Charlecote is a beautiful property to visit. We want all of our visitors to enjoy their time with us. But what if you have a visual impairment? How do you interact with our special place?
We asked Harriet to give us her feedback after a visit earlier in the year. This sort of feedback is invaluable as it helps us to improve our offer and shape future developments.
Here’s her review…
I visited Charlecote Park on a sunny day in April in order to give my advice to members of staff on ways in which they could improve accessibility for visually impaired visitors. As a visually impaired person myself, I learnt a lot throughout the day and had an enjoyable experience.
Arriving at Charlecote
When I arrived in reception I asked if there was anything available to help make my visit more enjoyable. They informed me that there was a braille guide, but nothing else. This is where I feel accessibility could be improved dramatically. For instance, an access guide could be developed which visually impaired visitors could pick up when they arrive. The guide should be available in braille and also to view online for people to look at before they visit. The easily recognisable eye symbol could also be shown in reception to alert people that services for visually impaired visitors are available.
Charlecote is famous for fallow deer and there were some grazing as I walked through the park. I was lucky to feel a deer’s antler which had just been shed. Charlecote is famous for fallow deer and there were some grazing as I walked through the park. I also felt a deer’s antler which was interesting. It was heavier than I expected, and very big and pointy. Although I couldn’t see the deer, touching the antler gave me a good idea of what the animal looks like.
The house is made of mellow rose pink brick with turrets on the corners. These are topped with weather vanes that apparently shone like gold in the sun. I walked through the gatehouse into the forecourt which was like a walled garden with fruit trees growing alongside the regular trees. In the forecourt there were two sculptures of a shepherd and shepherdess that I was able to feel. The shepherd was holding a pipe and had a dog by its feet, and the shepherdess was holding a crook. They felt rough and life-like, especially the pipe which was similar to a real one.
The Great Hall
When I came through the entrance the first room I entered was the great hall. As soon as I went in one of the volunteers invited me to touch anything that I wanted, which was encouraging and a positive start to the day. When I walked on the marble floor it felt smooth and slippery underfoot. It was also cold under my fingers when I touched it. The marble floor had been imported from Italy in 1823, and was replaced from the old original flagstone which has been taken up and relaid in the kitchen. I got the sense that the hall was a very special space, because there was something quite unique about it. The room was decorated with a gallery of family portraits, which I wasn’t able to appreciate. This is where an audio guide would come in useful, because it could provide descriptions of the pictures in order to bring them to life.
As well as the portraits, there were also two sculptures of Mary Elizabeth and George Hammond that I was able to touch. These were very tactile, and were made from stone. They were extremely life-like, and the ringlets in Mary Elizabeth’s hair gave me the impression that she was very pretty. My ability to feel these sculptures meant a lot to me, because it enabled me to build up a mental picture of the occupants of the house.
There was a large fireplace in the hall which was ornately carved. Next to the fireplace were two models of people wearing clothes of the century. I was able to feel these and one of the volunteers kindly described the different garments to me. I felt a velvet skirt that the likes of Mary Elizabeth would have worn during the time period. It was soft, long and thick and stretched right down to the ground. There was also a shift, overcoat and undershirt with buttons down the front. These felt rough and scratchy, not soft like the clothes we have today. The lady told me some interesting facts about the clothes too. I really enjoyed the volunteer describing the clothes in such detail for me because she painted a vivid picture of events and what life was like at that time. Descriptions like this are important to me because they help to re-create a sense of the venue’s past and paint an audio picture of life in that time period.
The Billiard Room
The next room I visited was the billiard room. This contained a huge billiard table which I was able to feel. It had a velvet-topped surface and was made from wood. The men would often retire to this room after dinner to play billiards.
I didn’t have such a positive experience visiting this room compared to the great hall because many of the objects were too delicate for me to touch. I understood why this was the case, but I believe accessibility could be improved if a few members of staff undertook training to describe some of these objects.
The Drawing Room
I then went into the drawing room where the walls were lined with gold silk wallpaper. This was fragile and crumbly to touch. One of the main objects in the room was a beautiful harp that Mary Elizabeth played. There was a book placed next to it that Mary had written about amusing mishaps she’d had. It was open at the page where the harp had fallen on top of her because it had become caught in the hoops of her petticoat. This event caused her great pain and she was unable to play the instrument for some time afterwards.
I then visited the library which had flock wallpaper that was soft to touch. There was an old grand piano which I wasn’t able to feel. Hundreds of books were stacked in bookcases all over the room. Although they were protected, I could just feel their spines through the cases and they were very worn and old-fashioned. It is the third most important library in the National Trust.
