My Story So Far at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Hi my name’s Sonny and I am a Heritage Gardening Trainee at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. I’ve been here since February 20th 2014 so nearly five months which have gone ever so quickly. I spend two days a week at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse helping the volunteer gardeners keep the gardens as well looked after as we can. We have made great progress in maintaining the gardens in the short time I’ve been here.

I spend another day on placement being Peckover gardens in Wisbech where I’ve learned a lot about plants and all manner of horticulture. I have just finished my placement at Peckover and am now going to Holkham Hall to work in the walled gardens there, and hopefully the woodland if I’m lucky, so I can use my chainsaw certificate that I gained through my traineeship here at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse.

So far I have done several courses from box hedge pruning to scything at Gressenhall and Hickling on the Broads which was great fun and I would love to take it further. I’m also studying an RHS qualification through Gressenhall’s traineeship and am doing a NVQ2 in horticulture at college as well. I’m hoping to learn as much as I can and get on as many courses as I can in the year I’m on this traineeship and enjoy the experiences I have along the way.

Intently observing the demonstration

Intently observing the demonstration


The team expertly wielding their scythes

Sonny Brown

Heritage Gardening Trainee


Porter’s Lodge: Then and Now

Having been Visitor Services Trainee at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse for over three months now, I have spent many days in our museum shop processing tickets and museum passes whether it’s an event day, ‘A Day With A Difference’ or an ordinary day. This also entails greeting visitors and informing them about the layout of the site. Not forgetting serving visitors wanting to pay for items selected from our vast array of gifts and workhouse paraphernalia, ranging from postcards to furry toy animals!

However on the quiet days, which are usually either rainy days or the day before an event, I usually have a spare minute to wonder what our museum shop was originally used for. It has always had the name of Porter’s Lodge. When Gressenhall was a Victorian workhouse, people would ring the bell or the knocker on the porter’s gate in order to gain admittance to the workhouse. The porter was always on duty to admit inmates or visitors to the site. I feel that nowadays, the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop are faced with a similar duty to that of the Porter those many years ago. All visitors, whether they are here for the day, simply using the café or meeting with a member of staff, enter the site via the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop. Here, we’re the first point of call for anyone entering the site. We greet people, process their tickets and allow their admission, as the porter did in Victorian times.

Serving visitors in the shop

Serving visitors in the shop

Once inmates had been admitted to the site, they were escorted to the Receiving or ‘Itch’ Ward where their clothes were removed and they were given a bath, a medical examination, and some workhouse clothes. Nowadays, we similarly give visitors their tickets and provide them with information regarding facilities and the layout of the site so they can have an efficient and enjoyable experience. Then and now, Porters Lodge has been a place where people have been admitted and sent on their way to discover the site and embark on the adventures that Gressenhall has in store for them. It has always been a passage through which newcomers have passed in order to discover the unknown and gain a new experience.

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I often consider what people’s thoughts were as they walked up to the wooden gates of the workhouse in Victorian times, and I’m sure that this is something that many visitors and members of staff have thought about. How did people feel once they’d knocked on the porter’s gate and were waiting for a response? Once they’d been admitted, what were their first impressions? Although these people were experiencing these thoughts and feelings centuries ago at a time when Gressenhall was strikingly different from how it is today, their experience is not as faraway from our current visitors’ experience as you might think. Today, what are visitor’s thoughts as they walk up the path to the shop? What impression do we give visitors as they walk into the shop and see us sitting behind the tills? What hopes do they have about the day they are about to experience at Gressenhall, similarly to people hoping for a better experience when they knocked at the porter’s gate long ago? Porter’s Lodge was and still is a place of first impressions. It is a place where people begin a new experience and begin to embark on a journey to new discoveries.

So this little building on the right hand side of the courtyard named Porters Lodge Gift Shop is not a building to be taken for granted. It is and always has been a place where newcomers have entered the site and gained first impressions of Gressenhall, hoping for a good experience. We know that throughout history, not all newcomers to Gressenhall did receive the beneficial experience they were hoping for when they first arrived at Porters Lodge. Some may have felt privileged to be receiving shelter, food and work, but others had a more unfortunate experience in store for them. But at least nowadays we know that we can meet visitors’ expectations of an enjoyable and memorable experience at Gressenhall.

