Sunlight and Silver Fish

The house is kept at a constant temperature and humidity to preserve the contents, and to prevent the colonisation of pests.

Working in the quiet house over the winter months is a contrast to guiding in the busy summer season. The rooms retain the same tangible warmth, welcoming atmosphere, and calm that so many visitors remark upon as they walk through the door, but with a greater intensity. It really does feel as if the family have just headed out and will shortly return.

Alfred Tennyson and his wife Emily would entertain an almost never-ending stream of guests at Farringford and by all accounts they were among the most genial and welcoming of hosts. They also very much enjoyed the brief periods of solitude between visitors and there is resonance of this within the stillness of the building out of season. 

The house is kept at a constant temperature and humidity to preserve the contents, and to prevent the colonisation of pests. Silverfish for example, can do a huge amount of damage to many items, but thrive in high humidity of 70-80%. By monitoring the humidity and keeping it to around 40%, we can greatly reduce the likelihood of infestation.

Tennyson’s library now resides at Lincoln, but a small collection belonging to Tennyson and his descendants remain in the house. Although neatly shelved and behind glass, they add a fascinating snap shot of the interests of the family. My task over the winter months is to check and take care of the exquisite collection of books at Farringford. Listing the titles and observing for signs of deterioration from insects, climate or wear and tear are all important preservation tasks.

Occasionally during an inspection, a book will show signs of possible inhabitants. This is usually presented by eggs, frass (insect debris), or damage to the pages such as holes or tracks. In these cases, the books are carefully labelled, placed in a sealed bag, and frozen for two weeks. This kills any possible life cycle of an infestation and remarkably, if done correctly, does no harm to the books. It is a practice used in many museums. Larger items of furniture can be treated in this way too at specialist facilities

Caring for these precious time capsules is an interesting and painstaking task. Each book tells not only the author’s story, but also something about the owner and reader - an annotation for a recipient on their birthday, a scribble in a margin, an asterisk to mark a particular paragraph. It gives me such joy to discover glimpses of the family’s interests and personalities, whilst carefully checking for any signs of damage or insect infestation, particularly the silverfish, which have the capability to eat their way through not just paper, leather, and glue, but also silk and wool, and at an alarming rate.

As I sit here with the sunlight streaming through the window of the beautiful anteroom my thoughts wander and I find myself imagining Alfred and Emily, using this cosy room as they read to each other after dinner on solitary evenings. Alfred often used to read to Emily in the evenings and it was something she frequently wrote about fondly in her journal. 

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