Michele Smith is the Visitor Experience Manager at Bradate Park in Leicestershire.
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Many thanks to Michele for answering my questions.
How long have you been Visitor Experience Manager at Bradgate Park?
I arrived 1st June 2016 and opened the new Visitor Centre 1st July…very quietly.
As the Centre was to be run by volunteers I borrowed a few volunteers from another team…so you could say I started with -3 volunteers. By the end of the week I had 10 application forms to become a volunteer at the VC. I now have a team of 50 volunteers and tour guides. We launched the guided tours of the ruins in February 2017.
The aim was to get 10% of the Parks visitors into the VC, approx 50,000 in the first year. (The Park has approx half a million visitors) by the end of June 2017 we had reached 85,000 visitors not including tours or school groups.
What is your favourite part of the job?
Talking…I thoroughly enjoy chatting with the visitors. Many visitors have been visiting the Park for many years and go away learning something new whether it be about Lady Jane Grey, the Parks history or its natural history. I find it very rewarding. I go home each night with another funny or amazing story about the Park.
Can you describe a typical work day?
It is a strategic challenge, finding out what the other departments are doing that day. Rangers, Wardens, Education, Conservation Volunteers, Catering and contractors on site, visitor bookings for tours and talks and then working together.
Then it is planning the visitor centre day, morning briefing with the volunteers followed by site inspections of the ruins. This is always the best part of the day, entering the ruins first thing by yourself and having the special moment of tranquillity with the deer, doves, peacocks and woodpeckers.
Then we are good to go. After that anything goes. No two days are ever the same. I love working with the public they make every day unique
The Visitor Centre reopened just over a year ago. What changes did you make?
Wow..good question. Having worked at quite a few heritage venues over the years I knew what we could achieve and how to do it, so from the opening I kind of knew what would work. What I didn’t have a full grasp of was the interest from the parks visitors.
Introducing new types of events was a challenge, the Park had generally relied on natural history walks and the like of. Introducing evening talks and historical one person performances by the lakeside inside the ruins didn’t get the best start mainly as customer just weren’t expecting it. Our communication promoting events on site wasn’t its best and marketing wasn’t as effective as it could have been. However once the social media was active and the Parks Events and Walks were professionally branded flyers produced, 10,000 copies were picked up by visitors to the Park in matter of months. Events success soared for everyone.
Looking back I had to test the water, the feedback I had from those initial events was excellent and they wanted more, the product was right, it was just the correct communication widget I had to find.
This summer, the park held various events to mark the reign of Queen Jane. Where did the idea for the Queen of Bradgate Park celebrations come from?
Ok…a bizarre answer.
Long before I came to work at the Park I was (and still do) run historical ghost walks across the county, one of which is at the Park. On one particular ghost walk something happened (sorry no spoilers) and I just knew that at some point I would do something for Jane.
8 months later I am opening the Visitor Centre. Marking Jane’s Execution date 12 February was the most natural thing, laying white tulips at the gate of the ruins. I never expected the media to hear about it, next the TV, newspaper, radio all want to know about Lady Jane Grey. The people wanted to know more about the local Queen. Their Queen of Bradgate. So I worked on a program of events marking the ‘9-days’ in July.
How did you decide on the celebration events?
I love doing dusk walks and not many people realise there is even an orchard and lake in the ruins. So I devised a new guided tour which took us into these areas as well as talking about the myths and legends that surround Jane, her royal blood and the 3 sovereigns. The weather was perfect and the evening sky was so beautiful.
I am a big believer in getting the kids involved with history, it has to be fun and a little bit horrible. I found John White historical interpreter extraordinaire, he helps the rather marvellous Lesley Smith out at Tutbury Castle, it is not every day when you meet someone and he says ‘I so want to be your official executioner madam.’ He was perfect performing in the ruins for the families.
Of course we also did a ghost walk, but a very special one.
A chapel service had to be a key part of the whole week, and the local Reverend Richard was, well just awesome. He had always had an urge to do something in the chapel, coming up with the idea for the actual reading Jane would have heard on that day in history is total credit to him. The name of the service was The Rose Petal Service and the idea was for it to be symbolic, and give Jane the service I hope she would she have been pleased with.
The medieval musicians have been working with the Park for a few years they also performed in the chapel surrounded by scattered rose petals and candles. It was perfect. Two performers with beautiful voices….I was asked where the other two voices came from that could be heard singing, no one could see them..
Tamise, your eulogy was so moving. I know you said you were nervous, but wow.
…and Jed, can’t forget Jed. I have known Jed for many years, he rolled up in the Visitor Centre one day (he is a historical educator) and said ‘aye aye..do you have need of an executioner around here?’ He was my Glorious Grey, meeting and greeting the service guests, then slipped into the mute executioner to lead the service up to the lake and hold out a basket of freshly plucked rose petals for the guest to throw into the lake.
I am glad about the way the tickets for the service were requested, it made it more special for those who were there. I will do that again. People just turned up to help, quite by chance.
Can you share any future plans for Bradgate Park?
Well following on from Queen of Bradgate, I had several visits from Japanese film crews who were making a documentary about the Delaroche painting going on tour to Asia. It seems there is a marked increase in interest about Jane.
So yes, there will be more for 2018. I am planning a larger scale flower laying & procession laying on 12th Feb. As for the Queen of Bradgate, she will rise again.
I am open to any suggestions from Jane supporters of what they would like to see. (It would be rather marvellous to have a closer look at Jane historical dress TBC).
Other related plans…there could be a play about Bess of Hardwick going on tour, I met with the production company last week and saw the play. Flippin excellent, however it was theatre based so will need to be revised for non -heatre performances, Hardwick Hall and Chatsworth are also possible venues. Just looking for tour funding from the Arts Council.
You might have heard of a chap called Richard III, well when he was interned in Leicester I was working at a visitor Centre in Leicester, where I worked with a local jeweller to create ‘The Missing Years Rose Pin’, demand went viral around the world. Lindsay, the jeweller is currently busy having a baby, however we are planning on working together on another project very soon…very Jane related.