Kent heritage volunteers

PUBLISHED: 13:39 30 August 2015 | UPDATED: 13:39 30 August 2015

Susan Harland at Chiddingstone Castle

Susan Harland at Chiddingstone Castle

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

Heritage volunteers across Kent donate thousands of hours every year, but what do they do and why do they do it? Three volunteers share their story.

Volunteer: Susan Harland

Role: Book Conservator

Where: Chiddingstone Castle

“It is fascinating to go through every single book. It feels like Christmas and birthday rolled into one because you just don’t know what is in each one”

For many of us the thought of going into work on our day off to do some cleaning is not a task we would relish. For Susan Harland, however, it’s a job she describes as “fascinating” and she actually volunteers to do it, but then Susan is doing a rather special type of housework at Chiddingstone Castle.

The castle’s library hasn’t been open to members of the public for years, due to the fact that some unsavoury characters were stealing the books but now, with camera’s protecting the room, the Trustees are keen to share the library’s collection once more. There was just one hurdle that needed to be overcome first - the cleaning and cataloguing of 4,000 books.

This isn’t a job that can be tackled with a feather duster and a can of Mr Sheen, however, it requires training, time and delicacy and, although already working at the castle four days a week, Susan quickly volunteered to do it.

Work began last autumn and a day with a conservator taught 12 volunteers how to assess each book before using different-sized special brushes with very fine hair to clean them.

Susan explains the actual cleaning “doesn’t take very long because you don’t clean every single page of the book.” It’s the cataloguing that takes longer, and a computerised system is used to log details such as a description of the book’s cover, colour, lettering, author, title and category. Susan says: “Volunteering is all about learning new skills and that’s what we are doing here. It’s lovely to work with all sorts of different people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet and you have access to these vast collections that are so interesting.”

The library is mainly made up of the reference books that Denys Eye Bower used to research his Egyptian, Buddhist, Japanese, Stewart and Jacobite collections.

So far the oldest books found - and there are still several sections and numerous pamphlets to go - date from the 1600s, the Stewart and Jacobite era, which is Susan’s favourite period of history.

She adds: “It is just amazing to think that people 400 or 500 years ago were looking at these books. It’s incredible. Volunteering is almost the highlight of my week and it is just fascinating to go through every single book. It feels like Christmas and birthday rolled into one because you just don’t know what is in each one.”

Chiddingstone Castle

Hill Hoath Road, Chiddingstone, near Edenbridge TN8 7AD

01892 870347

Volunteer: Bradley Short

Role: Fireman

Where: Chatham Historic Dockyard Steam Railway

“Actually being on the engine with the heat and the dust everywhere - just running down those tracks is amazing”

It’s been a long time since Bradley Short stopped playing with Thomas the Tank Engine but his love of steam engines has stayed with him and, thanks to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, he’s now proud to be a ‘steamie’ at the Chatham Historic Dockyard.

A Medway boy, Bradley already knew the dockyard quite well from his childhood, so when he had to find himself a volunteering role as part of his apprenticeship with Amey Construction in Maidstone, he knew just where to look.

Following a call to Paul Barnard, who is the dockyard’s fundraising and stakeholder relationship manager, Bradley attended an interview, but then had to wait until he’d turned 18 before he could begin volunteering, due to Health and Safety regulations.

The role was worth waiting for, however, and Bradley’s face lights up as he explains about his very first steam weekend last July.

“They got me on the trains as a trainee fireman. To be in the carriages and then to be in the engine today is completely different.

“When you’re in the carriage, you get that feeling of rattling and the smoke coming through the windows, but actually being on the engine with the heat and the dust everywhere – just running down those tracks is amazing.’

It’s not just riding in the cab that Bradley loves, it’s the fact that he’s also learning practical skills: ‘With the steam engines you can’t read a book and think you know everything, they are completely different in real life and you’ve got to get hands on.’ He adds that each one has its own personality and it’s this uniqueness, together with their history, that keeps him hooked.

The social side of volunteering is another one of the roles most enjoyable aspects and with some 15 volunteers working for the Chatham Historic Dockyard Steam Railway, the group is always changing.

Volunteers choose how much time they want to give and Bradley says the team is great, they always have a good laugh and enjoy a drink together at the end of the day.

The experience has been a real confidence booster and he loves the fact that he’s frequently surrounded by excited children asking questions and wanting their photo taken with the engine.

Bradley has now completed his Duke of 
Edinburgh Award and passed his fireman test at the Dockyard. But won’t be leaving the ‘steamies’ anytime soon as he now has ambitions to be a train driver and can’t sit that test until he is 21.

Chatham Historic Dockyard

Church Lane, Chatham ME4 4TE

01634 823800

Volunteer: Antony Millett

Role: Town walk co-ordinator and guide

Where: Faversham

“For 2,000 years Faversham has been off the beaten track and because of that, and what we have managed to preserve, I think the town is pretty special”

With a passion for history, a flair for story telling and a great tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, Antony Millett is a natural tour guide.

His enthusiasm for his home town grabs you as soon as you meet and he says: “The thing about Faversham is that for 2,000 years it’s been off the beaten track and because of that, and what we have managed to preserve, I think the town is pretty special.” And he goes on to prove it.

Antony’s knowledge of local history is astounding and he cheerfully says that he “could stop in front of every house and tell you a tale about it.” With 475 listed buildings within the town that’s quite an achievement.

He also seems to know every nook and cranny and turning down a shadowed alley, Antony stops before a red brick wall and asks me what I see. Bricks would be the obvious answer, but what you’re looking at is far more intriguing.

“Here is evidence of one of the two oldest trades in the world, prostitution is almost certainly the oldest, but” - and here you’re expecting him to say brickmaking as the other – “but,” Antony continues, “avoiding your taxes is probably the second oldest.”

He points out a brick that’s twice the size of the others, explaining: “After 1776 when the revenues we used to get from those people across the pond fell away, those kind people in London thought ‘I know what we will do, we will have a brick tax’ and those enterprising people in Faversham where they made the bricks thought ‘oh dear’ and started making the bricks twice as long, which halved the tax.”

Sadly, the bricks didn’t last nearly as long as the originals as being stretched made them weak in the middle and they frequently snapped.

Antony ‘accidentally’ became a volunteer tour guide in 2014 when his offer to help out on the walks occasionally quickly turned into a far more permanent position. Now responsible for co-ordinating the walks and managing the team of 14 volunteers Antony says it’s a challenging role but that the best bit is meeting people.

The 90-minute walks take place every Saturday from April to October and he personally carries out the mid-week tours, which gives him ample opportunity to admire his second-favourite building, the church dedicated to St Mary of Charity.

“I love the church because I can take people in there and can encourage them to go back, knowing it’s going to be open. There’s no point eulogising about somewhere when they can only look at it from the outside.”

Which is why, reluctantly, he doesn’t linger on the history of the Old Grammar School as not every tour can go in. But with Antony’s powers of description it doesn’t take much to imagine the murder of Thomas Arden, the ‘accidental’ kidnapping of a king, the 39-year feud over a will, or the many other hidden gems that he will delight you with.

Inspired to take part?

There are many heritage organisations and charities in Kent who would love your help and opportunities can be found at .

If you’re close to a National Trust or English Heritage property information can also be found at and

Volunteers are also being sought for a number of roles at the Historic Dockyard Chatham. Call Paul Barnard on 01634 823844 at email him at for further information.

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