I have been volunteering at the Back to Back houses in Hurst Street for almost a year now and decided it would be nice to share a little about my experience so far.
The Back to Back houses were originally restored by the Birmingham Conservation Trust, and were passed on to the National Trust who opened them to the public in 2004. Since then the Trust has relied on a wealth of volunteers to see to the daily running of the property by helping out on reception, taking calls on the booking line, tour guiding, and housekeeping amongst other things. I am part of the housekeeping team and spend an hour or two a week in the mornings where I can, lighting the coal fires and the gas lamps, and generally setting the scene for visitors to the property.
Before the guides bring their tours into each of the charming little houses, the housekeeping team aim to provide the sights, sounds and even smells (a sprinkling of lavender and rosemary here and there!) necessary to allow the visitors to take a step back in time. Each house is styled in a different period ranging from the 1840’s through to the 1970’s and so each is lit in a different way. The candles in the first house create a wonderful atmosphere, and the crackling of the fire makes for a very cosy environment. Many times over the winter I had to drag myself away from these little houses, and left with that lovely smokey smell on my clothing to remind me of a morning happily spent.
The second house (the Oldfield House) is lit by oil lamps, and is my favourite of the three. As you walk in to the kitchen, the open fire and table filled with vegetables and various cooking ingredients create a wholesome and welcoming atmosphere. The narrow stairways require careful steps and filling the oil lamps takes a steady hand, but it is all worth it to attain the end result.
The last house (the Mitchell house) and George Saunders’ tailors workshop are lit by electricity, so the flick of a switch brings us swiftly into the 20th century. The smell of Brut aftershave (lightly sprinkled on a cushion for effect) and the nostalgic sounds of Donny Osmond allow the time travelling visitors to experience the final years of the property before it was deemed unfit for human habitation.
Some mornings I work alone and others there are a few of us, and I have met some fantastic people since I began volunteering last June. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming, and the volunteer room is usually filled with the sound of easy chatter while my fellow volunteers enjoy a cuppa and a biscuit. I leave every time feeling happier and more enthusiastic for the day ahead, and eagerly anticipating my next morning at the Back to Backs.
I would urge anyone who has been meaning to visit this property to do so soon, and spend a little time out of your day marvelling at how many people in Birmingham used to live, in such confined quarters, with only an outside loo and tiny cramped rooms which in some cases housed large families. The attention to detail, as in all National Trust properties, is exceptional, and will allow you to see into the lives and homes of the many generations who lived there. Sound points throughout feature the voices of some of the people who actually lived there too, sharing their memories of the conditions they endured.
If you are thinking of becoming a volunteer, don’t hesitate! I jumped at the chance of attending one of their volunteer taster days and was encouraged and supported all the way. I was nervous and apprehensive as I felt I had no experience in the heritage sector, and so would not have much to offer, but after my first few times shadowing an established member of the team I realised I had lots to contribute. And so do you! I only wish I did not have such awkward work hours, or I would be there every day. At the taster day you can find out about the many roles available for volunteers at the Back to Backs, and will be given information to take away so you can decide what you would like to do. There are hours to suit everyone, and all they ask is that you can give at least 2 hours every fortnight.
The National Trust are always keen to welcome new volunteers, and as well as a rewarding and enriching experience, there are many benefits including a years free membership when you have volunteered for 50 hours. I’m nearly eligible for mine!
For more information on volunteering or to find out about the next volunteer taster day, contact Deputy House Manager Fiona at Fiona.firstname.lastname@example.org or Community Engagement and Learning Manager, Mukith at email@example.com.