Final preparations at a Heritage Open Days site

Three years ago the local Heritage Open Days organiser asked us at the Newcastle-under-Lyme Unitarian Meeting House to participate in Heritage Open Days.  As the oldest non-conformist chapel in the area it was thought to be of significant interest. So without much more thought than, ‘It would be good to invite people into our beloved building,’ we were off. But off to where?

© Unitarian Meeting House Chapel - Unitarian Meeting House Chapel in 1957

Our story

Most of us weren’t interested in the history of building, we were interested in our present-day faith community. Indeed there is a view that some of the fixtures are more of a hindrance than a benefit. Also the building is very plain and has few original features. We appear to have been the recipients of charity for most of the 294 years that the building has stood. The pews came from a local Methodist chapel when it was knocked down to make way for the town’s by-pass in the 1960s.  The original seating had been filched by a local clergyman in about 1819 to repair the pews in his own church – we hold no grudges. The stained glass window was donated when the Whitchurch Unitarian chapel closed down in the 1920s. 

However, there have been some notable people sitting in the pews and speaking from the pulpit. Josiah Wedgwood was a great supporter, which links nicely with our neighbours in Stoke-on-Trent. Charles Darwin’s bottom was reported to have sat on the chairs once or twice. Joseph Priestley was also thought to have preached here. And we have some stories to tell. For example, our original building was burnt down in 1715 by a drunken mob. We non-historians needed to learn the history of our building and its stories.

We were lucky to have an archivist cataloguing all our documents who produced a time-line from the earliest of days. We then complemented this with a national timeline, so our history could be seen in context – who was on the throne?, what laws had been passed? etc. One of the ministers in the early 20th century had written a history of the building, which we produced copies of so we had some written information to make our plain building more colourful. 

We are not just showing off a building but opening up our community to view and perhaps judgement. Each venue that is opened on Heritage Open Days has varying emotions invested in it by various people in varying amounts. Please tread carefully, not just on the floor, but on our attachments to these wonderful buildings. 

The final countdown

The last ten days leading up to Heritage Open Days look usually something like this for me:

Day 10

Contact all volunteers – not just on-the-day-volunteers – but those who are making cakes, cleaning and gardening beforehand, to ensure that everyone knows what they are doing and when. Take histories to the printers - estimate that we’ll need about 50.  Ensure that we have completed the risk assessment.  Great support from HODs for this - see Registration Essentials for information.

Day 8

Ensure that all volunteers know how to contact the co-ordinator (me!) in case of emergencies. Ask if anyone has flowers in their gardens that they could bring during the week to decorate the chapel. Write a reminder in my diary to charge my mobile phone the day before, ensure that I have credit on my phone and that I put everyone’s contact details in my bag.

Day 6

Make sure that I have the minimum to do on Heritage Open Days with regard to home and work – don’t want to be flustered. So write notes in my diary to remind myself to do things early – my trusty diary!  When I had my beloved dog, I would have had to organise a walker for midday on Saturday.

Day 5

See one lady who hasn’t got access to the Internet and give her paper copies of all the information. Put posters into lockable notice board – what we call our wayside pulpit.

Day 4

Check that we have the leaflets/pick up printing – make sure that I keep the receipt for the treasurer. Create a sheet for people to leave their details if they want further information – print a couple out and put in the car – otherwise they are likely to get hidden under the steady stream of paper that finds its way to my desk.

Day 3

Write list of things to take – laptop, CDs with archives on, milk and cakes.

Day 2

Cleaning – get to the Meeting House just before 12 noon and start cleaning. In particular, ensure that the chapel looks its best. Arrange flowers. Put up information, for example about the fire in 1715. Our talented gardeners will beautify the outside. Make sure the cakes are well wrapped and stored. Eat lunch together but in a cafe – don’t want to spread crumbs on the clean floors. To make sure that my daughter can manage self-catering, buy some favourite food to put in the fridge. 

Day 1

Make my cakes and decide what to wear – is it clean and has it been ironed? Check mobile phone charge.

Day 0

On the day – read diary several times, put things in bags and lock in the car. Have a cuppa, read diary once more. Put a bottle of white wine into the fridge to chill.  Get to the Meeting House early to put on the urn and display the cakes. Keep fingers off the cakes and put a smile on my face. Open the doors for the hordes queuing up outside.

The Unitarian Meeting House will be open for Heritage Open Days on Friday 9th September, 12-2pm and Saturday 10th September, 10am-4pm.