Life as a new guide for David Parr House

by House Guide, Jill Forgham.

My last trip outside London before lockdown was to Cambridge in March 2020, to visit David Parr House.

On a rainy Thursday morning, I entered the world of the 19th century Arts and Crafts movement, beautifully encapsulated inside a tiny terraced house by the professional art painter who lived there. After working on churches and colleges by day, David Parr came home to continue his labour of love, decorating his own house. As we moved from room to room marvelling at his art workmanship skill, all done by oil lamp and candlelight, we also learnt about Elsie, David’s granddaughter who continued to live in the house for 85 years, without changing those sumptuous hand-painted interiors. We were transported back in time through the last century into another age.

As lockdown rearranged my life, and I lost my job as the pandemic decimated the travel industry, I decided to respond to an appeal for recruits to be virtual guide volunteers for this house, to bring the joy of this unusual story into people’s homes via Zoom. Receiving the training each week from Charlotte, the curator was inspiring as she unlocked the secrets and history contained inside. Soon I could describe the Renaissance technique of ‘pouncing’ with confidence! I could not wait to share the fascinating story of the house’s fortuitous preservation with the wider world.

My Family and Friends Zoom House Tour!

In the summer when travel was permitted, I went up to Cambridge to meet Tamsin, Charlotte and the team behind the salvation, restoration and conservation of 186 Gwydir St.  It was a delight to chat with fellow volunteers, and see the garden where Alfred, Elsie’s husband grew vegetables, kept chickens and nurtured a magnificent apple tree, still providing bumper crops each year. 

Tamsin and Charlotte at our Summer Garden Party
Another House Guide, Edel, arriving for the Garden Party!

Thanks to a sophisticated online platform and resource library, I am now able to move through the rooms during my virtual tours and show this gem of a house in great detail to my Zoom guests. Someone dialling in from Sydney, Australia said she felt she was right here in the UK with us. A lady from Tokyo, passionate about William Morris, was astounded at the exquisite handiwork she was seeing on her screen from the comfort of her home in Japan. A journalist, investigating day trips from London, sat on her sofa with her new-born baby and husband, captivated by what they were seeing. 

I popped back to Cambridge as soon as I could, to see for myself some of the churches and colleges that David decorated, and was delighted to bump into fellow Sofa Singer Nicky, a guide at David Parr House since it opened.  Nicky and I have been joining 500 other people on the Zoom couch, singing together from all around the world every Tuesday evening since the start of lockdown, when the idea of Sofa Singers was born. Two of my worlds colliding and how brilliant to have a cup of tea with someone, who is part of each world. 

Me finally trying on the Guide Apron in person, and chatting to Nicky about Sofa Singers over a cup of tea in our lovely Visitor Centre!

Once the house was able to reopen its doors to visitors, I took my sister there for a tour. We looked inside the cupboard under the stairs to see David’s brushes and tools, carefully labelled in his meticulous handwriting and neatly stored. I described how Alfred’s British Rail coat, hanging in the bedroom, still smelt of soot when the team first took possession of the house. We saw Elsie’s crimplene coat on a hook in the hall, ready for an outing and her workday pinny in the kitchen – such evocative social history. It was great to act as a physical guide, sharing my new-found knowledge and enthusiasm with the guests face to face and I am thrilled to have embarked on this new journey.

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