Behind the scenes @ Acme Museum Services

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Associaton for Heritage Interpretation logo
Welcome to the Acme Museum Services website. This WHAT? page features some rambles, observations and pictures of some of the current work by me, Hamish MacGillivray, in the heritage and arts sector.

Use the menu to find out more about my career WHO? Some free resources on WHY? and on WATCH! view some audio visual slideshows I have created. To contact try or call on 07811 144622.

Creating timelines

Tuesday 4th June 2024


This a peek at my first attempt at designing a timeline with Adobe InDesign. As the title says it’s still a work in progress.

This is for Cranleigh Heritage Trust towards volunteer research about the 15th century building that was once the Cranleigh Cottage Hospital.

I came across 4 different bullet point timelines by previous researchers (who used bullet point format) and pulled it together using Victorian objects and relevant local images from Surrey History Centre, with fact checking by local historians.

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Books and Lemonade

Sunday 14th April 2024

from Social History Curators Group newsletter Spring 2024

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Pointing to the Pond

Tuesday 20th February 2024

On a day trip to Littlehampton beach, I found six wonderful Oyster Way Markers by Gordon Young and Brian Fell. Not only are they tactile, with chunky metal oyster shells, they also have a useful fish menu carved in granite.

They were commissioned by the local council to reflect the original use of the nearby boating pond. It was in fact an 18th century oyster pond. Another wow fact is that Gordon Young designed the massive and stunning Comedy Carpet on Blackpool Promenade.

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Sunday 18th February 2024

Behind the scenes turned 8 today! Thanks Tumblr for allowing me to record my heritage project rambles. Let’s see what I can write during 2024!

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Mind yer head!

Monday 29th January 2024


This was once the Cranleigh cottage hospital operation room used by Dr Albert Napper and nurses from 1859. The sounds (and smells) that must have come out of this tiny upstairs room makes me shudder.

This rural building in Surrey was one of the first cottage hospitals created in Victorian Britain and might also be one of the seeds that created the NHS.

I am assisting Cranleigh Heritage Trust as a consultant looking at ideas and interpretation for this 15th century cottage, thanks to the National Lottery Heritage Fund .

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Keep Off!

Thursday 7th December 2023


“Please Keep off the Grass” Translated: “Yes you! You might have enjoyed our delightful botanical collection, but this lawn is very precious, so go away!”  This is what I was confronted with last month at a London site. Which was a shock as I gather staff had spent many hours developing great new interpretation panels in their greenhouses and then ruined (from an interpretation/visitor point of view) by the Do Not Touch attitude.

However, organisations like the National Trust, in the UK, have led the way over the years allowing their teams to create humorous and chatty alternatives. You might have seen humorous Trust signs written on slate boards and often hanging on suitable props such as spades.

My prize this year for making me stop and laugh at a warning sign must be in this photo above, asking cars to slow down, at West Horsley Place in Surrey. Have you found any caution signs at heritage sites that made you smile?

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Pause for Plaques

Tuesday 19th September 2023
A memorial bench plaque for Kitty who loved the Southover Grange gardens in Lewes, Sussex, UKALT

As I stroll down my local park, I often pause at memorial plaques screwed onto the tops of benches. Ignored by many, some who are busy looking at their mobile screens, these strips of metal often have poignant or hilarious messages.

I do wonder, could the messages or names on the plaques be part of a great interpretation game?  Perhaps a name game or a word treasure hunt? Developed as a paper map trail? Or somebody could develop a geo-hunt style app?

People could stroll around with their mobile GPS exploring parks and reflect on the names and some local history. Then they might ignore their mobile phones for a bit and sit on the bench. They they might even hear the sounds, see the views and sniff the smells that inspired past generations.

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Steaming Success

Tuesday 22nd August 2023
Railway model layout at Peterborough Railway Wildlife Haven, UK 2023ALT

What is it with model trains? I can go anywhere in the world and people of all ages and all cultures will stop and wonder at model trains whizzing by in a shop or a display in a heritage centre. I recently watched a big bloke in his model layout, at the Colne Valley Railway, slowly cleaning a long railway track with a tiny brush. The crowds of people pressing their noses on the glass were fascinated with the scene of this gentle giant engineer.

Perhaps it’s the steaming success of Thomas the Tank engine and chums with toddlers that makes children grow up to admire trains. For adults it can evolve into nostalgia and escapism from the manic Mondays of 21st century life. When I worked in a Toy Museum, the collectors I met reminisced: as children they could not afford to buy a Hornby or a Bassett-Lowke engine. When they became successful adults they hunted in auctions and jumble sales for these bits of tinplate.

There are many famous male celeb train collectors and landscape builders such as Rod Stewart, Neil Young and Jools Holland. According to another celeb maker Pete Waterman “Some of the best modellers in the UK, if not in Europe, are women now, and there are LGBT and transgender modellers (including Eddie Izzard)” he says. “You’d never have got that 25 years ago.” (Quote from the Guardian 23 March 2022 article by Dave Simpson).  Perhaps the use of model trains and model landscapes is something to think about when heritage sites plan new displays?

Photo shows layout at the Peterborough Railworld Wildlife Haven Aug 2023.

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GRAVE GARDENS

Monday 5th June 2023

Some people find graveyards uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s peeking into the future of our final resting place. Or memories of horror movies. I now regard these spaces, especially in towns, as amazing sites for mini meadows. My mission this year is to ramble into local graveyards and see if they have a meadow area however big or tiny. See the photo from May of a town graveyard I stumbled into near my dentist.

There is a debate in the funeral sector about cemeteries moving away from the pristine plastic golf course look. Even the Church of England website has a Land and Nature section advising in this era of climate crisis that “…caring for creation means looking after our land for the benefit of nature and people.” These islands for the dead can help promote islands of living biodiversity, if religious organisations and community groups can work together.

