My Ten Years at Holkham

June 25, 2020 | Holkham voices | 14 minute read

Mac Graham, one of our multi-talented members of the team, celebrates ten years working at Holkham and reminisces about his Holkham journey.

Mac Graham

Checking an old diary (as you do on lockdown), I noticed that June this year marks my tenth anniversary working at Holkham. It got me thinking about all the amazing things I have been able to do since I started. As I look back, I feel privileged to have been given such fascinating opportunities and grateful to have been able to share my passion for Holkham with so many of our lovely visitors.


My wife, Mary, and I had not long moved up to Norfolk, for family reasons. I was working locally but I was casting about to find my niche. I bumped into Jean who I knew from Thursford at Christmas. She asked if I was free on Sundays to work as a Room Steward in the hall. An historian by training, I jumped at the chance. I met Colin, who then ran the stewarding team, and Mike, the Hall Administrator. My first shift soon followed in the North State Dining Room. I was terrified! I need not have been. The visitors were understanding, and all the other stewards were so supportive. All season I picked up more and more shifts as stewards wanted to take days off.

[Aside: I was the last room steward to be appointed for several years. I am now 62 and I was the youngest male room steward right up until they employed Kevin, my multi-talented brother in law, who is, annoyingly, several months younger than me.]

The next season I signed up for all three stewarding shifts. For the next two years, stewarding fitting in perfectly with growing caring duties at home. When this, sadly, came to an end, I asked Celia, Enterprises General Manager, if there were any other areas I might work in. I think I am right in saying that I was the first Steward also to work in the Visitor Services team.

Visitor Services

From that moment on, my life changed, and my career at Holkham expanded in ways I never expected. I trained in the ticket office under the very patient Marie (now working at Pinewoods) covering Tuesdays and some other shifts.

The great thing about the Ticket Office is that you get to meet people (lots of people) and help them have a good day visiting Holkham. Ideally, you need to be unflappable and good at working under a lot of pressure. As visitors arrive you must make sure they know exactly what is on offer and what is right for them. The ‘phone will be ringing, there are concert ticket orders to take and send out, parking permits to deal with and a thousand and one other things coming your way. It can be quite exhilarating at times, but I do admire those who have the tenacity to do this day in and day out.

Working in the ticket office involved providing lunch cover for the buggy drivers, taking visitors up to the walled garden. After a few seasons, I switched to this role at least one day a week. My most rewarding season came when we were re-developing the whole courtyard area, including what is now the Lady Elizabeth Wing. The old Bygones museum was now closed. James, the Visitor Services Manager, was looking for something inspiring to offer the public during this disruptive time. I suggested taking visitors on a Park History Tour on one of the buggies (so only small groups at a time). In order not to shout, we would stop at various points to explain the history of the park and how it related to the development of the hall. These tours were great fun to do and were very popular. Next season the park tours went up a gear with the planned tractor-trailer tours, which complemented the brand-new Field to Fork Experience.

One of the highlights of those years was being asked to provide holiday cover for the ‘captain’ of the electric launch which cruised on the lake. Sadly, this no longer runs. My stewarding colleagues used to call me Captain Bob! Many visitors will remember taking trips on the launch to the end of the lake and back. It is a lovely way of chatting to people and answering their questions about the estate. It is a perfect moment when you reach the end of the lake, switch off the engine, and find utter peace and tranquillity among the wildlife.

The lake cruise

Behind the Scenes in the Hall

The biggest change in my working life at Holkham came when Celia asked me if I would assist the hall manager, Colin, by providing front of house cover on Friday and Saturday, his days off. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. I got involved in everything from Alderman Peel children’s concerts in the marble hall through to helping Nerida with the very first in-house weddings in the hall. I remember trying to calm some very nervous bridegrooms!

To keep me busy, I was asked if I could put together the first draft of a Hall (or Mansion) Manual – how the hall itself worked – a real nuts and bolts description listing services, systems, procedures, the lot. It was while tracing the through-lighting systems and finding and listing every fuse box in the building that I really got to know the hall. It was also when I started dreaming of putting on tours for the public behind the scenes. A dream I came to fulfil.

Still working as a regular steward and a Private Guided Tour guide, I had come to know the story of the hall well. So, I was able to help by providing off-the-cuff tours for visiting groups from other houses, new staff members and many others. I loved it!

Giving a spcial lecture and tour to North Norfolk U3A

I have also been happy to help on tours with Lord and Lady Leicester, for instance, to support their favourite charities, such as the East Anglian Children’s’ Hospice (EACH). My very small contribution to the extensive charity and community work which goes on at Holkham.

I have also been asked to show the odd VIP around. A couple of occasions stick in my mind. When the team from Chatsworth came to visit, I was charged with driving the very charming Duke and Duchess of Devonshire up to the walled garden on one of our buggies. I still remember the Duke shifting up and insisting that we stop to pick up members of the public who were waiting. Customers come first!

On another occasion, we had a surprise visit from Steven Hawking and his team. We were unable to get his unique chair up to the main floor of the hall, so I was asked to take them all on an impromptu tour of the ground floor – including behind the scenes. I was delighted! When I came to present Steven Hawking with a commemorative guidebook, his assistant told me, ‘he will want to shake your hand’. What an honour! They say never meet your heroes, but I do not agree. Those of us that got to talk to him that day could not shut up about it for a week.

I was lucky enough to help with the exhibitions we put on in the hall. For the 2014 season, we were keen to do something a little special to mark the start of World War I. Colin was an old soldier and the Leicesters obviously have strong links to the military, the Scots Guards in particular. Indeed, Lord Leicester’s great grandfather had sadly been killed at Gallipoli. I remember spending a fascinating few days going through the archive of local newspapers held at the Millennium Library in Norwich. I dug up far more than we could possibly use and became hooked on collecting the period advertising I came across.