The last room I visited on the ground floor was the dining room. This was large and spacious, with flock wallpaper and an Axminster carpet. The room was dominated by an ancient buffet that was bought in 1858. This was a beautiful sideboard that was used to display their silver. It was heavily decorated with carvings of animals and fruit, which I was able to feel. At the top were three carved figures of gods, and the middle one was the god of corn. These felt smooth and it was clear that the buffet was of tremendous value. There was also a table that was set up as if for dinner, but I wasn’t able to touch this.
I then made my way up the back windy spiral staircase to the bedrooms. Before I climbed the stairs, one of the staff gave me the option of going up the main staircase if I would find this easier. I didn’t have any trouble with the spiral stairs, but it was thoughtful of him to suggest it. The spiral stairs were steep and twisty, and I enjoyed climbing them.
When I reached the top the first room I visited was the ebony bedroom. This contained a huge carved four-poster bed which was made from ivory wood and was East Indian seventeenth century style. I touched the black ebony shiny wood, but wasn’t able to feel the silk bedspread because it was too delicate and falling apart. There was a writing set as well that I touched a couple of items from. I felt the inkwell and old notepad which I found interesting because it gave me an idea of how people used to write in those days.
Next I went along to the conservation room where items of furniture were being cleaned and repaired. The staff were a little hesitant about allowing me to touch objects at first, but the more questions I asked the happier they became about telling me things. I felt some dusters and paintbrushes that were used to clean furniture with. One of the volunteers also showed me an old vacuum cleaner that would have been used to clean the floors. It was heavy and much smaller than the ones we have today. I enjoyed looking round this room and found it interesting to learn how furniture is preserved.
I went back down via the main staircase where there was smooth wood panelling down the side of the walls.
The Victorian Kitchens
After I’d looked round the inside of the house, I crossed the courtyard to explore the Victorian kitchen and outbuildings. I enjoyed going round the kitchen the most because people were very happy for me to touch objects in there and it was highly encouraged. There was an open fire lit in one of the ranges that I could smell as soon as I went through the door. Welsh cakes were being cooked on it to demonstrate how cooking was done in those days. I went and stood next to the fire and was able to sense how much heat was coming from it.
As well as the range with the fire, there was another one in the scullery that I was able to feel. It was large and heavy, very different to the ovens that we have today. The scullery also had an ice box that was used to store ice cubes in.
Back in the kitchen, I explored the bread oven that would have been used to bake bread. It was filled with dirt and dust, so much so that my hands were black when I took them out. I imagine the bread would have tasted lovely once it had been baked.
As I went further round the kitchen, I touched huge chests that were used as old-fashioned fridges. There was a big table in the centre of the room that was filled with old cooking utensils and this was also where the Welsh cakes were displayed. I felt most of the things on this table, including a potato ricer, cheese grater and a pestle and mortar that was used to grind spices. I also felt a selection of copper saucepans that were used during the time period. I was surprised by how small one of the saucepans was. Being able to touch such a lot in the kitchen and smell the open fire really brought it to life and added to the general atmosphere of the room. I learnt a great deal about the workings of a Victorian kitchen and how different it is from the ones we have now.
I then went over to the brewhouse where I felt the huge oak barrels that were used to brew the beer. They were very deep and were able to store a large amount of beer for a long period of time. One of the last rooms I visited was the laundry room. In here I touched a mangle that was the piece of equipment used to wash clothes before washing machines. It was made from wood and had spaces running across it that the clothes were squeezed through in order to wash them. I also felt a copper that was used to heat the water. This was a big tall copper pot that a fire would have been lit under to keep the water warm. Being able to handle these objects gave me a sense of what a working laundry room was like in those days.
In the courtyard there was a beautiful old thatched playhouse that birds used to be kept in. It was currently being restored, so I couldn’t go inside it unfortunately. It was an unusual building because the outside walls were made from tree branches and old pieces of tree trunk. These had been twisted to form a pattern that stretched right across the walls. The branches felt rough and I could tell that they had been there a long time.
Overall, I was pleased about how many objects I was allowed to touch in the house and grounds. I had a very enjoyable day and look forward to returning when some of my suggestions have been developed.
We are now looking at ways of implementing some of Harriet’s suggestions. Her review has certainly made us look at Charlecote a little differently and have enjoyed hearing about how much she got from her visit. We’re very grateful to her for her advice and her time.