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It’s only 6 million bricks...

Friday 24th February 2023
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This is my mini watercolour and pen picture when I went to see the refurbished #Battersea Power Station overlooking the River Thames in London. I was inspired to do this mini sketch by the amazing Urban Sketchers.

In the last century I lived next to Battersea Park and this crumbling structure dominated the skyline. Bit weird walking into this fossil dinosaur, lots of luxury shops and the jolly Battersea Bookshop. Some rather nice light installations outside.

While you get lost inside you stumble across timelines and amazing facts. My favourite is that this structure was built in the 1930s with 6 million bricks!

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My Journey...so far

Tuesday 20th December 2022

It’s that time of year to reflect on what we have achieved in our jobs. For myself, I can see that my career has evolved from exhibitions curator to story guide. My current freelance work is assisting volunteers to find forgotten stories, many just waiting to be found in archives or sitting in suitcases. As I like visuals, I have created my career map which starts from 1989 to now. See visual above using my favourite Comic Life software. Start from top left and follow the bubbles…

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The Floating Treehouse?

Monday 5th September 2022

Most treehouse I have seen are secured solid to a tree or the ground.  However, I did have a ‘floating’ experience at the Secret Campsite in East Sussex, UK. It was inside a suspended ‘tree tent’ designed by Jason Thawley of Tree Tents International Ltd. He has designed a plywood and canvas version of a Soyuz space capsule, see photo. Inside it can sleep 3 people. To get to this one you climb a 3-metre-high staircase to a decking platform.

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As this sphere is not bolted to the side of the tree it does give a slight wobble when you move around, as if on a houseboat. This is because the tree tent is suspended between 4 oak trees attached to steel metal ropes.  What is reassuring is the solid wood decking (attached to one of the oak trees) at the doorway.  Falling asleep, in the gentle breeze, I felt I was inside a comfortable acorn pod amongst the branches and hooting owls.

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Highdown Revisted...

Wednesday 22nd June 2022

or the unique experiment

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I have created an outdoor ‘interactive’ tour for Highdown Gardens, as part of their Platinum Jubilee celebrations. These gardens, in the South Downs, were a secret horticultural rendezvous for some of the Royal family in the 1930s . I decided we had to have some audience participation. Plundering my 2 years’ worth of research, about the original owners Frederick and Sybil Stern, I choose 10 VIP characters from the remarkable Highdown Visitors Book (in the West Sussex Record Office). See previous blogs.

Working with local designer Stephen from Subway Exhibitions we created photo lanyards, mostly using photos from the Visitors Book. On the reverse I wrote a summary of why the characters were visiting Highdown, often reflecting Sybil’s humour in one of her unpublished essays. I and one of the amazing volunteers gave out the lanyards at the start of the tour. At 4 stops I asked the appropriate visitor to read out the characters summary and then I would elaborate, trying to link a plant or tree with that Royal visitor. Often I would also introduce a prop such as a cuddly toy dog.

After 2 days of tours, mostly in the rain, with over 65 adult local visitors the lanyards were a very popular interpretation tool.  What else did I learn from this unique experiment? Visitors love a good story, props and role-play. A short tour under 45mins was the right attention span and allowed time for walking around the former chalk pit. A target of a cup of tea for all at the end was appreciated! (Highdown Hotel provided a pop-up tea and scone bar). Over a hot cuppa in the rain, one elderly visitor exclaimed:

 “You made history fun!”

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Make It So

Sunday 6th March 2022

“My desk, most loyal friend thank you. You’ve been with me on every road

I’ve taken. My scar and my protection.” Poet Marina Tsvetaeva

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I have just made my second DIY desk. I believe a desk is vital for the well being for a freelancer. My first desk was built during the lockdowns due to demands of deskspace for my family and silly prices to buy online office desks. Desk no 1 was made from my large 1980s wood art school drawing board using recycled metal legs. Since last August, my visits working at the Skiff co-op in Brighton (a library of desks) made me realise I could make an improved version. See photo above of work in progress.

At home my grandad’s wee bureau was not big enough for modern laptop use especially as I was starting to get repetitive strain in my arms. In the autumn I gathered recycled bits and visited a woodstore to create no 2 desk. Bit of a shock to see how plywood had jumped in price over 9 months. Before it got colder I went outside to varnish the main plywood sheet to give some durability, despite the neighbour’s cat trying to get involved. In our front room I gathered the plywood sheet and other recycled bits, all waiting to be constructed like a large Meccano set.

And now, to the surprise of my family, I have finally installed no 2 desk in the corner of my home office space. I am still keeping the old bureau as fantastic storage space for my office stationary and arty bits. With the laptop, and swivel chair, no 2 desk feels like the DIY version of the console of a sci-fi TV/movie spaceship, where a commander would lean forward on their large chair and exclaim: “Make it so…”

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MAGNET, part 3

Sunday 28th November 2021
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TO SKIP OR NOT TO SKIP?

Last month I organised a workshop about touring exhibitions sustainability for MAGNET partners. We were not there to solve the problems of energy heavy museums. It was a chance to hear from 3 speakers what the journey ahead might involve. Marta Lomza from the Museum of Oxford observed in her experience of setting up ‘Queering Spires’ exhibition she built on community links with local climate action groups and recycle charities..

Meanwhile, Gillian Smithson at the Manchester Museum explained how the Carbon Literacy Trust scheme had an impact on Manchester Museum staff doing the peer led compulsory training in 2016. It has now evolved into the ‘Roots and Branches’ scheme started this month and highlighting smaller museums good practise to a  target of 1500 museum staff and volunteers in over 300 museums in UK.

Claire Buckley from Julie’s Bicycle pointed out that understanding, commitment and action was needed for sustainable touring exhibitions. But it does take time to get this done as a group. In one research project for a touring exhibition (pre Covid) Julie’s Bicycle calculated it was visitor travel and curators’ business travel to the venues that were the biggest energy guzzler! In a bizarre twist of Covid lockdowns, virtual and digital courier methods have been successfully developed.

