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What's On, Living, Country

Season of Goodwill

The National Trust at Christmas

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Katy Dunn
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National Trust’s Greys Court goes to prison to help out with its origami emergency this Christmas.

Where do you go when you need 800 origami ‘peace’ cranes folded at short notice for Christmas? Admittedly, creating vast numbers of paper birds is not an issue many of us have to deal with in our usual line of work, but when you’re house and collections manager of a National Trust property, it’s par for the course.

Lizzie Champion, who looks after Greys Court near Henley-on-Thames, is in charge of making sure the house is maintained to the highest housekeeping standards, setting up monitoring for anything that might cause deterioration, and acting quickly to make sure that damage doesn’t occur. She’s also incredibly imaginative and creative when it comes to decorating Greys Court for seasonal celebrations.

This Christmas, Greys Court is commemorating the 50 year anniversary of the estate being donated to the National Trust. In tribute, the theme of the Christmas decorations is ‘the gifts of christmas’, with each room representing a different gift.

For instance, the table in the dining room will be heaped with food and drink and a 1m high champagne tower to celebrate the gift of ‘feasting’. The gift of ‘plenty’ is the theme in the schoolroom. Big toy displays include two working trains and dozens of Steiff and Herman teddy bears loaned by the famous Asquiths Teddy Bear Shop in Henley.

In the library, the gift of ‘community’ is represented by a miniature village, hand-crafted from paper and lit up from within under a starry night sky. For the gift of ‘storytelling’, the spare bedroom is themed around the Nutcracker, with a big tree, a dolls house, a fort and a tooth-aching pile of real sweets.

It was for the gift of ‘peace, tranquillity and goodwill to all men’ in the drawing room, where Lizzie had her issue. She had a vision of a wintery forest and a centrepiece tree was to flutter with a flock of hand-folded ‘peace’ cranes flying up to roost.

The peace crane project was started in 2013 in order to promote world peace. The idea was that school students would fold an origami crane, write on the wings and exchange it with someone in a different country. The initiative has continued through the annual World Peace Day in September.

However, creating eight hundred origami peace cranes is quite an undertaking. The idea to involve prisoners came after a visit to HMP Huntercombe in Henley-on-Thames, to investigate whether prisoners released on temporary licence could gain new skills through volunteering for the National Trust.

Whilst on the tour, the Greys Court team was taken to Gaol Craft, a social enterprise within the prison which manufactures t-shirts, tote bags and mugs, with an added crafts section. “It was set up to give the men business skills to help them set up their own careers when they leave the prison,” explains Richard Atkins, a former carpenter who is now an instructional officer in the unit. “The men learn how to take orders, design and manufacture the products, work out pricing and plan stock control.”

The scheme is working well. Many of the items are bought by staff, friends and family, but more recently, Gaol Craft has also fulfilled orders for the RAF and Oxford Lowland Search and Rescue.

The Greys Court team were impressed with the set-up. “When we saw how skilled they were, we quickly connected the dots and placed an order with Gaol Craft. The spirit of Christmas is to be kind and respectful to each other. We put our goodwill and faith in these men who need a second chance and will contribute to their business in return,” says Fay Bland, Visitor Experience Manager at Greys Court.

And it’s not only peace cranes. The bakers from HMP Huntercombe have generously offered to create a replica Greys Court Mansion out of gingerbread. It will be displayed in the kitchen under a paper snowflake sky, surrounded by volunteers making Lady Brunner’s gingerbread and Christmas cookies for visitors.

You can see what the partnership achieves at Greys Court’s Christmas from 30 November to 6 January.

Here are some more places to visit for Christmas…

Waddesdon’s Musical Christmas
16 November-5 January

No one does Christmas quite like Waddesdon. This year, you can step into a world of festive, musical splendour as Waddesdon is transformed, inside and out. The gardens will be illuminated with sparkling light and colour in Waddesdon’s longest ever winter light trail. The Christmas fair (until 22 December) has more than 80 wooden chalets filled with artisan producers, makers and craftspeople selling gifts.

Basildon Park’s Victorian Christmas
1 December-6 January

Basildon Park is a house made for Christmas and the house team never disappoints with giant Christmas trees, sumptuous decorations and floral displays. The house team looked for inspiration to the Morrison family who lived at Basildon Park during the Victorian period and transformed it into an opulent home. There’s Victorian futurism in the Octagon Room with oversized clocks, cogs and machinery decorating the tree and in the Green Drawing room, there’s a tree created from dazzling jewels.

Stowe’s 12 Days of Christmas
30 November-4 January

Stowe’s Christmas is themed around the Georgian Christmases of foliage and feasting in the 18th century. Visitors will tour 11 artist installations around the garden inspired by Christmas traditions such as carols, family, games, gifts and panto. The journey will culminate in the Temple of Concord and Victory where the table is set for a magnificent 12th night feast with lights, elaborate decorations from garden foliage and a 12th night king and queen. Christmas shopping season is hosted in the historic parlour rooms from 18 November to 22 December.

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