As a child visiting Rye frequently, I remember clearly turning the corner from Mermaid Street into West Street and each time reading the plaque on the wall of the garden of Lamb House. It tells that this is the site of the garden room where Henry James wrote some of his novels, and that it was destroyed in an air raid in August 1940. From this, I early learnt who Henry James was, what he wrote and where he lived as well as the surprising fact that, in what seemed to me a completely preserved and unchanging town, German bombs had caused destruction. But what, I wanted to know, was behind that wall and that big black door?
So, when many years later the opportunity arose for me to volunteer for the National Trust and become a room guide at Lamb House, I grabbed the chance. At last, I could find out more, spend time in a beautiful house and look out across the walled garden, the cobbled streets, the tiled roofs and out across the fields and hills from the Georgian windows. It did not take long to fall in love with the house and with its history and atmosphere.
After a meeting and tour with Danial Demaine (the Collections and House Officer) which was jam- packed with information about James Lamb and the visit of King George 1, Henry James’ and the Benson’s time living at Lamb House and the role of the National Trust in preserving it, I registered with the National Trust site for volunteers and undertook several training courses online.
It can be daunting starting as a guide, so it was helpful to do a few sessions shadowing an experienced volunteer to get to know the routines and pick up information about the house. I was given a welcome pack with information on the house, Henry James, AC and EF Benson and I read and re- read the guidebook. This gave me the confidence to strike out on my own whilst hoping that I would remember what I had learnt! Everyone is very supportive and working with Danial (a mine of information) and other volunteers, you quickly pick up extra information and your knowledge grows the longer that you work there, which is very satisfying. Visitors ask questions too, and these are a good way to research information if you don’t immediately know the answer.
But quite apart from the joy of continuing to learn more, it is a great pleasure to welcome visitors and enrich their time in the house through sharing information and answering questions, not just about Lamb House but about Rye and its history too. Many visitors discover the house as they walk around the town and are surprised by its light airiness, its “homeliness” and are enchanted by the garden. Others have known about the house but had visited Rye when Lamb House was tenanted and only open one or two afternoons a week, so had never managed to see inside. Some visitors return again and again, just to drink in the atmosphere and walk in the footsteps of Henry James’ illustrious visitors – the writers Joseph Conrad, HG Wells, Rudyard Kipling, Virginia Woolf or Edith Wharton amongst others. Some know little about Henry James or EF Benson and are interested to find out more, whilst others are lovers of the Mapp and Lucia stories and TV series and are keen to see where the events took place.
But so many stop to say how much they enjoyed their visit and how they love the house and garden. This is the joy of volunteering at Lamb House – welcoming and talking to people and helping them to get more out of their visit. And of course, being able to spend time there too! I thoroughly recommend it.
To find out more about volunteering at Lamb House contact Maxine Clarke
Image Credits: Juliet Duff .