Nick Merriman of the Horniman Museum and Gardens commented that lots of good practise out there but needed channels to share this information.  What I discovered in this session is that sustainability in exhibitions is not a quick fix. It’s a journey involving people, conversations and sharing.

The image above is from my local museum after a successful temporary exhibition in 2008. All the sets where skipped, that seemed a shame at the time. But don’t worry, art students raided the skip and recycled the sets as part of their degree fashion show.

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MAGNET, part 2

Saturday 13th November 2021
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ANYONE FOR TEE?

I stepped out of the North Greenwich tube station into a blaze of blue sky and behind me the Millennium Dome aka the O2. Last time I was here was about 20 years ago when that enormous tent was hijacked by exhibition designers trying to wow the new 21st century audience.

Now I was looking for a library of crates at the Horiman Museum’s storage site. Walking there past a Dome car park I almost slipped on a long thin plastic pin on the pavement. On closer inspection it was a golf tee, see photo. What was that doing here in the East of London?

As I entered the Victorian School I soon forgot about that pin of plastic. Walking through former classrooms transformed into floors of storage (with air con sounding similar to a chopping helicopter) I discovered forests of horns, flocks of extinct birds and hills of storage boxes that disappeared like an art lesson in perspective. I found the collection of huge crates thanks to the amazing team that look after this unique ‘museum’. Lots of discussion on correct packing procedures for the Hair touring exhibition in 2022, another part of the MAGNET project.

Returning in the late afternoon back to the tube station I saw the horizon filled with slender silver City towers, a remarkable storage of finance? I was wondering why there were huge nets across the road spoiling a perfect skyline photo opportunity. Then I saw the sign ‘American Golf’. Aha, that was where the tee came from.

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MAGNET, part 1

Wednesday 1st September 2021

I have joined MAGNET! Who they? They are the Museums and Galleries Network for Exhibition Touring. This is a network of 11 UK regional museums who are experimenting with sharing resources to develop stunning touring exhibitions over the next 4 years. This is led by the Horniman Museum and Gardens who are using the exhibition ‘Hair: Untold Stories’ as a pilot. After the Horniman display from Spring 2022 the exhibition will be packed up and travel to Sheffield Museums and Tullie House in Carlisle. This pilot is paid by a grant from the Art Fund.

I have suffered some déjà vu about MAGNET as this is what I was asked to do for Croydon Clocktower museum exhibitions over 20 years ago. However, that all halted as potential museum partners could never sign up to  formal agreements as we were all victims of the first wave of 21st century cutbacks in UK local councils.

My job now is co-ordinating the ‘Hair’ tour as well as helping with the logistics of developing new exhibitions developed by the partner museums. Strong ideas include: Sustainability, Gender and Colour. Another interesting topic bubbling under all this creativity is the eco impact of touring exhibitions (we also looked at this at Croydon Clocktower) which should come under the title of: Legacy.

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End of the Highdown Research Journey?

Wednesday 16th June 2021
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“The range of the mountains is his pasture and he searcheth after every green thing.”*

It is the month of June, Highdown Gardens is finally open to the public and my contract ends. It’s been a rollercoaster of a research journey thanks to the lockdowns. In that bizarre  period, it turned out to be a very productive research period for me, which nobody had predicted, thanks to funding from The National Heritage Lottery Fund. It probably kept me sane last year and this winter for 2 days a week to dip into the forgotten past of Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern. However, there were some nasty times on this project.

I witnessed last year savage job cuts amongst Worthing parks staff. This was followed at Christmas by the Highdown project manager, two senior gardeners, with the volunteer officer, suddenly resign and replaced by new staff.

Despite the office dramas and lockdowns, forgotten stories were discovered, new experts found, the descendants of the Sterns returned, display panels and a new website were created and the Visitor Centre and Sensory Garden (see above photo) were built! And volunteers are pleased to get back in and help.

Also, it was with professional pride to see my new research (and some ideas) being used in all the layers of interpretation at Highdown Gardens. The end of my Highdown research? Who knows? Meanwhile…I am off to South London for my next adventure.

*From the Bible (Job 39 V.8.) via Sir Frederick Stern in his book ‘A Chalk Garden’ dedication to the last of the British plant hunters and Stern’s friend, Frank Kingdon-Ward.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 21

Monday 10th May 2021

From Cigarettes to the Churchills

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Like a cold case detective whodunnit I had another new research adventure at Highdown Gardens thanks to the author James Stern. James was the nephew of Highdown Gardens owner Sir Frederick Stern. James remembered in 1981 that Frederick always smoked a certain type of cigarette…

“An inveterate chain-smoker of Balkan Sobranie cigarettes.”*

Reminisces from former gardeners also remembered the strong smell of these ‘Turkish’ smokes. Most photos of Frederick show him discreetly holding a wee cigarette.

Last week, when helping with guided tour training at Highdown one of the present-day gardeners mentioned there were some old baccy tins in one of the sheds. I immediately asked the plant heritage officer Alex to see if anything was around. And yes, a battered brown rusty cigarette tin box appeared, see photo. This tin box came from Robert Lewis, cigarette and cigar merchant of St James Street, London. Lewis also supplied tobacco to Sir Winston Churchill.

Like most things with the Sterns there is a connection: Frederick Stern would have met Winston Churchill when they were attending the Paris Peace conference in 1919. Also, some Churchills (Gwendoline and John Spencer) stayed at Highdown every summer during the 1930s, to watch the Goodwood horse racing, see the Highdown Visitors Book. Scroll below for part 1 and 2 of my Research Journey blogs.

The next quest, can we find any art materials belonging to Lady Sybil Stern?