I went on to be involved in several other exhibitions including the historic side of the Field to Fork Experience (now Holkham Stories Experience) where I helped develop the timeline and to source historic images. I find it terribly gratifying to have the thousands of visitors who visit the hall, and the permanent displays, stand and read what you have written.

Most people know Holkham as the family home of Lord and Lady Leicester and their children (and animals). Few realise that there are other ‘families’ living in the hall at the same time. Someone is always on duty. I was asked if I could provide occasional overnight cover in the hall, for staff holidays and days off. So, I trained up. I would stay in the hall in one of the staff flats and Mary (my wife) would join me overnight. Quite a thing to have been able to do. One flat looks out over the lake and the sunsets are fabulous.

The most likely thing to ‘go wrong’ on duty is that somebody in the hall will burn some toast and set off the fire alarm. Once we know there is not actually a fire, the fire brigade must be called off and alarms re-set, etc. I remember one morning on duty I was not quite fully ‘up’, and suddenly the alarm went off. I dashed to the fire alarm console and stared at it blankly, for quite some time, before I realised I had dashed to the wrong console. A door had been opened too early somewhere and set off another alarm. No harm done, except to my poor brain too early in the morning!

Librarian and Historian

My career at Holkham took another abrupt sideways step when our long-time librarian, Dr Suzanne, took up an important post with the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. Somebody had to hold the fort in the library and Celia asked if I would step in. I very soon realised that this was something I am passionate about. Holkham has one of the finest private libraries in the country (some say the world). I started slowly, answering queries, and facilitating visits. Just learning how to use the rather ancient computer database was a challenge. Soon after, Lord Leicester appointed an excellent scholar, Dr Laura, to continue Suzanne’s seminal work in creating a full catalogue of our Italian manuscripts. She took on the role of Curator of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books (incunabula) and I continued to cover the day do day administration of the library. She is the clever one, by the way!

Laura and Mac showing some of Holkham’s vast collection of books to visitors.

My passion as librarian lies in sharing our collection with the public. Katherine (who was then an intern but is now our excellent Collections Co-ordinator), helped me to show off the library collection with regular themed book displays. Emma, from our wonderful marketing team, came up with a smart but relatively inexpensive way of displaying information on the importance of the library. These are complemented by special talks and tours and with table-top book showings.

New Horizons and New Tours

I should digress slightly and say something of how Holkham changed my life outside of work. I became fascinated by the whole story of the Grand Tour undertaken by Thomas Coke, the places he visited and the things he saw, and how it influenced the design and execution of the hall and parkland.

We have been back to Italy many times now, ticking off Holkham-related sights. We have been to Rome most years, to Palladio’s churches in Venice, to the Veneto and especially to Vicenza to see Palladio’s palaces and villas. I still have an extensive wish-list. This was not all work, I should add. I discovered a bar, in the under croft of Palladio’s stunning town hall in Vicenza, where they serve the finest Pinot Grigio I have ever tasted!

These trips have led me to try and piece together, in my own mind, not only what sites on the Grand Tour inspired Holkham but what architectural volumes in the library then informed the exact design of the hall. This ‘project’ allowed me to put on several important specialist private tours in which I tried to pull all these elements together for the visitors.

Jon, the hall manager, is great at encouraging people to develop ideas which draw on their skills and specialist knowledge. He encouraged me to work with the hall team to develop first the Hidden Passages and Servants’ Stairs tours (which take in the attics) and then, when this proved successful, the ‘below stairs’ tour Taking the Plunge (which take in the basements). I am very proud of these tours, most importantly because of how I have been able to work closely with team members, such as Ryan, Hooker and Aneta, to improve them year on year for the public and with members of the stewarding team who have helped make them such a success.

Mac showing a tour group behind the Marble Hall ceiling.

The next ten years!

Like many of the staff, I have helped with parking and other duties at special events such as the Food Festival and the Plant Fair. I have arrived at the crack of dawn to staff the registration desk for the Pedal Norfolk cycling event (do you remember those mornings, Celia? We are not good that early in the morning!) I have ridden on the trailer scaring the families on their way up to the walled garden on the Halloween Express, among many other occasional roles, when it is all hands on deck.

Getting into the spirit of Halloween!

I now work in the hall as part of an expanded collections (conservation) team, keenly supported by Lady Leicester. Last year I oversaw an increased library conservation budget, granted to us by Lord Leicester and the Trustees. This allowed more books and manuscripts to be repaired and conserved than ever before.

Within the hall we are always looking at ever-more engaging ways of conveying the Holkham Story. These are exciting times at Holkham, so sadly curtailed now by the need to protect staff and visitors during the pandemic. During this time, we have all tried to pull together to put fun and informative material on-line for our visitors as part of the on-line HolkHome series.

As well as my colleagues, I especially miss our exceptional team of conservation volunteers during lockdown. Over the last year or so, this dedicated team have allowed us to achieve so much more in conserving and protecting our unique collection.

One last tale. One year, when the Halloween storyteller dropped out, I was surprised but flattered to be asked if I would step in. I had been reading how Murderer’s Wood, near the west gate, got its name. We decided this real-life Victorian murder of the poor brickwork’s supervisor would fit the bill. I worked it up into a tale for children and we delivered it to parents and children alike. Jim, on parking, provided me with some very realistic ‘bangs’ for the shooting scene and the children were suitably scared. The storyteller even got to judge the Halloween dressing up parade at mid-day. A major highlight of my Holkham career. So far!


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