pumice,

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soda and chalk in it.

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It's far too abrasive.

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We can look round some of our marble busts and statues and say

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one of the reasons why the surfaces have gone is they used this sort of cleaner.

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When Petworth is closed to the public,

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the heating is switched off,

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which in the depths of winter,

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means that we workers really look forward to our tea breaks.

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Upstairs from the kitchens were bedrooms for the staff.

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Men at one end, women at the other, kept strictly apart at all times.

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Actually, Andrew, you do realise if you'd been caught on these stairs

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you'd be instantly dismissed, because these are the female stairs.

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-You're joking!

-Yes, female staff only.

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These days, the housemaids' bedrooms

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are meeting rooms and offices for the National Trust.

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As well as their cleaning schedule, the conservation team follow a strict baking rota.

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Today's it's Judy's turn.

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They're delicious!

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Mmm. Is that lemon curd I taste? It's homemade lemon curd.

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I like lemon curd. I'm glad to see that as well as preserving

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so much else, you're preserving the tradition of the tea break.

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I think we need it. It's so cold down there.

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You need regular tea breaks to keep warm and the sugar to keep going.

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'Daily cake is clearly an important perk of working here,

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'but an even bigger one is the sheer satisfaction.'

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-You enjoy the job?

-We do.

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You don't go to work thinking...?

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No, not at all. Passionate is a word that's overused these days,

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but it is a word that applies to the job we do.

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I don't think any of us could do this job if we weren't passionate about history

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-and the things we do.

-This house spoils you

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because of the standard of our collection. The paintings are fantastic, furniture's amazing,

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the story is incredible.

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-Except it's too bloody cold.

-That goes with the territory, Andrew.

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-That's my one complaint.

-It means we can guilt-free eat lots of cake.

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THEY LAUGH

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Over the centuries, Petworth has twice been struck by major fires.

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One of them started in the kitchens.

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It's a major reason why the servants' activities

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have been set apart from the main house since the 1750s.

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This arrangement also had certain other advantages.

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Now, the aristocracy didn't actually want to see their servants.

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They didn't want to witness such vulgar activities

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as the carrying of food or laundry.

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So although this is the most direct route from the servants' block

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to the main house, it's not one the servants themselves would ever have taken.

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They were kept hidden in a tunnel directly beneath my feet.

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Though staff are now allowed to be seen, Sue's heading underground,

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along with consultant ecologist Daniel Whitby.

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The tunnel's out of bounds most of the time,

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at least to people, because these days it's home to some protected species.

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The National Trust's mission is to conserve

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British wildlife as well as British heritage.

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-Some droppings on the door here. And a few urine stains.

-Lovely.

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Droppings are a definitive sign that bats are definitely presently using the building.

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The droppings aren't fresh, because in winter bats aren't feeding,

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they're hibernating.

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Dan visits a number of times each winter

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to conduct a survey for the Trust on just how many bats are sleeping here.

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But they're not always easy to spot.

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Most people have the impression, looking for bats,

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you walk into a building and they'll be hanging there.

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And out of the 16 UK species, there's only two of them that do.

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All the rest of them are really crevice-roosting bats

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so you have to look into all the cracks and crevices in the tunnel if you want to find them.

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-There's one there.

-Oh, really?

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Yeah, just in that hole above the pipe.

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That's a natterer's bat.

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And it's hidden right up in that crack in the brickwork there.

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Natterer's are probably the most common species we find in hibernation

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in this tunnel here.

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You're only going to see them with a bit of luck.

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At just five foot wide,

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the tunnel must have sometimes been congested with footmen

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and housemaids, especially if they were carrying trays of food.

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Also housed down here was a well house.

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That too is now sometimes home to bats.

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The well itself is over 120 feet deep.

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Originally, there would have been a donkey who would have walked

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round and round, and he would have provided the power to bring the water up.

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And a small boy's job was to sit in the corner and whip the donkey

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if he ever stopped. But as technology improved, they then put in this generator.

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On this visit, they can't see any bats out of WELL.

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So the search carries on.

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From this end of the tunnel, servants would emerge with food

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and scurry to the dining room.

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But Dan and Sue's mission isn't over because the tunnel network on this estate

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was labyrinthine.

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The laundry was located half a mile away in Petworth town,

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and that had its own subway.

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They wanted to have this kind of private access to it

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so they could bring the carts of dirty laundry through their garden

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rather than running them through town and everybody seeing their dirty smalls.

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Second World War bombing caused the tunnel to collapse,

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as well as destroying the laundry.

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But what remains is the perfect winter hideaway for bats.

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This time, it's a brown long-eared.

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We want to have a quick look at the bat. We don't want to spend too long in there.

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The longer we spend, the more disturbance we're creating

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and increases the chances that it might decide to come out of hibernation.

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Dan's regular surveys have discovered that Petworth is home

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to an incredible 14 species, out of the 16 present in the whole UK.

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The variety of places they can winter here

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is an undreamed-of legacy of domestic service at its grandest.

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While Sue's been hunting bats,

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work in the servants' quarters has been finished for another year.

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I think what struck me most about the experience

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of working in the servants' quarters here at Petworth

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has been the sheer fund of knowledge once possessed by those who lived and worked here.

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A tremendous range of knowledge about how to run a house,

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how to keep a house clean, whether that might be preparing exactly the right kind of solution

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to clean a particular type of floor, or knowing exactly how to polish every last piece of copper.

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Now let's face it, most of us nowadays

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just don't have time for that degree of perfectionism.

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But if anyone really is keeping that tradition,

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that fund of knowledge alive, it's the modern day housekeeping team

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here at Petworth, and they're doing it with a real passion.

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Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

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E-mail subtitling@bbc.co.uk

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Andrew and the team leave the grandeur of the main house behind in order to tackle the servants' block. He dons a boiler suit to take on the filthiest task of the winter and polishes some of the 1,000-piece copper cookware range. Also, a horologist visits to make sure Petworth's antique clocks are keeping time.