*Quote from ‘Highdown’ by James Stern for ‘London Magazine’ April/May 1981.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 20

Tuesday 16th March 2021

Desperately Seeking Dora.

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PERU SPECIMENS SIMILAR TO NEW ZEALAND SPECIES.

ENGLISH WOMAN’S SUCCESSFUL SEARCH.

MIss Dora Stafford said this week: “During the 15 months I spent in Peru on this last trip my base was Arequipa…The pampas country between Arequipa and Puno is at a general level of 12,000 feet and I was often much higher…One advantage of the great height was that food keeps fresh and good for an extraordinary long time. An egg, for instance, is still perfectly good a month after being laid.” Ellesmere Guardian, New Zealand, 1 July 1938.

Another Dora has entered my life. Just when I was wrapping up my research for Highdown Gardens. Never heard of Dora Stafford? I came across her by accident reviewing this month one of the 3500 plant index cards that came from Highdown Gardens. In this the owner Frederick Stern notes that the plant in question Bidens triplinervia came from the mountains of Peru collected by Dora. He planted it in his famous Chalk Rock Garden. I managed to cross reference her with letters sent to Stern, now in the archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Her favourite plants were succulents, such as cacti.

Dora always seemed to be missing Stern at important botanical meetings held in London, during the 1930s. She was looking for sponsors for her next expedition. They finally did meet up and Stern did sponsor her. I also discovered that Kew did rather well out of one of Dora’s expeditions as seen in the Kew bulletin of 1938 when they received a 1000 specimens or as they describe “… the large and very valuable Peruvian collection of Miss Dora B Stafford”. It appears she died in 1939. We in the UK have forgotten her, but Peruvian botanists have not and named a plant after her Xenophyllum staffordiae in honour of her.  Above a photo of Stern’s card and my caricature of her as photo libraries charge sooo much copyright fee.

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Winter 2021 Highdown Gardens

Sunday 17th January 2021

Despite the rain and cold, a lot of work going on behind the scenes to open Highdown Gardens, we hope in Spring this year. There is also a lot of work developing a new Highdown website this Winter, which I am providing the content for MooCow website developers, as well as juggling the delights of homeschooling and DIY. I am very lucky that I can escape into looking at the past and all the amazing stories surrounding Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern, with their remarkable cast of visitors who visited from 1918 to 1968.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 19

Wednesday 2nd December 2020
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Sybil’s Politics

During my research this year I have noticed that Lady Sybil Stern’s role at Highdown Gardens and in local politics has been mostly ignored as recorded history focused on Sir Frederick Stern’s horticultural skills. However, there are now clues that point to Sybil’s connections with suffragists – the group of women, mostly middle and upper class, who used peaceful campaigns to try to  get the right for women to vote from the 1890s. In frustration at the slow pace of the suffragists another group, the suffragettes, took militant action ‘Deeds not Words’ to the horror of male politicians and glee of the media up to 1914.

The first clue about Sybil’s politics is in the Jewish Chronicle which mentions a drawing room meeting that Sybil attended and contributed to the Union of Jewish Women before she married Frederick in 1918, see Research Journey part 12. This Union promoted Jewish women’s social services and was like a job agency to help Jewish women train to be teachers or nurses. It appears to have attracted women into other wider activist roles.

The next big clue I found at West Sussex Record Office, in Chichester,  is in the amazing time machine that is the Highdown Visitors Book. At the bottom of the page for 7 February 1928, there is the title Sussex Liberal Women: Mass Attack, see photo above. Thanks to Diana Wilkins @Vote100Lewes who ‘translated’ the signatures and made interesting connections.  The list of 8 women who assembled at Highdown Tower seem to be Liberal suffragists who helped the Liberal party to spread the word across Sussex that all women could now vote in the next election.

The Highdown group included: Ida Swinburne (film producer and Liberal politician), Evelyn Marion Bryce (from a wealthy Liberal party family),  and Lettice Fisher (economist, historian and founder of National Council for Unmarried Women and her Child aka Gingerbread ). Sybil was the secretary of this campaign and was the chairperson at public meetings in Worthing and Chichester. It would be great when the archives are open again to discover more of Sybil’s involvement in politics.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 18

Saturday 31st October 2020
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The Battle We Forgot

Have you heard about the Battle of Beersheba? Ask an Australian. It has links to the creator of Highdown Gardens, Frederick Stern. After the disastrous landing of Gallipoli in 1915 (in which Stern survived as an officer in the Westminster Dragoons, see replica cap badge above) the British and Commonwealth forces had problems defending the Suez Canal, in Egypt, against the powerful Turkish Army in Palestine (now Israel). It was decided that they were going to have to push North into Palestine and defeat the Turks. It became a fast moving mobile campaign involving men, horses, camels and trains. The logistical nightmare was to find water for all the animals and men.

By the Autumn of 1917 after many battles starting in the Sinai desert there came the plan to attack the huge fort at Beersheba (now Be’er Sheva) in the Negev desert. This is where a young Jewish Captain Stern comes in as he earned a Military Cross here on the 31st October 1917. At the moment we do not know what he did to achieve this medal (some records lost in Blitz and archives closed due to Covid) but there are hints of clearing barbed wire under heavy Turkish machine gun fire. The now forgotten battle is described in this dry official description in the 1919 edition of ‘A Brief Record of the Advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force’ published by the Palestine News,

On 31 October the former Yeomanry regiments (now XXth Corps) advanced: “231st and 230th Brigades attacked Beersheba at 0830 on the left of 60th Division, 10th East Kents (Buffs) and 12th Norfolks leading the attack. Their objectives were the main Turkish trench-line immediately south of the Wadi Saba. Stubborn resistance was met with but all objectives were taken by 1330. Later in the day 230th Brigade crossed the Wadi Saba and rolled up all the hostile defences as far north as the Beersheba-Tel el Fara road.”  Translated: the British were in big trouble until the Anzac cavalry saved the day. This victory helped to open up the routes to Jerusalem.

