In the latest of our visits to National Trust gardens, we look around the Bodiam Castle and speak to premises assistant Terry Featherstone about the work that goes in to maintaining the grounds…
What is your approach to the grounds, in terms of both preserving their heritage and moving forward?
We have recently adapted the way we manage the grounds i.e. leaving some areas of grass longer, to increase biodiversity for insects and invertebrate and to give small mammals a highway to the neighbouring hedgerows. This has had the added bonus of encouraging visitors to immerse themselves fully in the landscape and providing the opportunity for natural play. We support nature in as much as our key focus is on the maintenance of the grounds rather that forcing it in an unsympathetic direction. This means the grounds are supported in evolving as naturally as possible within the environment of a public attraction. There is also the ongoing battle with Himalayan Balsam. Finally, we are also in the process of completing a conservation management plan which will assist us in developing the grounds further in the future.
The grounds are expansive, how many of you work on them?
Including William Past our Premises Manager there are six on the team to cover the seven day, 363 days of the year opening.
What does a typical day at work for you involve?
We normally start our day at 8am well before visitors arrive on site. As well as looking after the grounds, we are also responsible for ensuring the castle and public facilities are cleaned ready for the day ahead.
This includes emptying all refuge bins and clearing the site of any litter. Checks are also carried out throughout the day to ensure the site is always presented to a high standard. We can also be called upon to do general maintenance work, mowing the grounds, hedge cutting and car parking. A typical day for us premises assistants is anything but typical, which certainly makes it a varied role and can make for enjoyable days.
And your biggest challenge at Bodiam is?
Flooding in winter from the neighbouring River Rother – this both affects our car park capacity and involves us in a massive clean-up of debris from the river. Also getting the right balance when it comes to conservation; maintaining what is an iconic ancient site to ensure our thousands of visitors have an enjoyable, memorable and positive visit and take away some of the passion we have for Bodiam.
What’s your favourite area or element of the grounds?
The idyllic beauty of the site and the peace and solitude before visitors and other staff arrive. It’s hard to beat being here early on a crisp, cold winter morning, a light covering of frost, a gentle mist above the moat, and the call of a pheasant from Doakes Meadow.
In December last year, you carried out some extensive weeding on the castle, how much of a challenge was that?
This required wall walkers with specialist equipment and knowledge of working within the heritage sector to undertake this high level weeding. The results have made a major difference to the integrity of the castle – it was amazing for both staff and visitors alike to see this conservation work in action, with wall walkers in harnesses hanging from the castle walls as if under siege. We do regularly weed the castle, be it at a less dramatic level.
What preparations do you need to do to get the grounds ready for autumn?
We have a broad maintenance plan which covers such aspects as inspection and maintenance of drainage, not only in the castle but the grounds too. The bordering River Rother can be very impressive when in full flood. Also tree maintenance and survey, resurfacing the gravel paths, and hopefully this year prepare an area of the estate for a wild flower meadow.
How much of an impact do the grounds have on the castle?
I think the landscape since the castle was built back in 1385 has always played an integral role in the support and back drop to the overall impression of Bodiam, providing stunning views to and from the castle. With the repositioning of our visitor reception last year, the grounds are now playing a bigger role in our visitor’s experience which will always be an interesting challenge to the landscape the wildlife and the premises team.
Tell us about your future plans for the grounds
The grounds will always be maintained sympathetically to the surrounding environment, however with a focus on a medieval storyline now running throughout the property the natural progression for the grounds is to develop our medieval herb garden into a much larger scale and encourage the grounds to reflect its primitive origins. We are also encouraging visitors to explore the grounds far more extensively through adding various interpretative elements including a grass maze. We are also looking in to the potential of reintroducing some of the water features which would have been in existence in Sir Edward’s day to impress his visitors en route to the castle.
Bodiam volunteer Jan Black gives us an insight into the work that goes on to make the medieval herb garden grow
Early in 2012 we started work with small groups of pupils from Claremont School on a fairly modest idea of making a herb bed in the castle grounds. Initially we created a herb garden containing plants for cooking, for the household, for strewing and freshening, for medicine and healing, and for well-being. This was followed in 2013 by a bed of plants used for dyeing, and in 2014 a bed of ornamental plants for scent and savour.
Each July we hold ‘all things herbal’ weekends where we show visitors how to use the plants for dyeing, herbal teas, washing, nosegays, smudge sticks, oak gall ink, and provide information about their medicinal uses.
During research for possible plants to include we came across The Feate of Gardening, a manuscript written in verse in about 1390. It includes a list of 89 ‘main herbys’ and reference to a further twelve plants. We discovered that we had over half the plants either in the beds we had made or growing wild in the grounds. So, in 2015 we set about making a further bed incorporating the missing ones. To date we are missing just six plants, mostly due to the rabbits eating them. The one plant which still eludes us is Felwort, Gentianella Amarella; we would love to hear from anyone who has some they could let us have.
Creating the herb gardens has opened up a whole new area of interpretation to the castle. It has proved a fascinating area to research and it is lovely to see how interesting visitors find it.