Historic houses, showing and telling

Hello! How are you? I’ve just about recovered from the combined stresses of two weeks’ holiday with the kids followed by getting them off to school with clean paperwork and completed uniforms (or is it the other way round?). At least their feet don’t seem to have grown…

We had a great holiday in Devon, undeterred by the fierce rain which descended in the middle. Rainy summer days are what historic houses were invented for, and we visited quite a few. However, there was one house in particular that stuck in the memory, and not quite for the reasons you’d expect.

We’d visited the house last year, but I wanted to go again. There was something about the house that I couldn’t put my finger on, a feeling that I hadn’t seen it all.

We walked down the drive and there it was, just as I remembered. Then we went into the hall and were greeted by a guide, who did a little welcome speech and then without pause started to tell us about the room we were in, although we were barely in it. We listened and smiled and nodded, as you do, and the guide kept talking. At that point I remembered why I’d had that ‘something missing’ feeling. We hadn’t had a chance to take the house in, because in almost every room the guide would launch into a lengthy spiel. I’m a very visual person; I’ll remember something much better if I read it or see it, rather than if you tell me. All the talking just distracted me from looking. In addition, written information was scarce. I’m sure the guides meant well (which is why I haven’t said where this happened), but when we left I wasn’t much wiser than when we came.

Why am I blogging about this? Partly because it was atypical. Generally room guides will leave you to it unless you ask them a question, or they see you looking at an object which they have an interesting snippet of information about. But it also made me think about show versus tell. The guides were telling, and it made me realise how unsatisfactory an experience it was, compared to piecing things together and making up your own mind. I suspect that I veer towards the telling rather than the showing end of the spectrum, and the visit was a cautionary tale for me.

Reflecting on the experience later, something else sprang to mind. In one room there was a little model of the house with separate building blocks for each stage of the house’s evolution, and diagrams of each version. One of the boys and I put it together in the different combinations, and then he started to make his own house. The room guide came over, laughed nervously, said something like ‘No, that’s not right, that bit isn’t there any more,’ and reassembled it. What’s the point of building blocks that you can’t invent your own house with? Imagination wasn’t an option. When I first thought that the visit could be something to blog about, I made a note, titled ‘The guides who wouldn’t stop talking’. When I read it back, the note said ‘guards’, not ‘guides’.

While on holiday I wrote a flash fiction, ’10 Rules for the Full Enjoyment of Stately Homes’, and I have a distinct feeling that this experience, and the feeling of being controlled, is what sparked it. Have a read and see what you think.

The featured image is Help! by Andrew Beeston, and is shared by permission of Creative Commons license 2.0. No changes were made.

4 thoughts on “Historic houses, showing and telling

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