Frederick Stern was quickly promoted to Major and received an OBE in 1918. But he hardly talked about his experience in the War. His only comment I have found was that there were never any Rabbis serving on the front line trenches to help the Anglo-Jewish soldiers and he wanted to get more Rabbis into the Army (Jewish Chronicle 9 May 1919. see blog part11 ). This story continues with Stern’s role in the 1919 Peace Conferences and meeting Lloyd George and Lawrence of Arabia…

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Highdown Research Journey, part 17

Friday 4th September 2020
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How Does Your Research Grow?

Over the last 12 months I have collected a lot of new research about Highdown Gardens and the remarkable Frederick and Sybil Stern. My next challenge: how to present this information as a summary. As a list or a report that nobody reads?

I prefer to mix in images and text to grab the attention of the reader/audience. During the summer I started to build up a layer of visuals using the fantastic Comic Life software. The result is the picture above, based on a family tree template.

Hopefully this shows the ‘big’ picture of what I have discovered working with volunteers and the amazing network of librarians and archivists who have revealed parts of the many stories of the Highdown jigsaw. There are more stories to come…including international banking and a desert battle.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 16

Monday 27th July 2020
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To Zoom or not to Zoom

It’s strange presenting a Zoom talk. There is no immediate audience reaction and the weird ‘feedback’ technical pauses are very disconcerting. However, the big advantage is that your audience can be hundreds or thousands of miles apart so you could be developing an international network, all thanks to a laptop and free software. And it’s sometimes useful to have a couple of props such as a Newmarket horseshoe and a lump of Sussex chalk, see photo above.

I am rambling about this as last 2 months I have been invited to talk twice about the Highdown research so far. In June it was for the Jewish Country Houses network (via University of Oxford) and in July it was for the Association of Heritage Interpretation (or AHI). It was a good exercise in editing 9 months of work into about 40 PowerPoint slides for peer review. So far, reaction has been really positive and possibly some new connections are being made for Highdown Gardens…..

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Highdown Research Journey, part 15

Thursday 18th June 2020

Lutyens Chalk

June 2020. During this weird time, I have discovered a new hobby with my kids: climbing chalk pits in the Sussex Downs. So far, we have bagged 3 chalk pits. At our last conquest at Malling Down, near Lewes, I noticed a whole side of exposed chalk at the top of our climb, see photo.  I immediately thought of letters between architect/landscape designer Sir Edwin Lutyens and Frederick Stern of Highdown Gardens fame. I had seen these on my visit to the amazing Royal Botanic Gardens archive at Kew in December.

Lutyens had been asked to design the Australian First World War Memorial at Villers Bretonneux, in the Somme, France at the start of 1937. It was to be built on a chalk ridge and Lutyens needed urgent advice on chalk loving plants. Stern obliged with a detailed list of plants including: ‘Munstead’ lavender, Scotch Rose and Cotoneaster horizontails. What is interesting is Stern’s suggestion in preparing the chalk, seen later in Stern’s book “A Chalk Garden”.

From Stern to Lutyens 15th Feb 1937: “To plant successfully on chalk soils it is essential to break up the hard chalk under the top layer of loam. This can either be done if on a big scale by very deep ploughing. If not on a large scale, by double digging, as long as the chalk is broken up with a pick. It is unnecessary to take out any chalk, so long as it is properly broken up to a depth of 2 feet. In this way the roots of the plant can get down into the rubble chalk and thereby get moisture.”

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Highdown Research Journey, part 14

Thursday 18th June 2020

Lucas Arts

May 2020. Imagine my surprise going into Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, in February, to find a forgotten portrait of Lady Sybil Stern. Here it is, a charcoal portrait (I think) by Juliet Pannett from 1970. I had a meeting with the curators and while talking to them wondered about Sybil’s side of the family.

In the Jewish Chronicle, from 1910 to 1920s, there was mention that Sybil’s father Sir Arthur Lucas was a painter, with links to the Pre-Raphaelites. But it is very hard to find any information on him or his paintings. So, I used a low-tech method and asked the Worthing Museum curators if they had any reference books. And to my delight, the curators brought out two big hardbacks, published in late 1970s and 1980s: ‘The Dictionary of British Artists 1880 to 1940′ by Johnson and Greutzner.

The art detectives confirm that Arthur Lucas was indeed a landscape painter! He exhibited from 1883 to 1909, his wife and other daughter Joan were also painters exhibiting in London galleries from 1903 to 1909. It appears both Joan and dad exhibited at the Royal Academy. Meanwhile cross-refencing this with Sybil’s 1972 obituary, from the Worthing Herald,  it mentions she was studying art in Belgium before 1914. Another part of the jigsaw emerging…

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Highdown Research Journey, part 13

Thursday 18th June 2020

Normal Service Will Resume…soon

April 2020. I am writing this while in sunny lockdown, on the British south coast, listening to haunting choral music on BBC Radio 3 (fed up with depressing news channels). Just before the big freeze announcement I was going to ramble more about my new discoveries about Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern. But last two weeks suddenly side-tracked with a new routine with my partner and kids: part-time teacher; full-time Red coat (did that part-time before the big C); sharing neighbour; patient grocery queuer;  and sometime online food hunter.

However, my Highdown client still wants me to write and edit text (hooray), but that means I have to go into flexible logistics mode. I can’t use my usual co-working desk space in downtown Brighton. So, I have found my old, small collapsible camping table (last properly used 2013). When not in teaching mode I hunt any spare space in our house, then ‘book’ it with table erect, humming laptop, swivel chair and tea mug.

