Behind Closed Doors: a month of maintenance and conservation at Dove Cottage

For one month a year, in January, Dove Cottage is closed to the public. A small team of staff have just four weeks to carry out essential conservation and maintenance work on the fabric of this historic building and the precious objects it holds.  This year I worked with Mark Ward (Guide & Estates Worker) and Millie Taylor (Collections Trainee) to complete this important and complicated task.
We started on a dark Monday morning at the beginning of January and our first job was to remove the familiar domestic accessories that make Dove Cottage so homely – the cheery gingham curtains, the delicate china on Wordsworth’s washstand, the storage jars in the pantry, the brightly coloured rag rugs on the floor – as they all needed to be thoroughly and carefully, cleaned.

Assistant Curator Anna Szilagyi and Collections Trainee Millie Taylor packing away objects in the sitting room

Assistant Curator Anna Szilagyi and Collections Trainee Millie Taylor packing away objects in the sitting room

Cleaning some objects is hard physical work and it made us think about how women must have been very fit – and probably very tired – in the days before vacuum cleaners and other modern labour-saving devices.  The rag rugs all had to be beaten by hand in true old-fashioned style before I got to work with one of the blessings of twenty-first-century technology, the rug-cleaning machine.
Other objects require very delicate detailed cleaning, such as Wordsworth’s tea caddy (pictured below). The china, in particular, I treated extremely carefully, knowing that it had belonged to Wordsworth himself and is irreplaceable! The canopy of the four poster bed that William and his wife Mary shared also received very sensitive treatment; it was lifted off and laid on the floor so that Millie could clean the fabric, inch by inch by hand with a soft brush and the museum vacuum (a specialist low suction cleaner with netting over the nozzle to prevent anything being sucked up accidentally).

Volunteer Jessica Sneddon cleaning Wordsworth’s tea caddy

Volunteer Jessica Sneddon cleaning Wordsworth’s tea caddy


Next to be removed from their familiar places were the black metal fire fenders which, together with the fire places and the traditional kitchen range, all have to be black-leaded to keep them in top condition.  We use a modern lead-free graphite polish these days but it’s still a really dirty job which probably hasn’t changed much since the Wordsworths lived here.
Finally, all the pictures were taken off the walls so that they could receive specialist attention from the Curatorial team. They examine each one in minute detail and produce a detailed condition report for it; it is essential to monitor the condition of the paintings as they can be particularly affected by the temperature and humidity level fluctuations in the cottage.  Once they’ve done this each is given a gentle clean – the frames are dusted with a fluffy feather brush and the glass is polished with a soft cloth – before being wrapped and stored in a safe place until they are ready to be rehung at the end of the closed period.
Work in progress in the sitting room

Work in progress in the sitting room


With all the precious objects put out of harm’s way, and the cottage looking very bare and unfamiliar, Mark turned his attention to the fabric of the building itself. The chimneys were cleaned out (after jackdaws had tried to nest in them) and some small maintenance repairs were made, before each room was given a fresh coat of paint (in colours appropriate to Wordsworth’s time).
Many of the rooms in the cottage contain the wooden wall panelling fashionable in the eighteenth century, which all needs cleaning and buffing with heritage polish.  The wooden floors and the staircase are polished in the same way but because they are walked on by many thousands of visitors a year they need a more intensive treatment – not just one, but five layers of polish for each floor and the stairs too!  This was mostly buffed in with a machine before a final once over with a soft dry mop for a beautiful and evenly polished finished.  We were very thankful for Catherine Kay (Education Officer) for helping us with all of this.
All the chairs in Dove Cottage waiting for their annual polish

All the chairs in Dove Cottage waiting for their annual polish


In addition, every piece of wooden furniture was examined for damage, inspected for woodworm and polished – I had never realised just how many chairs there are in the cottage until now! We use a waxy wood polish for the furniture, applied by hand to all the nooks and crannies and then worked in with a soft cloth.  We went through five tins of polish but fortunately I love the wonderful old-fashioned clean smell it gave the whole house.
When everything has been cleaned and polished, and the repairs done to the building and its contents, everything was carefully put back in place for another year.  Gradually Dove Cottage takes on its familiar appearance as the gleaming furniture is returned to its usual position, pictures go back on the walls, and clean rugs are laid by the extra shiny fireplaces. This is when we can stand back and enjoy the results of all the hard work we’ve put in. We couldn’t help thinking that it was probably cleaner now than at any time when the Wordsworths were living here!

Dove Cottage houseplace, refreshed and ready for another busy year


After all their hard work we said goodbye to Mark and Millie, who are going on to pastures new, and we opened our doors again to our visitors.  We will clean the cottage every day throughout the year, knowing that we’ll be starting the whole maintenance and conservation process once again next January.
Hazel Clarke has worked at Dove Cottage for seven years and has been Senior Guide since 2014. She is responsible for the day-to-day running of the cottage, a varied role with tasks ranging from giving guided tours to ordering coal for the fire.  She also gives public talks as part of the events programme and hosts the popular Dove Cottage Tuesday series of fireside talks every winter.