Lydia Bartlett

Visitor Services Trainee

Ringing our Barn Owl Chicks


Four beautiful faces- the distinctive face plates are now clearly visible

Our Barn Owl chicks are now 7 weeks old, and are almost ready to leave the nest. For the past couple of weeks they have been making good progress, developing their flight feathers and learning to feed themselves; now that the parents bring the food to the outside of the box and let the chicks handle it.

Last week I had a bit of a shock when I went to check on the naturewatch cameras to find the nest box apparently empty! The chicks have taken to climbing up to the box entrance and sitting on the porch; waiting for mum and dad to come back with food. I had to frantically check back through the previous nights’ camera footage to make sure that the birds had not been predated, or fallen from the box!

This is not uncommon in these birds, as many will be injured or killed by falls from nest sites when curiosity gets the better of them. They will now spend longer and longer periods outside the safety of the inner chamber and begin exploring the wider environment. At 7 weeks they may be only a week away from their first flight.

Young Owlet stretching her wings - notice the new primary flight feathers

Young Owlet stretching her wings – notice the new primary flight feathers

Whereas nestling birds of many species do nothing except stay in the nest, beg for food, eat and defecate, nestling Barn Owls ‘play’ like kittens. From three weeks old they have been increasingly mobile and at five weeks they were running, jumping, pouncing, and moving their heads comically from side to side, round and round, even turning their heads upside down!

The babies still have a lot of white, downy fur to help them stay warm at night.

The babies still have a lot of white, downy fur to help them stay warm at night.

Last weekend, we asked an official BTO bird ringer to come down to the farm and ring our barn owl chicks. Mike Smith came along last Saturday and I accompanied him whilst the chicks were extracted from the nest box and each was given a unique metal ring bearing a number which can identify where the bird is from and how old it is; this is to assist in the Barn Owl Monitoring Programme, which seeks to understand how the species population is faring. There are an estimated 4,000 pairs across the country; a very low number historically, when considering what a common sight these birds were just 50 years ago.

BTO Barn Owl ringer Mike Smith with one of our chicks

BTO Barn Owl ringer Mike Smith with one of our chicks

The metal ring is clasped around the young birds leg using a set of pliers and a record made of the number, where the bird was born and it’s gender; if this can be determined. Of our four chicks, three were confirmed female and the fourth was too small to tell although most likely a male. I learned that the way to identify gender is to look at the breast feathers; brown speckles indicate a female bird. It isn’t always possible to identify if the bird hasn’t developed enough adult plumage at the time of extraction.

Playing dead whilst the ring is attached!

Playing dead whilst the ring is attached!

It was an enormous privilege to witness the ringing of our Barn Owls, and especially so when I was allowed to ring one of them myself! I was amazed at how docile the chicks were; with the parents out of the box and likely to be roosting close by, we carefully extracted each chick from the box and placed them in cotton bags to keep them calm. I had imagined that we would need protective gloves when handling the chicks, but they were very well-behaved; simply freezing at the rear of the nest box and ‘playing dead’ when picked up!




Mike kindly let me ring one of the owlets. I was chuffed to bits!

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) have been heavily involved in recording and interpreting what has been happening to British Barn Owls as this species has suffered a massive decline over the past 50 years; now numbers are increasing and the population stabilising (albeit much smaller than historically) thanks to captive breeding initiatives, an increase in the provision of artificial nest sites and better understanding of habitat requirements and ecology.

The mortality rate in Barn Owls is high, with many young birds killed alongside busy roads whilst still in their first year; as they learn to hunt for themselves they are particularly vulnerable. Many more starve to death as they cannot successfully hunt, or they lack the expertise in locating prey. Couple these factors with the inherent shortage of suitable habitat and it paints a bleak picture, but through the measures we have already mentioned things are turning around, and the bird ringing data has been instrumental in building up an accurate picture of mortality and dispersal so that conservation measures can be designed and implemented.

Daniel Johnson

Landscape Management Trainee

A happy man! I could have popped the little fellow in my pocket right then...

A happy man! I could have popped the little fellow in my pocket right then…