Behind the scenes at The Palace House and National Motor Museum at Beaulieu
PUBLISHED: 12:07 02 September 2014 | UPDATED: 12:10 02 September 2014
The Palace House and National Motor Museum at Beaulieu are one of Hampshire's most popular visitor attractions. But what does it take to keep this well-oiled machine ticking over? Viv Micklefield went to investigate
Beaulieu means beautiful place and walking through this New Forest estate’s historic grounds it certainly lives up to its name. The current Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, or ‘Lord M’ as he’s affectionately referred to by those working here, is a direct descendent of William the Conqueror and since the 1950s has invited the public to visit his ancestral home. Now best known for its collection of over 250 vehicles that celebrates the story of motoring on British roads, around 400,000 visitors a year descend from far and wide. Besides vintage cars, the museum features vehicles which have starred in popular television series and films, including James Bond, Top Gear and Only Fools and Horses, as well as the latest superbikes, and plenty more. However, keeping everything ticking over, takes a well-oiled team.
Sarah Downer, Palace House Guide
“We represent real people here in 1898,” explains Sarah, dressed in her crisply starched uniform. “I’m Emma Elizabeth Harrison, a nursery maid, who arrived, at the age of 13, and later became a lady’s maid to Rachel, Lady Forster, the present Lord Montagu’s aunt.”
From surviving records Sarah knows exactly what Emma Elizabeth ate for breakfast, when she celebrated birthdays and even traits of her personality.
It’s a vivid insight into the life and times of this treasure of a house. Although, as Sarah emphasises, Beaulieu remains a family home with the private dining room regularly open to visitors. “Mary Montagu’s decorative wallpaper is on some of the walls and Ralph Montagu designed the hall carpet. Palace House is full of personal touches.”
Since first stepping over the threshold in 2007, there’s no doubt Sarah’s fallen for its history. Favourite pieces include a 14th century bread oven, built when the building served as the Abbey’s Great Gatehouse, and an Italian travelling chest exquisitely inlaid with ivory.
Beaulieu’s paranormal reputation is also entrancing. “Personally, I haven’t seen any ghosts,” Sarah says, “but from Cistercian monks to a Victorian lap dog that allegedly sits at the bottom of the stairs, I’ve heard enough stories to believe in it.”
Tim Edgerton, Workshop Trainee Engineer
“It was always my goal to get into the workshop, but I wasn’t expecting to be offered a four-year apprenticeship,” says 22-year-old Tim, barely disguising his sense of disbelief that having volunteered at Beaulieu for several years, he’s landed his dream job working every day with this amazing vehicle collection.
As Sir Malcolm Campbell’s legendary land speed record-breaking Sunbeam, Bluebird roars back into life after an engine re-build that began in 2007, Tim’s current focus is on a 1924 Type 35 Bugatti.
“You’ve got to be so careful with these old classics because they’re all handmade,” he points out.
“You think of older, bigger, more solid engineering but I’m realising that they’re actually really delicate and some are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. Before these cars, the oldest I’d ever worked on was probably one built in the 1970s.”
And it’s not just the motors here that have a heritage, Tim is full of respect for the workshop’s 1920s tool box with its original hand-crafted contents that remain in use today.
He might still be waiting to take his driving test, but this new recruit to the five-man restoration crew is not wasting a minute learning from them on the job. And Tim’s the first to admit: “There’s over 100 years worth of experience here in this workshop. That’s a lot of knowledge.”
Caroline Sparks, Events Assistant Manager
“It’s all about planning, but you also have to think on your feet,” she says.
Come rain or shine no day is ever the same when it comes to staging Beaulieu’s 30 or so outdoor public events each year. And the British weather is just one factor Caroline and her four permanent colleagues contend with.
Whether confirming arrangements with security contractors and trackway fitters, or implementing all-important health and safety guidelines, this former ticket assistant knows just what it takes to organise a successful crowd-pulling attraction.
“Most of the people who come in to work on event days are local,” says Caroline. “They’re all different ages and some have been doing it for years. Because we’re so busy we do hold recruitment evenings - it’s good to have a big pool to call upon.
“From the International Autojumble, where we get about 2000 exhibitors, to our popular ‘Simply’ days for specific marques like Porsche and Ford, it’s mainly motoring events here. However, we also get involved in the annual Marie Curie Charity Walk, and the fireworks display, which is always popular.”
Never mind if there’s an event happening next weekend, or one in six months time, it’s always full-on, and, says Caroline, “it’s far from a boring.”
Gail Stewart-Bye, Collections’ Centre Curatorial Officer
“When I first came here, I was really interested in F1 and almost 15 years later, this job has taken me in all sorts of directions that I wouldn’t have imagined,” says Gail, whose passion for social history drives her enthusiasm for documenting, caring for and displaying the motoring-related objects entering the National Motor Museum Trust’s Collections’ Centre.
“There are things here that you won’t see many examples of, such as early Brooklands Racetrack badges, and endorsements for inaugural driving offences.
“Beaulieu typically gets at least one vehicle offered a day, but objects offered tend to be of a lower value. At auctions we’re often up against enthusiasts with very deep pockets, although we do have a wishlist and if there’s a gap in the collection, I’ll try and go for it. Currently, we need another 23 Lalique mascots to complete the set, and are seeking trophies to display in The Motorcycle Story.”
Responsible for around 45,000 objects, Gail estimates that only five per cent are on show. Of these, an illuminated Art Deco Shell oil sign is for her an icon of popular motoring culture. With more gems in the reserve collection, visits can be arranged by appointment.
Kelvin Yapp, Head of Grounds & Gardens
“Sometimes, it’s a case of holding our nerve, as we try not to use any chemicals,” admits Kelvin, who in addition to ensuring that 65 acres of parkland is well drained, has the Abbey Cloisters and formal beds to tend to.
But whether viewed from the high-level Monorail or up-close with the help of the meticulously-labelled rows of planting, the ornamental kitchen garden is his first love.
Kelvin trained at Edinburgh’s Botanical Gardens and has worked for almost 26 years at Beaulieu. He taps local springs for watering, and plants to attract beneficial insects, and hedgehogs and toads are encouraged for pest control.
“Fruit and vegetables are grown for the [Montagu] family, with any extra going to the public Brabazon Restaurant.
“As new equipment comes along, it certainly helps us to improve how we do things, but there’s still an awful lot of gardening here that needs to be done by hand.”
Indeed, one of Kelvin’s seven staff is employed full-time on the estate which also houses the potting sheds, greenhouses and 1870s Vine House.
“As a gardener,” he says “You’ve got to be on top of everything all of the time.
“Over the winter months I decide what’s going to be grown and order seeds. Let something slip and you get into serious difficulties, it’s a helter-skelter ride.”
Did you know?
• The word Autojumble was dreamt up at Beaulieu and now appears in the Oxford English Dictionary
• Some stately homes are said to have ‘cold’ spots indicating a ghostly presence but Beaulieu’s Portrait Gallery is unnaturally warm - despite having no heating
• The kitchen garden’s pond has sculpted leaves cast from Beaulieu’s courgette plants.
• During WW2 Beaulieu was the finishing school for the nation’s secret agents