Also, to stop cabin fever, I try to go into our tiny garden every day and potter around enjoying the sights, sounds and smells. I enjoy watching the city bumblebees doing lazy loops. And I really enjoy the splashes of yellow narcissus at the moment, as seen in this photo above.

Next blog…Lucas Arts

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Highdown Research Journey, part 12

Thursday 18th June 2020

February 2020. What links Highdown with a microscope, toxic cocktails and recycled Home Guard note paper? These are some of the ingredients used by Frederick Stern to study plant cells and discover their chromosome numbers and grow hybrid plants. However, for this cell spotting Frederick needed very dangerous chemicals such as osmium tetroxide (can cause blindness) and colchicine (abdominal pain and death).

Looking at Stern’s papers at Kew and consulting the archivist Sarah, at the John Innes Centre there emerges the scientific side of Stern. From the summer of 1945 Stern received advice and toxic chemicals and possibly a microscope from the John Innes team! He created a laboratory in the basement of what was Highdown Towers as witnessed by his nephew the writer James Stern. I also cross referenced the Highdown Visitors Book (see blog part 1) and discovered that from the 1940s young cell biology scientists including Gordon Rowley and the amazing E.K.Janaki Ammal (hello BBC/Netflix/Amazon a series about her?) visited Highdown.

Stern was advised by Len LaCour who worked at John Innes and co-wrote the textbook ‘The Handling of Chromosomes’. Len advised Stern to use his book, see illustration above from it. I found Stern’s notes written on old Home Guard message paper, all from the Kew Archive. What is even more fascinating is that by 1946 Len asked Stern to become involved in an early citizen science project to count chromosome numbers of two types of narcissus. What a transformation of Stern - from playboy to scientist.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 11

Thursday 18th June 2020

New Clues

January 2020. Finally discovered more about Frederick Stern’s charity work in the Jewish community from 1920s to1960s. I first found his obituary from the Jewish Chronicle from July 1968 which describes his passion for horticulture as ‘chief hobby’. Before that it has two paragraphs about his work for the Jewish School for Deaf Children in Wandsworth, Jewish Memorial Fund, Jews College and the Anglo-Jewish Association. What is fascinating that most of the gardening histories about Frederick make no mention of this aspect of his charity work or his culture.

If we take the Jewish Chronicle time machine further back Frederick was making a big noise immediately after WW1 when he became one of the founders of the Jewish Memorial. As an Officer of the British Army in the Middle East he heard Jewish soldiers complaining about the lack of Rabbis : “In Gallipoli he never saw a Rabbi. In Palestine he saw three, but never in the front-line trenches. He came home with the conclusion that he ought to do something.” Jewish Chronicle 9 May 1919.

What about Sybil Stern’s voice? Again, thanks to the Jewish Chronicle archives we can go back to 1918 and discover that Sybil was a member of the Union of Jewish Women when she was Miss Sybil Lucas. She attended a meeting with Mrs Spielman, Mrs Henriques, Miss Adler, Miss Cowen, and Miss Myers in a London drawing room. They discussed what would the army of female war workers do now the war was finished? See below a great clue to Sybil’s war work:  “Miss SYBIL LUCAS who has for some time been at a War Pensions Office, related some of her amusing experiences in connection therewith, and said they still needed workers, as there was a possibility of their continuing another two or three years.”  Jewish Chronicle 13 Dec 1918.

Next blog…the Highdown laboratory…

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Highdown Journey, part 10

Thursday 18th June 2020

Desktop Boots

January 2020. Started the new year testing Highdown tree trails at a local school, organised by Creative Waves duo Nadia and Vanessa. With 90 kids we discovered they knew a lot about tree structure but not how they were once collected. I went into improv mode and did a role-play using volunteers, the class room and a high table. We pretended the Sterns telephoned their friends the Kingdon-Wards to ask if they could collect a rare tree from the Himalayas. The highlight was to ask the children playing Frank and Jean Kingdon- Ward to climb onto a desk to get a tree cutting. Ok might not be correct, and concerns with safety on a desk, but got their attention!

The role-play was  influenced by reading Jean Kingdom Ward’s My Hill So Strong published in 1952. The Kingdon-Wards were regular visitors to the Sterns, as seen in the Highdown Visitors Book. Frank was first employed by Frederick in 1920s, in a syndicate of wealthy collectors, to collect chalk loving plants in what was Upper Burma. From a 21st century viewpoint the book is paternalistic, especially about some of the Indian porters they employed to get into Tibet. However, have to admire Jean’s courage walking hundreds of miles in extreme mountains, extreme weather, awful blister flies, and surviving an earthquake - just to collect plants with Frank!  Would they be now regarded as eco-pirates? Now and again a detail jumps out in Jean’s book, such as footwear:

“ Before we left Jorhat, we had each had a pair of English boots re-soled, but today, after only ten marches, one of my new soles parted company with the upper, and the other was in much the same case. I had hoped to keep my best nailed boots for rougher conditions higher up; but that was not to be…”

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Highdown Research Journey, part 9

Thursday 18th June 2020

Windy Tardis

December 2019. Wow image above drawn on parchment almost 400 years ago. It shows a post-windmill on top of Highdown Hill. Amazing to have a glimpse of this wooden structure - pure time travel. This is a detailed view of a colourful map to be found in the Chichester West Sussex Record Office.

From my research so far: thousands of years this Hill was used as a crossroads, lookout point, arable farm land, and a bronze age B&Q (want a new spear guv?). It became an important Saxon burial site, then a windmill site. The Hill was above a large chalk pit what later became Highdown Gardens.

