Night at the Museum Sleepover at Blackwell
Ever spent the night at a museum? One of the goals of our family sleepover season was to camp out at a historic site. The opportunity presented itself when Lake District Arts and Crafts house Blackwell opened its doors at night for the first time. And we became one of the first families to stay there for nigh on 100 years…
First sleepover in 100 years
We don’t see a ghost. And the only shadows are cast by our lanterns. Ever spent the night at a museum? It isn’t like the film. On our sleepover there isn’t a cast of thousands. No inanimate objects come alive. No one gets spooked or chased. Yet our stay at Blackwell is atmospheric and engaging. And just a little creative.
An arts and crafts sleepover
Tonight, for the first time in almost 100 years Blackwell is occupied by a family at night. And the family is us. But we’re not alone. There are four other families joining us for the sleepover. In the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement that was at the heart of Blackwell, we are making lanterns and shadow puppets with the help of three education officers from Lakeland Arts Trust, before camping out for the night in the Main Hall.
The star of the evening
Of course, this being the Wickes family we can’t make anything simple. We choose to build a shooting star out of willow, glue and tissue. It’s ambitious, but not as ambitious a project as the wolf who is having the life pasted of it by a little girl called Alice.
Footsteps in the past
The lantern procession, in the dark, through the corridors of Blackwell, has a ghostly feel to it. Alice carries the wolf and Cameron hauls the star. But once the lanterns are placed around the hall, it looks cosy and inviting. We lie in our Terra Nova bivvy bags in the semi darkness, and I imagine the life of the privileged family who owned it.
The historic house, built 1898-1900 to a design by M H Baillie Scott, was primarily a holiday home for a wealthy, altruistic family from Manchester. Brewery Owner Sir Edward Holt was an important figure in city and country society. He was twice the Lord Mayor of Manchester and was instrumental in the building of Christies Hospital. Towards the end of the 19th century the family used the Central Lakes as a playground for sporting and outdoor activities. But neither their money nor their position in life could protect the Holt family from personal tragedy. Their idyllic and regular Lakeland holidays were curtailed suddenly when the eldest son lost his life in the First World War.
A silence descends
Over the next few years the family visited far less frequently. The lively games and activities at the tennis courts and boat house stopped and the cook, servants, parlour maids, gardeners and chauffeurs were surplus to requirement. Eventually the house was sold and amongst other things used as a school. In 1999, the Lakeland Arts Trust took it on, with a view to restoring it to the elegant family home it once was.
Blackwell today and yesterday
I lie on the floor of the Main Hall and can almost hear the noise and the activity at the beginning of the 20th century; the children swinging down the grand staircase, making a den in the minstrels’ gallery or warming their hands around a winter fire in the inglenook fireplace. Our willow lanterns are at home here; it was clear the family loved the countryside ; every attempt was made to bring the outdoors indoors. The handles on the doors are leaves and tulip heads, there are carvings of birds in the woodwork, and the ‘white room’ brings both sunlight and a view of the lake right into the room.
Connecting with nature through Blackwell
There’s no doubt a visit to this house connects you to nature, but why the sleepover element? There are several reasons for Blackwell holding this event. Firstly, staff at the historic house are on a mission to broaden the audience. Blackwell, near Bowness, is off the beaten track with no public transport and families often overlook it in favour of more publicised and central attractions. (In the past they held ‘Blackwell babies’ sessions where toddlers roamed – something that might strike fear into the heart of many museum curators.)
Tonight’s sleepover is part of a national Family Arts Festival running over a week. It has also borrowed from the growing trend of museums opening their doors at night. And last year, after an overnight story telling event at Blackwell proved a huge success, education Officers at Blackwell vowed to repeat the experience, “We try to create transformative experiences,” explains engagement officer Anne-Marie Quinn. “and staying for an extended period can be quite magical.” She also says they wanted to give the house back to families and a family sleepover seemed the perfect way to do this.
In the morning we awake to sunlight streaming through the stained glass windows and throwing sunbursts onto the dark wood panels of the Main Hall. There’s a smell of bacon coming from the tea room. Outside, jets noisily fly across a peaceful lake on training sessions. I suspect it is very different to how it used to be here, yet also much the same.
I ask the kids if they enjoyed their ‘night in a museum.’
“Much more than camping! It was nice to stay dry and not wake up with your head stuck to the floor,” says Matthew.
“It was the best night ever,” says Hannah. “Can we stay again tonight?”