Keeper of the past - and present

Anne Partington-Omar says, "Hold it a minute! Look!"

It's a mid-morning meeting, around a kitchen table in one of the rooms closed to the public at Ham House. We are just below ground level, so we look up through the window.

Along the terrace proceed King Charles I and his entourage. I can't see His Majesty above the waist, but never mind.

Anne says, aside: "There's the sound man getting the crunch of the gravel!"

Mrs. Partington-Omar is the resourceful, energetic property manager for this National Trust (NT) property. Like many ancient British houses, Ham (since 1948) is no longer privately owned. Imagine finding yourself in charge of such a substantial pile of Britain's heritage!

Ham stands in its red-brick and stone magnificence on the banks of the River Thames. It goes back almost 400 years - just the setting for BBC-TV to film episodes for its series "The History of Britain." All day, the place teemed with enactors, camera crews, sound technicians, and no fewer than four directors. Past and present collided. At Ham, time warp is in the very air.

Anne clearly belongs to the 21st century: a "new broom" administrator, I'd guess, but nice with it. She has been here a little over a year.

The meeting resumes. Such meetings are the stuff of her job, no doubt. She conducts them quietly, occasionally accelerating matters. Peter, the head gardener, is still talking to the visiting NT gardens adviser about the cherry garden. Then discussion turns to the planned restoration of the kitchen garden. This year? Next year?

This was one of Anne's longer workdays - 8 a.m. till after 9 p.m. Shadowing her made it clear that this job is no comfortable retreat. The BBC continually made demands. Much time was spent walking around the gardens discussing strategies. An hour was spent in the gift shop discussing stock. Chairs had to be moved into corridors, hot-water heaters activated, lights and alarms switched on as night approached.

Over late-night pizzas, finally relaxing, Anne asked if I would choose a job like hers in another life. "Not this or another," I said with a firm grin.

Ham House was built for Sir Thomas Vavasour in 1610. Over the centuries it was improved, restored, added to, or neglected. Even after coming to the NT, its fortunes have varied.

The trust has two major functions, not always in sync. It has to protect and conserve its properties. At the same time, the public must be attracted. So, one minute Anne was in the Long Gallery making sure the BBC broke nothing, and the next she was e-mailing an inquirer that, yes, there would be a teddy bears' picnic this year.

On her office door is a picture of Charles I and a caption reading: "Trespassers will be Executed." All the same, she is continually interrupted as she tussles with reports and e-mails. One e-mail is about a concert. Another invites her to lecture for Richmond's local history society ... and so on. She admits she takes on far too many things.

The next e-mail is on "green transport" - a proposed river ferry to bring visitors to Ham. "This is important," Anne says, and starts phoning people.

Most are out.

Her walky-talky rings. "OK - I'll be along in a few minutes...."

A BBC director wants to film "something lacy next to some yellow gloves" on a bed. But - since the house is still closed for the season - the bedroom is darkly "put to bed." She considers, but finally says no. Couldn't they film the objects on a piece of contrasting cloth?

So the director asks if the house has some suitable material. Anne's willing to see. But Maria, manager of collections, is opposed. Anne finds some pieces of old cloth in a large chest. But now the BBC wants to put "a glass of wine and an ink spot" on it, and Maria stands firm. The house's contents actually belong to the Victoria and Albert Museum. If someone at the museum spotted a piece of its cloth on TV - unthinkable!

Some of the day's episodes stuck particularly in the mind.

At one point, Anne saw Peter digging trenches in the grass opposite the orangery. "Going to Australia again?" she yelled. But he was conducting a bit of archaeology, to trace a vanished path through the vanished kitchen garden. Anne gazes intelligently into the holes. A few yards away, outside the orangery, Royalists and Cromwellians relax at the tables. A peasant woman with a very old-fashioned face sits lost in a 17th-century dream, while a 2001 woman inspects a light meter. Weird contrasts.

The only break was for a quick lunch and a hasty car repair at a local garage.

"I try to restrict my work hours to 45 a week," Anne told me, "but it's generally up in the 50s and 60s. I never really stop thinking about Ham House."

Over lunch, she talks about her move, after years in local government administration, to this unfamiliar job. She admires the NT's new director general (DG), also a woman. This appointment, as well as hers at Ham, may be a sign that the NT's old-boy network is crumbling at last.

Anne thinks "the DG will have to address the salaries question sometime." There is no doubt that the salaries for NT property managers have long been based on the assumption that they would have outside incomes.

Living with her younger daughter in a handsome apartment upstairs in the main house (we stood on her balcony at dusk and watched the BBC film the crowd's reaction to Charles's beheading), may have a touch of luxury about it. But this free accommodation means her "salary figure is penalized." Living here also makes her just about permanently caretaker-in-residence.

Last night had brought a rare escape. She'd seen the play "Littuce and Lovage." It is about a woman guide at a historical house who finds mere facts boring and starts to invent history. Her fictitious elaborations, further and further from sober truth, prove immensely popular with visitors.

Anne was tickled by this play. "I think it should be required viewing for all National Trust employees," she laughs.

So I thought it was fair to ask if she had encountered Ham's resident ghost. (I'd noticed a booklet about it in the bookshop). I expected her to dismiss it with a sensible laugh.

"I've felt it and smelt it," she claims, "but I haven't met it. Yet."

An occasional series.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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