Uncovering the secrets of Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle; photo - Jim Holden, www.jimholden.co.uk, 07590 683036

Arundel Castle; photo - Jim Holden, www.jimholden.co.uk, 07590 683036 - Credit: JIm Holden

Before opening to visitors again this month, staff at Arundel Castle spent five months preparing for the upcoming season. Among other things that includes inspecting for damage, polishing armour and changing up to 2,000 lightbulbs. Jenny Mark-Bell found out what goes on behind the scenes

Conservation Manager Peter Nottingham winding a clock dating from 1690 in the Drawing Room. There ar

Conservation Manager Peter Nottingham winding a clock dating from 1690 in the Drawing Room. There are 27 clocks throughout the castle and Peter is responsible for winding them all! The clocks sometimes run slower in winter because of the drop in temperature. Peter keeps a written record in which to note such details - Credit: JIm Holden

How many Arundel Castle staff does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer is, quite a few. There are between 1,500 and 2,000 individual lightbulbs in the public areas of the castle and, with such high ceilings, a portable scaffold is required. So instead of waiting for a bulb to blow, all the bulbs are changed annually. It is little things like this, the domestic minutiae of our own daily lives writ large, that makes the scale of Arundel Castle so astonishing.

If you have ever visited Arundel Castle, you will know that it is an awe-inspiring sight, a perfect fairy tale edifice. Built at the end of the 11th century, it has been the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk for almost 1,000 years. It is home to a wealth of art, including a Van Dyck.

I was invited to see the castle staff preparing for their long summer season. Last year more than 154,600 visitors passed through the Castle and grounds, an increase of 8.5 per cent on 2012 according to official figures. The Castle’s season runs from April to November, which means that winter sees the majority of maintenance required to keep the restored medieval castle looking its best.

It is the job of conservation manager Peter Nottingham and Phil Hudson, maintenance manager to oversee this enormous operation, which begins as soon as the castle closes for the winter.

It takes six to eight weeks to clean the Library, for example, because every piece of Honduran mahogany needs to be polished, and all 10,000 books are removed and carefully dusted by NADFAS (the National Association of Decorative & Fine Arts Societies). During the summer season, cleaners work from 7.30am to 11.30am, but mainly on maintaining the work done while the castle is closed to visitors.

The winter season also allows Peter the opportunity to inspect for damage caused by the influx of visitors. This could include furniture with loose arms or legs, missing, moulding or torn upholstery. Peter carries out a ‘condition assessment’ and writes up a report for very special pieces, so that the future generations have a record of what was damaged and when and what remedial action was taken. Usually reports are carried out in-house, but specialist conservators are called in for particularly difficult jobs. All repairs must be reversible.

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Some of the cleaning materials are just what we would use in our own homes. Not many of us have a suit of armour to maintain, but lots have a can of 3 in 1 in the shed. It’s a widely available, general purpose lubricating oil that’s used to clean the armour once a year before it is all wired back together again. On the other hand, any furniture repairs require a special ‘pearl’ glue. Normal vacuum cleaners would be too harsh to use on furniture and fabrics, so the Castle housekeeping team uses a special museum-grade vacuum cleaner, sometimes with a layer of net over the nozzle for particularly delicate items.

Outside in the grounds, Head Gardener Martin Duncan has been working his team hard. While many of us neglect our plants in the winter, here it is the busiest time of year. From October to just before Christmas, the gardeners are engaged in the mammoth task of planting 36,000 bulbs. Horticulturalist Tanya Wallace says it’s all worth it to hear the visitors’ comments, though, recounting the story of a Canadian woman who was inspired by the wonderful Stumpery to create her own.

When the gates of the Castle open on 1 April, it will mark the end of a frenetic time for the 11 permanent members of staff. With thousands of visitors passing through, there is a different type of energy about the place, but it’s also a chance to share six months of work with the general public.


At a glance

There are more than 300 pictures in the Castle: oil on canvas, oil on panel, watercolours and prints.


Garden staff planted 36,000 flowers between October and December 2013.


Staff at Arundel Castle use 40 tins of beeswax during the winter months. The Barons’ Hall alone has 300 sq m of fine oak panelling, which all needs to be polished.


The roof is inspected at least four times a year, or after storms or snow, as required. There are 37 separate roof areas and most are difficult to access. Keeping the weather out is the most important challenge and key to preserving the Castle’s internal structure and the collections within.


There are 27 clocks in the Castle. Each has to be wound every week, and any idiosyncracies recorded. All the clocks have to be stopped for an hour when the clocks go back in autumn, and then restarted, as they can’t be wound backwards.


There are 10,000 books in the Library.

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