National Trust at Flatford: Simon Peachey

Our Heritage Open Days

Flatford is located in South Suffolk, an area famous for its beautiful timber-framed buildings. Three such buildings close to Flatford are owned by the National Trust, Thorington Hall, Valley Farm and Sherman’s House. These buildings are used by tenants or are National Trust holiday homes, meaning that daily public access is not possible. However, they are so interesting that each year we open them on Saturday of Heritage Open Days, allowing lots of people to enjoy them.

Why we decided to take part

We have opened these properties for over 10 years, originally on a local basis. However, opening them fits well with Heritage Open Days, so we now focus on that weekend. Each property is different and significant in its own way. Valley Farm is only a few hundred metres from Flatford and is a 15th century medieval hall house, complete with an open hall, massive fireplace and original staircase. The volunteers who steward the building dress in period costume to enhance the atmosphere. Thorington Hall is four miles away and is a huge rambling property dating from many centuries. Crooked staircases lead to tiny rooms in the attic and internal windows give views through to different parts of the house. It even has a ghost!  Sherman’s House is in Dedham high street and is a timber framed building with a brick façade. The Sherman family have been significant over the centuries, so the house has a fascinating history.

How Heritage Open Days made a difference

Heritage Open Days has become one of our most important events and brings visitors to Flatford at a quiet time of the year. We encourage them to visit all three properties on the same day and have volunteers on site to explain the links between the properties in terms of design and history. We actually open Valley Farm on a few other days too, so this event allows us to promote our living history events, which take place at the property. It is also an event that requires almost 30 volunteers, so it provides an opportunity for people to work together and get to know each other better.

Favourite Heritage Open Days moments

Lots and lots of them. Last year two sets of people, who didn’t know each other, visited Thorington Hall because they had links to the property and were intrigued to see inside. Through the enthusiasm of one of our volunteers, they got talking and realised they were actually related through their ancestors who lived in the hall. Valley Farm is a magical place too – I recall standing by the gate to the hall, towards the end of the day. We were letting the fire die down in the huge fireplace, so there was a smell of woodsmoke. It was a warm, late summer afternoon and the buildings were russet brown in the low sun. The people leaving Valley Farm were smiling and laughing after talking to our brilliant volunteers – that’s what history can do!

Advice to first-time participants

Be very organised and plan everything in advance. Make a list of all the items you need at each property and pack them in boxes beforehand. Start planning the volunteer rota several months in advance and send it out well beforehand. Make sure you do appropriate marketing and use the posters that are supplied. Do a careful risk assessment and make sure all third parties, such as tenants, are informed about the plans. On the day, arrive very early and make sure everyone knows what they are doing. Be ready to open early and make sure you have done a route check for health and safety risks. Keep in touch with all your staff/volunteers on the day to make sure people are having appropriate breaks. Supply lots of tea and biscuit. At the end of the day, ask a few members of staff or volunteers to stay on longer to help with the clear up. Have fun!