Warm welcome awaits as army of volunteers return to Gunby Hall

It's 5C on a wet and windy Sunday morning in February - but the volunteers at the gate of Gunby Hall are smiling.

Volunteer Sue Cushen welcomes Richard Hardesty of Louth to Gunby Hall.
Volunteer Sue Cushen welcomes Richard Hardesty of Louth to Gunby Hall.

Experience has taught them to be prepared for all weathers and, dressed in lots of layers, they are ready and eager to give a warm welcome to the visitors venturing out in the cold.

"When you work for the National Trust to quickly learn to wear layers," said Hilary de Wit. "I emptied my boot at the end of last season but it's full again with everything I might need."

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There is a buzz of excitement around the historic estate - which was the home of the Massingberd family for more than 250 years from the 18th century.

The welcoming team in the car park at Gunby Hall - Sue Cushen, Hilary de Wit and Diane Dee.

On just the second day of re-opening after being closed over winter, the volunteers are keen to catch up with each other as well as welcome visitors and the many familiar faces amongst them.

Gunby Hall has around 150 volunteers, who are encouraged to work a three-hour shift at least once a fortnight.

Nigel Hodges, the welcome manager, has already had a busy first hour settling those on the Sunday shift back into their roles and has turned up at the car park to check all is well.

A steady number of cars are arriving with National Trust members eager to explore this season's magnificent display of snowdrops in the eight-acre gardens.

The cafe was doing a good trade in hot drinks. Serving cake is Helen Baker, a member of staff who is food and beverage team leader.

As they head up to the house, Nigel offers to do a sun dance in the hope the predicted rain holds off.

Keen to spread the word Gunby Hall is recruiting, he is proud of his team.

"We have some wonderful volunteers, " he said. "I was a volunteer before I worked for the National Trust and it's such a lovely way to meet people.

"The hall and gardens are beautiful - it's just a lovely place to be."

Tip toe in the snowdrops - Ben and Tan Cosh with eight-year-old Logan Cosh.

A couple from Yorkshire, Andy and Amy Morratt, arrive at the car park to be greeted by Sue Cushen, a volunteer who is also a Gunby Hall ranger helping maintain the grounds.

As she scans the membership cards, we hear the couple have spent the night at the Leagate Inn in Coningsby - a Christmas present from Andy to Amy.

"I chose it because it was in between two National Trust properties - Tattershall Castle and Gunby Hall," explained Andy. "Unfortunately Tattershall Castle isn't open yet, so we have come here today.

"We have explored all of the National Trust venues in Yorkshire so thought we would have a look at what Lincolnshire had to offer.

The snowdrop walks have begun at Gunby Hall.

"We are really looking forward to seeing the hall and gardens."

Nigel tells them the gardens are looking magnificent, especially as there are 10,000 extra snowdrops this year after winning them in a competition.

With the gate volunteers doing an excellent job in the car park, we walk up to the courtyard where teas and hot chocolate are already being served in the cafe to visitors warming themselves after exploring the gardens.

The house has also re-opened after an intensive clean, which is part of the conservation work that takes place over the winter.

Sheila Mathison is ready to welcome visitors in the entrance hall and points to a line hand written by Tennyson poem about Gunby Hall, which describes it as the "haunt of ancient peace".

"Those words describe it perfectly," she said. "It may not be the biggest house, or the grandest - and the Massingberds were not a famous family, although they knew a lot of important people, but it is such a lovely, peaceful place to be.

Michael Wareham of Skegness with his granddaughter, Isyla Willoughby, 2

"I've been volunteering for almost five years and love it."

A piano can be heard in the music room, where concerts are still held. Volunteer Harry Clarke has come all the way from Sheffield to play requests on the grand piano.

"It's a very special Bluthner grand piano which dismantles and was made for Diana Langton, Lady Montgomery-Massingberd because the only way she would agree to go to India was if she could take her piano with her," he explained.

"I feel very privileged to be able to come here and play it."

Next door is the longest serving house volunteer, 89-year-old Heather Brown, who has proudly been awarded her 15-year long service pin.

"I started volunteering in the library and just love coming," she said. "The volunteers and visitors are all lovely to chat to.

"I love the children who come too - National Trust children know to respect things and if they are on one of our trails they never touch things and sit on the floor to fill in their forms.

"I'll certainly keep coming back as long as I can."

Two of the roles which are currently available are House Volunteer and Visitor Experience Volunteer.

House Volunteers welcome visitors as well as ensure the security of Gunby Hall. As the "face of Gunby Hall" they are expected to deliver "exceptional customer service and historical knowledge".

A Visitor Experience Volunteer proves a "warm welcome and outstanding goodbye" and generally ensure visitors have a great experience.

For more information about volunteering visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gunby hallABOUT GUNBY HALL

The Massingberd family is long established in Lincolnshire, tracing its descent to Lambert Massingberd of Sutterton on the Wash who was convicted of grievous bodily harm in Boston in 1288. Through the marriage of Sir Thomas Massingberd to Joan de Bratoft in 1495 the lands of Bratoft and Gunby and the moated manor house at Bratoft came into the family, surrounded by fish ponds and an extensive park. An Elizabethan garden seems to have adorned Bratoft Manor, of which archaeological remains can be seen in the landscape today.

The moat is all that remains of Bratoft Manor, the former home of the Massingberd family

During the Civil War the Massingberd brothers, Henry and Drayner, fought on the Parliamentary side. Both brothers prospered under the Commonwealth of Oliver Cromwell. Drayner went on to found the branch of the family seated at South Ormsby in Lincolnshire. Henry served as High Sheriff of the county and was rewarded with a baronetcy by Cromwell. This was probably because of Henry's generosity to the State in maintaining thirty foot soldiers in Ireland for three years keeping the peace after the bloody campaigns of 1649-51. For reasons that are not entirely clear, Sir Henry managed the unusual feat of having his Cromwellian baronetcy re-conferred by Charles II in 1660.

It was Sir Henry’s son, Sir William, the second baronet, who decided to move the family home across the fields from Bratoft to Gunby.

From sources of the time it seems likely that Sir William was building on the site of an existing manor house, but nothing of it remains today. Some of the bricks used to build the house were quarried from the old manor house at Bratoft, which Sir William dismantled. The result is a four-square, no-nonsense brick house relieved by sparing use of stone for quoins and window surrounds and subtle raised brick panels in the parapet.

Hour-long guided snowdrop walks start at 10.30am (daily) or 12.30pm (most days) from the Gunby courtyard.

The walks are priced at £3.50 per person (payable in the car park on the day by cash or card) on top of normal admission charges.

There are no admission charges for National Trust members, but for non-members it is £8.50 per person. Places for the walks are limited. To book a place email: [email protected] or call 01754 892991.

As parking spaces are limited too, it is also recommended that visitors pre-book for general admission at www.nationaltrust.org.uk/gunby-hall.

Volunteer Heather Brown with visitors Lisa and Derrick Mitchell of Gainsborough
June Berridge of Aisby, Gainsborough, couldn't resist singing along to volunteer Harry Clarke playing the grand piano.
Volunteer Sheila Mathison with visitors.
Gunby Hall was the home of the Massingberd family for more than 250 years from the 18th century.