Dunham Massey.

During the First World War, this Georgian house, set in a magnificent deer-park, was transformed into a military hospital, becoming a sanctuary from the trenches for almost 300 soldiers.

To mark the centenary we have turned the clock back. Discover what life was like for the patients and how members of the Grey family helped injured soldiers to recuperate. Spend time in the ward, nurses’ station, and operating theatre as you experience the Stamford Hospital as it once was.

Dunham Massey has one of the North’s great gardens, with plenty to inspire throughout the year, including a stunning rose garden and one of Britain’s finest winter gardens.
Heritage Let's begin with some route talk. When I last visited Dunham Massey for the other project, I travelled all the way to Altrincham from Liverpool Lime Street, changing in Manchester then took a bus out from there.  This time, having consulted the ever useful Moovit app, I trained-it to Warrington then took a number 5 bus out to the house shaving a whole hour off the journey each way.  Not that it was quite that easy: at the travel office I asked for a train+bus ticket and the clerk busked and just gave me a Warrington rover ticket for the other end which was entirely invalid for the journey so I had to pay the fair to the property again on the bus.  On returning to said office to ask for my money back I was told that refunds due to clerical error required a £10 fee - so we pay them ten pounds even if they're the ones that make the mistake.  Imagine that system in other retail situations.  A complaints form is in the post.

Dunham Massey's the first place I've used my National Trust membership card which arrived in the post on Saturday.  The covering letter is short but still somehow made me weep. It says, "This is the start of something exciting.  Goosebumps, wonderful memories and many stories to share [...] Your membership isn't just the beginning of your journey with the National Trust.  It's the start of finding a a place you love."  Even if that wasn't written by Sharon Pickford, Members and Donors Director despite the letter having her facsimile signature and instead someone in the publicity department, it's still just the sort of poignant Doctorish sentiment which I needed, for various reasons, at the moment I read the words.  This is very much the reverse of "You wouldn't want to be a member of any club that would have you as a member."

As you can see from the above synopsis, the house has changed dramatically since my last visit.  Whereas then it was about displaying the history of the house across the generations, and I urge you to revisit that entry for a potted history of the building and its inhabitants, currently the interior has been changed to reflect a single three year period in its history, when the ground floor rooms were transformed into hospital wards and operating theatres and the then current owners of the house, the Stamfords and Greys aided in the care of soldiers who were broken and ripped apart by the war.  Based on photographs and eye witness accounts, halls have been turned into a replica ward,  recreation room and nurses quarters with an operating theatre set up at the bottom of a stairwell, the upstairs rooms largely changed too to recreate how the living areas would have been like at that time.

Judging by the reproductions of contemporary photographs in the spaces the accuracy is stunning, right down the patterns on the blankets, the playing cards on the bedside tables and the curtains on the modesty blinds.  When the display began, the house administration apparently assumed there wouldn't be much change in visitor numbers but these increased to such an exponential degree, pretty soon timed entry was introduced at ten minute intervals, but from my experience yesterday, the spaces were still very busy for a stately home on a cold October Wednesday afternoon.  Even with these crowds in the spaces, it's impossible not to become swept away into this history, aided by the sounds of patients in pain emanating from the bed clothes and diagnostic boards at the end of each outline the injuries some of these men had to endure.

The ticket to exhibition is a pamphlet filled with facts about the hospital.  It tells us that Dunham Massey was one of 3,244 auxiliary hospitals created to treat the wounded, designated between April 1917 and February 1919.  By the time of its closure, 282 soldiers have been treated.  But the effects of the war continued for both them and the house owners who even after returning the various rooms back to something of their original state won't ever have been able to think of their home in the same way.  Indeed much of the belongings and treasures which went into storage in one of the large hallways stayed there until the house was handed over the National Trust in 1976, subsequent generations losing track of what was there.  That room is partially returned to that state in this recreation, furniture covered in flysheets, the walls covered in many more paintings than usual.

Verisimilitude is aided by a group of actors playing various inhabitants of the hospital who wander through the spaces in costume playing short scenes, about sixteen different in all.  The effect is frankly unnerving, like seeing ghosts stepping through time like an episode of Torchwood.  We're asked not approach them, but we daren't as these fearless players,  offer their short performance pieces in a way which is entirely convincing.  There's the flirtation between patient and nurse, the rivalry between amateur and professional caregivers, the pain of post-traumatic stress and the tragedy of wife visiting the hospital searching for her husband and heading away empty handed.  I've nothing but admiration for these players who can remain in character amid the gaze of visitors with their cameras and noise and disinterested chatter.

The version of me who visited the halls for the paintings would have been disappointed if he'd left Dunham Massey until now.  Although a couple of the rooms have been turned into exhibition spaces to highlight the treasures of national importance, the silver and whatnot, in seeking to bring the atmosphere of war the designers of the display have quite rightly returned luxury items into the shadows, the artworks I venerated last time are barely visible amid the low lighting and any information about them has been removed.  They'll all be back out again next year when the interior changes again with a new emphasis on an even earlier inhabitant, the Booth family of whom there was apparently scandal.  But for at least another month until the current exhibition closes, it's about stepping into the war period.

Stepping outside after a couple of hours, I decided to finally take the ranger tour of the grounds, which was supposed to be an hour's duration but stretched out for an extra forty minutes as ranger Bob, who's apparently been visiting the house and gardens since the 1950s offered thorough, interesting explanations for everything from the hollow trees still charred by the effects of the blitz to the slaughter house used as part of the park's utility for breeding deer during the Georgian period.  Their descendants are still in the park and were always in eyeshot as we walked around, the tour group gasping with excitement every time they hopped past.  My favourite fact was that the house's Mill originally used for grain, later wood, was the model for The Old Mill by Atkinson Grimshaw which is displayed in Leeds Art Gallery and I remember vividly from when I was a student there.

In other words, on the whole this was a happy, contented day and there's little doubt that if I lived in the area, the grounds would be somewhere I'd want to spend a lot of time (they're open 365 anyway due to being a legal right of way).  Even having received my card, part of me's become quite nervous about visiting too many houses, too quickly.  Glancing through the handbook I see that the National Trust owns a variety of different kinds of property but I don't want to become as blase as I did during the art collection project or treat the visits as a chore or box ticking exercise as can sometimes happen.  The trick with this will be to take things slowly, relish each visit for the privilege that it is.  Plus the revisits, oh the revisits.  Dunham Massey changing its interior again during the the closed winter months means I'll be back again next year.

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