The windmill attracted some characters including miller John Olliver from the18th century. To quote windmill expert Peter Stenning: “John Olliver’s main claim to fame was as an eccentric local poet with a morbid outlook, who built his tomb 27 years before his death (can still see it today on the Hill). He also built a summer house near the proposed site of his tomb in 1765 in which to contemplate his fate and admire the superb views…” from Some Mills, Myths and Mysteries of Highdown Hill.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 8

Thursday 18th June 2020

Singing Papers

December 2019. Whoa. Pause. Digest. Finally got up to the Kew Gardens archive to discover, with Highdown colleague Annelise, thousands of letters and invoices to Frederick and Sybil Stern and Frederick’s notebooks. It became information overload. Need several visits to get a proper big picture of their life.

Amongst the letters typed, scribbled, punched and stapled to the Sterns I discovered that some of the papers were singing to me. Yes, sounds weird, see blog 7. What I mean is that very strong voices jumped out at me from the letters I read, especially from two regular visitors to Highdown and Sybil:

  • Plant hunter Frank Kingdon-Ward,  including his wistful description sitting  on top of Highdown Hill at start of WW2.
  • Plant scientist Janaki Ammal‘s joy in sharing her discoveries with the Sterns of new plant chromosome numbers. And making them a proper curry.
  • Sybil Stern’s long form essay on observing     Prince Edward’s visit to Highdown in 1933.

It’s a lot to take in. Thanks to my visitor’s map, see blog 2 I have managed to navigate my way over the many names I saw. More clues from letters from staff of the John Innes research centre that Frederick evolved into an amateur plant scientist. So, did Highdown have a laboratory? But no trace at Kew of any of the Stern’s Jewish charity work…

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Highdown Research Journey, part 7

Thursday 18th June 2020

Monsters

November 2018. Found a fantastic wee guide book to Worthing written in 1805 by a John Evans. This is in Worthing Library reference section and one of those unique documents that sings to me. No, I am not on any mind-altering drugs. I was busy trying to locate early tourist records of Highdown Hill and came across this great book, see photo above.

Mr Evans (down from London) has a great description of the view from the top of  Highdown Hill (on a sunny clear day). He could see across the English Channel to the Isle of Wight “…rising like the back of a huge monster out of the ocean..” In fact, 215 years later, that is still a good way to describe the view to a new visitor to Highdown Hill.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 6

Thursday 18th June 2020
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Jigsaws

November 2019. Switching over to look at stories of Highdown Hill as part of research and display project with volunteers at Worthing Museum. Interesting to learn from the Museum archaeologist James that archaeology also has changes of fashion interpreting the past. Words such as ‘invasion’ and ‘immigrants’ written in 1930s dig reports of Highdown Hill reflect the concerns of the time and still echo today. But were the Saxons invaders or settlers?

Meanwhile…James showed me amazing bits of bones (serious Saxon cemetery at Highdown) and even more revealing what appears to be dull bits of rubble, see photo above. In fact, you are looking at jigsaws from several time machines, some 3000 years old. And on bottom right are the remains of a 200-year-old pipe stem that might have been used by the eccentric miller of Highdown.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 5

Thursday 18th June 2020

Dashing Dora

October 2019. I did not expect to meet my grandmother’s ex-boyfriend. Through my internet searching I found that for almost 50 years, groups of East End Jewish kids had annual camping trips at Highdown Hill next to Highdown Gardens. This was because the organiser Basil Henriques was a cousin of Sybil Lucas the wife of plantsman Frederick Stern. The groups were part of the Oxford and St Georges club who did much to get East End Jewish kids off the streets. Such a contrast to the aristocratic names who visited Highdown Gardens according to the Highdown Visitors Book, see blogs 1 and 2.

The Jewish Museum kindly sent me photos possibly of campers at Highdown. They could not identify most of the faces. I had a shock looking at one of them from 1930s as a I recognised a grinning lad. I rushed to my front room where there is a photo of my Grannie Dora on top of motorbike with 2 lads in 1930s Essex, see above.

The grinning lad at the back of the motorbike was exactly the same chap who was in the Jewish Museum photos yomping around Highdown. All I remember Dora telling me about the Jewish lad behind her was that they almost married and he was called Geoff. I have never had a family link to a heritage project before. Feel like I am crossing over so many links in this project. Curiouser and curiouser…

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Highdown Research Journey, part 4

Thursday 18th June 2020

Missing Albums

October 2019. I got a call from Worthing Library that there was a ‘lost’ book of photos that possibly featured Highdown plants and people. Indeed, it was a great album of large black and white prints featuring many close up of plants. Even better it also has photos of people in it, such as this great one of Frederick Stern behind the very tall fox tails (proper title I am told eremurus) at Highdown possibly late 1930s.

I think when Lady Stern died in 1972, photograph albums and Stern’s papers were scattered to different archives around the south east of England. The problem for me is there is not, at time of writing, a list of where everything was sent. So, it’s a detective hunt….next Kew Garden archives.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 3

Thursday 18th June 2020

Lantern Magic

October 2019. The Garden team at Highdown allowed me to look at boxes of lantern slides hidden away in a cupboard. I was amazed at the quality, especially the colour slides I think taken by Frederick Stern probably end of the 1930s. Above image of the famous chalk garden in glorious colour.

These slides were used by Stern for his public lectures including local garden clubs and the RHS. What is strange out of the many slides I have seen, hardly any show people. And there a few slides showing plant chromosomes. Was Stern a scientist? I am just staggered with yet another layer of Highdown information I was not expecting.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 2

Thursday 18th June 2020

Mapping the Visitors

September 2019. To understand the amazing Highdown Visitors book (see blog 1) I created this map of some of the most interesting visitors that jumped out of the pages over 50 years. There is a whole social mix here from Jewish aristocrats (many related to Frederick and Sybil Stern, owners of Highdown) top left to the young horticulturists, plant scientists and plant hunters to the right.

I will be visiting the Kew Gardens archive and hope to use this map as quick reference when needed. This was created using my favourite graphic software Comic Life, see previous blogs below.

