Assistant Director for Midlands and East of England, Emma Hawthorne, says: “Sudbury has long been a place that attracts families and we could spot the potential to engage children and young people here more than ever before, helping future generations discover the country house. We want it to be a place of wonder and we’ll be inviting children to bring their imagination and a thirst for exploring.
“Our aim is to be a place where everyone feels comfortable, welcome and can lead their own visit, developing their knowledge, confidence and curiosity as they explore the collections, stories and history. The house and gardens are for everyone and there’s nature, beauty and history on offer for all ages. Visits work when all generations can explore and appreciate the place.”
To create The Children’s Country House, National Trust staff worked with 100 ‘Ambassadors’, aged up to 12 years, to devise and test ideas, first in digital sessions and then via in-person workshops at the hall.
General Manager Jodie Lees says: “The children told us they wanted a clear welcome space to set the scene for their visit and help them know how to ‘engage’ in the hall. They also designed the wooden grasshoppers – inspired by the plasterwork in the house – that now help draw visitors in to explore the garden.
“In workshops with poet and playwright Toby Campion, the Ambassadors imagined what the house’s portraits might be saying to each other. The result is that through a series of speech bubbles, the portraits appear to be having a conversation as you walk along the Long Gallery. It’s light-hearted and fun, but it also helps contextualise the sitters.”
At the end of the Long Gallery is a booth where children can learn about the hidden symbolism in historic portraits and choose from a range of props and backdrops to create their own portrait.
Jodie continues: “This is a new way for a Trust house to work with children, and we’ve built close relationships with the children and their families. The children have been part of this process and enjoyed sharing their ideas, thoughts and feedback but above all they love that this is somewhere tailored for them.”
Eleven-year-old Ambassador Mahnoor Daoudi says: “So far this experience has been amazing and it has been really exciting to know I’ve been part of developing it. In one of the workshops I played a game from Victorian times called the “Queen’s breakfast” which is a memory game. My dad and I had so much fun playing this that we now all play it at home. I can’t wait to visit when the hall is complete.”
As the home of the Trust’s much-loved Museum of Childhood, housed in the former service wing, the hall was a natural choice for the project.
Emma Hawthorne says: “Children are vitally important not only to the future of Sudbury Hall but also to the future of the heritage sector. We want to continue to build these relationships and start what we hope will be a lifelong connection to Sudbury, and our shared heritage more broadly.”
Activities are all inspired by the historic use of each part of the hall, such as:
l Planning adventures and voyages in the book-lined Talbot Room, evocative of the Grand Tour, where children can move model ships about on a specially-commissioned map carpet.
l Curling up with a book in child-sized chairs in the Library.
l ‘Becoming a portrait’ in the Long Gallery, encouraging children to think about the symbolism of the portraits that line this 138ft space.
l Choosing a costume and dancing, clapping or singing along to music in the candlelit Saloon, where the Vernon family who originally owned the hall would historically have entertained.
l In the Great Stairhead Chamber, designed to impress and be admired, a card game titled ‘Objective’ encourages children to pay attention to the elaborate details and special objects around the room.
Visitors are also encouraged to notice and enjoy the hall’s lavish craftsmanship. At the base of the Great Staircase, the finest staircase of its age still standing in an English country house, they can use a convex mirror to look at the extraordinary ceiling paintings and carvings depicting garlands of fruit, flowers and palm branches.
In the Long Gallery, children are invited to lie down to appreciate the sophisticated plasterwork of the ceiling, featuring animals such as grasshoppers, unicorns, boars and dragons.
Elsewhere, a ‘Pantry of Destruction’ brings the importance of conservation to life, with creative displays on some of the agents of deterioration that threaten historic houses and collections, including fire, flood, incorrect temperature and pests. In the service areas, children can make air-dry clay models inspired by the house’s plasterwork and explore what it takes to look after a country house like Sudbury Hall.
And in the family apartments, children can complete challenges and riddles to solve a periodically-changing mystery about a moment from the hall’s history – the first is inspired by evacuees taken into the Derbyshire countryside during the Blitz.
Alongside these activities, staff have developed a thorough conservation plan which safeguards each room by protecting fragile or precious objects and colour-coding items which can be handled. In the library, historic books are protected with conservation-grade acrylic book bars, while non-historic books on other shelves can be handled.
Conservation work has continued during the development of The Children’s Country House, including the restoration of the Great Staircase, a c. £70,000 project which has enabled the staircase to be used by visitors for the first time in 40 years. Staff are also working with conservation specialists to review and monitor the hall’s significant plasterwork and woodwork.
Although the experience has been designed with children at its heart, everyone is welcome.
Emma Hawthorne says: “While our focus will be on children and families, we want to make this a fun and engaging experience for everyone. We are being more creative and more imaginative with our programming and we hope this will benefit new and repeat visitors of all ages.”
All visitors can enjoy the hall’s lavish Jacobean-style interiors and collections, and information folders are planned for each room to interpret the fine decoration and craftsmanship, which includes carvings by Grinling Gibbons and paintings by Louis Laguerre.
The experience will continue in the garden, where new areas are being opened up as part of a multi-year programme of investment. In time, children will be able to learn about, and try, some of the horticultural tasks involved in looking after a historic country house garden.
The Children’s Country House has been designed to be as accessible as possible, with wide parking spaces for buggies and wheelchairs and an electric shuttle from car park to hall; sensory back packs and all-terrain wheelchairs available to borrow; a sensory room where visitors can take a rest; and interpretation in a range of formats including large print and braille.
It will continue to evolve in coming years, with children and families actively encouraged to feed back on their experience and share ideas.
John Orna-Ornstein, Director of Curation and Experience, says: “I hope that The Children’s Country House will spark a lifelong love of heritage in the children who step through its doors, and that it will continue to delight all who visit with its creativity, magnificent beauty, and for the window it gives us into the day-to-day lives of the people who lived, worked and played in its rooms.”
He says the new experience showcases the Trust’s commitment to be sensitive both to the needs of visitors, and to the importance of thoughtful presentation and conservation of the nations’ heritage.
“We try to be imaginative in how we interpret our places: trying new ideas, where it’s appropriate, to engage people’s different interests. But, as we’ve done at Sudbury Hall, we always do this through careful research, and with the utmost respect for the historic fabric we look after.”
The Children’s Country House was supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.