Each September, thousands of volunteers across the country invite the public to visit over 5,000 events to celebrate England’s fantastic heritage. The festival keeps expanding, and this year 44 sites across Reading held events over three weekends. It’s a brilliant opportunity for us to open our doors to Reading’s local residents, many of whom frequently pass Watlington House and wonder at what’s behind our doors, to come and explore the curiosities of the Archive.
In celebration of HODs’ 25th anniversary, this year’s theme was ‘People Power’, to commemorate the teams and individuals of people behind our heritage sites.
Our doors opened to the public at 9.30am on the morning of Saturday 21st. The sun was shining beautifully and the weather was warm as summer gave its last hoorah, and we soon had a steady stream of visitors arriving. We were proud to display our recently collated collection, Gems of the Archive: a unique look into images, documents and artefacts about milling, and how traditional wind and water power helped to give power to the people of yesteryear.
The stories behind the Gems give power to the oft-times forgotten people of the past who made, used, or featured in the items. All are based around the theme of milling, but also branch out to describe the wider story around them – showing how intrinsic traditional windmills and watermills were to the everyday lives of people in centuries past. The display provoked much interest and questions from visitors about the material, and about mills in general. We also received many congratulations on our receipt of the Queen’s Award (the trophy and certificate are in pride of place in the Founder’s Room).
Visitors were able to find out how mills became a symbol of transformation and rebirth; learn about the courageous female millers of the early 20th century; discover which animals were once used to power mills, and see what unusual kinds of things can be made in a mill (hint: it’s not just flour!).
As well as our collection in the recently renovated, regency-style Founders’ Room, they were able to explore Watlington House, the building where we are based: a peaceful haven in the heart of Reading, with its haunting rumours of the ghost of an old army captain, and its idyllic old-English herb and flower garden: a well-kept secret with its abundant beds of butterflies, bees and blooms.
In the refectory Watlington House’s trustees put on a display of the house’s history, its previous owners, uses and renovations over the years (including being the original home of Kendrick Girls’ School), and the challenges of owning and maintaining this fascinating building.
In the front garden Michal Wolf from All Things Lime, the conservation plasterer who has repaired much of the Grade II* Listed House this year, gave a demonstration of lime work. Nathanael was lucky to receive a free lime cast of a flower!
Berkshire Youth, a charity delivering youth support services to the county who are located on the top floor of Watlington House were also open, giving Liz, Guy and Nathanael a chance to discover a usually-unseen part of the house.
The day was a great success, and we were thrilled to have over 100 visitors throughout the day, all of whom expressed a keen interest in mills and our organisation. We love welcoming people into the Archive, which is a veritable treasure trove full of hidden tales of milling heritage, just waiting to be unearthed. If you’d like to come and see us, please get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a visit!