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Highdown Research Journey, part 1

Thursday 18th June 2020

The Time Machine

September 2019. I discovered this amazing Highdown Visitors Book: it is a time machine. It has been waiting to be viewed sitting at the West Sussex Records Office in Chichester. I think this will be a valuable key to understand the people who visited Highdown Gardens. The Gardens were created by Frederick and Sybil Stern from 1909 to 1971.

It is one of the best Visitor Books I have seen as: 1) you can read most of the signatures and 2) it contains snapshot photos of VIP visitors mostly 1930s British royals and a hilarious photo of Lloyd George and daughter marooned in the pond at Highdown’s chalk gardens. So many names to track from different parts of Frederick and Sybil’s life.

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Monday 23rd September 2019

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UP TO HIGHDOWN

My latest wee job finds me at the ‘hidden’ park that is Highdown Gardens established by Sir Frederick and Lady Sybil Stern from 1909. These gardens sit on part of the West Sussex South Downs overlooking the English Channel, near Worthing.

In my first weeks of research I have stumbled across Anglo-Jewish aristocrats, Planthunters (forget Indiana Jones), amazing female Botanists from India, the British Royal Family and groups of East End kids. All these people visited Highdown from 1920s to 1950s. And then there are the amazing rare plants Sir Frederick grew on chalk soil - claimed to be impossible 100 years ago.

So I am recovering from information and visual overload. Hopefully as my role as content developer I can soon help staff and volunteers develop these amazing stories into a small heritage display and self-guided tours .The display will be at the to-be refurbished former gardener’s bungalow, see photo. This will be ready for public opening in summer 2020. All funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Watch this space…

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Saturday 6th July 2019

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STORY MAPPING. Here is some work in progress for the Churchill’s Chartwell audio garden guide for the National Trust. I am using the amazing map of the estate designed by Lisa Holdcroft (cheers mate) as a template then I add story headlines using Comic Life software (see earlier blogs). I am now working through 32 stories using Word templates adding in detail for each headline with its original source (many of the stories are ‘recorded’ in the letters from Winston to Clementine called the Chartwell Bulletins). This raw content I am creating will be handed over to the scriptwriters to create their magic. So far I am pushing the Comic Life software to its max (only a couple of crashes!)  but I am driving a MacBook Pro so fingers crossed.

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Friday 26th April 2019

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Discover the story of cut flowers from Chartwell. See the audio track link below.

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An audio track

Wednesday 20th March 2019

Some work from the Chartwell oral history volunteers that reveals some hidden stories about the Chartwell gardens - from the past and now…

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Friday 1st February 2019

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Medals and comics

Some more visitor evaluation for Chartwell (National Trust) former home of Winston and Clementine Churchill.  We were looking at Winston Churchill’s medals case display. Should we use digital tablets to help tell medal stories and provide extra seating? My colleagues interviewed visitors then I gathered all the findings and had a think how to present them.

I used cheap ComicLife software to produce this summary. The great advantage of using this rather than a spreadsheet is that I can quickly use quotes from visitors. And speech bubbles are a great way to edit long text as you can only fit in about 10ish words per bubble. This visual comic style document is very useful in planning meetings. It also keeps funders happy as evidence of work in progress.

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Friday 21st December 2018

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IT’S A TYPEWRITER WINSTON, but not as you knew it…

This month (December 2018) I have been busy helping with visitor room testing at Chartwell. One of the rooms that we tested with visitors was the former Secretaries Office. This has been described as the hub of Chartwell as it was a very important commuications centre for Winston Churchill. It usually had two secretaries staffing it with typewriters and a telephone switchboard from the 1920s to 1960s.

As well as testing audio-visual kit (audio slideshow or Pathe newsreel worked well) I loaned my old student manual typewriter. And it was a hit with visitors. Children and younger adults were fascinated with the simple technology and actually surprised by the physical part of finger bashing on the keys. Older visitors reminisced about learning to type and the sounds of typewriters (ting). So the dwell time increased as visitors either shared experiences or had a go at typing (very popular with family groups). And my typwiter survived the experience - built to last!

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A video

Saturday 1st September 2018

This is a unique project I helped to organise for the National Trust over the last 10 months. All started with paperwork then ended up with wood, concrete, scaffold poles and power tools.

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Monday 16th July 2018

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SOCKS AS A TIMELINE? NO WAY?

Watching an old episode of the BBC childrens’ “Me Too” I was laughing then pondering the use of 100 socks to represent a 100 year old timeline to introduce changing clothes fashions.

The teacher in this episode explained to his class that each sock represented a year. So, forty years was 40 socks down the washing line set up in the class room.

What a great idea to capture anybody’s imagination who is usually turned off by a graphic wall of dates and facts. How can I introduce socks into my future heritage work? Not sure if I have a spare 100 socks. Mmmm…..well…..

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Sunday 22nd April 2018

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Proposed new Chartwell treehouse designed and to be built by Highlife for the National Trust. Note the slide on the left. This came out as the most popular ‘interactive’ demand from Chartwell visitors and consultation at Croydon Library. See article below.

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IF YOU GO DOWN INTO THE WOODS soon...

Sunday 22nd April 2018

So my first surprise job for the National Trust was to organise the planning and build of a new treehouse at Chartwell in Kent, UK inspired by the one Churchill built for his kids back in 1923. After a long planning procedure we now will be building it this summer in the woods at Chartwell.

I never realised that treehouses fascinate people until I did some ‘market research’ at Croydon Library last autumn. It was one of those topics that people smiled at whatever their age. And then there is the history of treehouses that involves hermit priests, vain princes, merry Parisians, DIY part-timers and of course architects.

Meanwhile, I am also juggling for the National Trust at Chartwell (funded by the Heritage Lottery): managing a family guide leaflet; assisting oral history volunteers; followed by working with silversmiths and opera prop makers to make replicas of some of Winston’s favourite objects. The things we do in the heritage sector…

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