Conserving the past

Reporter:

Rob Bellis

DEEP in the woodland surrounding Chirk Castle are four workers doing their bit to help restore this bit of the estate to how it would have been 200 years ago.

But these are not staff, nor are they any of the 150 or so volunteers on whom the property relies so heavily.

They are Berkshire pigs.

These “mini JCBs” have been brought in to clear this area by head warden Carl Green, who has come down to give the pigs their morning feed.

Carl is a Chirk lad born-and-bred, and has worked on the estate for the past 20 years, since he was 17.

He is responsible for maintaining the 500 acres of historic park and woodland.

“This particular woodland they (the pigs) are in was planted with conifers in 1965,” Carl explained.

“Historically though it was part of the old deer park, pasture woodland is the term they use. It’s really good for nature conservation but with conifers there it’s become devoid of diversity. The conifers themselves were felled about 10 years ago to see what would come up on the wood floor but what did come up was a lot of scrub. We did a bit of research and found that using pigs would be a good way to clear that scrub with low impact from a carbon footprint point of view.

“Historically there were pigs in the woods in the 1700s and 1800s and we looked in the records and found there were Berkshires here so we went and bought four. They’ve done a really good job.”

Elsewhere in the woods there are other four-legged workers helping to restore the woodland – two wild horses from Snowdonia.

“The pigs do the bulldozing bit while the horses do the sensitive grazing bit,” Carl added.

Another large-scale undertaking on the estate is the extension of the woodland path, in partnership with Cadbury’s and Groundwork, in order to allow for better disabled access and bike access.

The pedal power scheme which has been so successful in Alyn Waters country park will also be introduced at Chirk, with the whole project due for completion in November.

Then there’s tree planting, which is going on across the estate and the probability that it will soon be designated a site of special scientific interest due to the number of rare insects in the ancient woodland.

The valuable work done by volunteers on the estate is illustrated in the Jericho wood, a Japanese ornamental garden with two ponds that had long been overgrown but was recently cleared.

The area is not currently accessible to the public but is another hidden gem of social history on the Chirk estate.

According to Carl, it was once used by tuberculosis sufferers to aid their recuperation and, during winter the ice from the ponds would be removed and stored in the nearby ice house for use in the castle.

From there we made our way back up to the castle to meet interior, house and visitor services manager Carolyn Latham and interpretation and planning officer Rachel Coman.

Carolyn is one of four members of staff who actually live in the castle.

However, she says, while it might sound great, living in the historic property does come with plenty of responsibilities.

“If you’re on duty for five days, you can’t leave the building,” she said. “It’s a wonderful place to live but it’s not for everybody. You have to accept the loss of privacy and freedom.

“You do get woken up at 3am because a bird has flown down the chimney and has set the alarm off, which happened the other night. You go down to investigate, open a window and try your best to get the bird out. You have to get used to that sort of thing.”

The castle is split into two – - the remains of the medieval fortress and the grand house that Thomas Myddleton built after he bought the castle for the princely sum of £5,000 in 1595.

There have been 14 generations of the Myddletons at Chirk since that time and the family still retains an apartment in the castle. One of Carolyn and Rachel’s major tasks is to ensure the family collection of furniture, paintings and artefacts, as well as the historic decor are properly conserved.

Conservation staff at Chirk, as at other Trust properties, often have their work cut out when it comes to conservation. Luckily the Trust has some of the nation’s leading conservators on hand to advise and assist so the character of the properties are not lost behind ropes and plate glass.

As Carolyn noted: “It is a museum but we don’t want it to feel like a museum, it is a home. However we do have to maintain the same standards of care as they do in, say the British Museum.”

A new heating system, the final phase of which is to be installed later this year, will greatly assist conservation work in the castle.

Temperature and humidity sensors are being installed in each room and the advanced, computerised system can monitor conditions and react accordingly.

While it might make more work for some of the staff, an annual increase in visitor numbers is very welcome and there is currently a drive to get locals more engaged with the castle.

Owen Dawson recently joined the staff as community engagement officer.

He said: “We’re trying to get more local use of the castle and we’re also planning to apply for Heritage Lottery funding in order to improve access and ensure people get as much as possible out of their visit. We’re also working with schools, community groups and Glyndwr University to look at ways to get local people involved.”

For details of events taking place at Chirk Castle this Summer visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-chirkcastle.

See full story in the Leader

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