I am proud to be in The Women’s Institute’s magazine

Did you know that  The Women’s Institute has more members than the Labour Party? It’s a great fact, isn’t it?  Last year I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Sheila Purcell for their magazine: Woman’s World 2013, The Annual of the National Federation of Women’s Institutes. I’m sorry to say that it looks like I did a press-up during our interview in a bumptious attempt to impress Sheila.  I don’t actually remember that, but I can’t deny that it’s just the sort of thing I might well have done!

Trivia of past lives

Grown men flinch at the prospect of talking to WI members en masse – but not livewire television historian Lucy Worsley.

‘There’s nothing I enjoy more than talking to 400 or so rowdy women’, declares the gamine presenter, a past guest speaker at federation meetings. ‘They’re just the best audience ever – I love hearing them laugh’.

Lucy, 39, has always been happy to give up several nights a week to spread the word about history. ‘For 15 years I’ve been saying to people, ‘You want me to give a talk? When/ What time? Yes, I’ll be there!’

But these days, time for talks is in short supply. Alongside her day job – she holds the splendid title of Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces – this leading young historian has a thriving TV career.

Viewers took a shine to her engaging presence and willingness to get her hands dirty in the 2011 BBC series If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home. Her bright idea was to explore how people actually lived – and died – in their homes, from medieval times to the present.

Looking fetching in period costume, she cheerfully pegged away at disagreeable household chores, black-leading a kitchen range and removing stains with urine: it worked, she reports.

Moving from cottages to castles, she spent an uncomfortable night in a Tudor bed, leaned how to make a Victorian jelly and played hostess at an elegant Georgian tea party, where she discovered that stays force you to sit up straight.

A fresh perspective

She was back in fine satins for her next BBC series Harlots, Housewives and Heroines: a 17thcentury history for girls. Dressing up, she explains, is a natural progression of her work as a curator.

Fellow historian David Starkey has called such programmes ‘historical Mills & Boon’ but Lucy asserts that re-enacting the past can give a fresh perspective on history. ‘Of course all the big stories about constitutional history, political history and foreign affairs matter’, she says. ‘But through uncovering the tiny and seemingly trivial details of daily life, I think we can chart revolutionary changes in society’.

‘Each time we recreated some lost part of domestic life I learned something new about why and how houses developed. A person’s home makes an excellent starting point for assessing their time, place and life. You get an insight into a very different world’.

Her own home is not, as people often imagine, a crumbling Georgian house – ‘it would be like being at work’ – but a modern flat in south London, shared with her husband, architect Mark Hines.

‘I like to low maintenance; it leaves more time for the things I want to do’, she says. She doesn’t own a car and walks everywhere. ‘I try to leave a light footstep. But please don’t make me sound smug. I do fly when I go on holiday’.

As effervescent in person as she is on screen, Lucy fizzes with enthusiasm as she talks about her passion for history and her ‘brilliant’ job. She was just 30 when she landed the plum role of Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity which runs Kensington Palace State Apartments, the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House in Whitehall. Since then she’s continued to produce well-received books, write to magazines and newspapers, make TV programmes, and curate exhibitions.

How does she do it? ‘I’m insanely energetic and doing what I love’, she replies with a beaming smile. ‘So it doesn’t fell like work to me but like going to interesting places and enjoying myself’.

The only downside is the English climate. ‘It’s my fate that whenever we go out filming it’s always freezing. Despite my flask of tea, hot water bottle, down jacket and heated gloves, I’m still cold, but can’t show it’.

The credits her ‘fiercely efficient’ mother for teaching her effective time management and keeps fit by running and regular yoga. Thanks to the latter she can now do press-ups and proves it with an impressive display for me on the posh carpet at Kensington Palace.

Demonstration over, she points out the staircase from where Queen Victoria had her first glimpse of her beloved Albert. ‘In his younger days Victoria like to see him in his tight, white trousers. And did you know he had padding to make his chest look bigger?’

Appeal to all ages

She’s thrilled that a major revamp of the Palace and gardens has seen visitor numbers double. Brand-new displays tell the stories of its famous residents and bring the buildings 400 years of royal history into sharper focus. Sound effects include whispered court gossip and Victoria’s favourite piano pieces. There are games to play and fashions from the Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, and red velvet baby boots to admire.

The aim is to appeal to all ages, for Lucy believes people never lose their interest in the past. ‘Children love it, then life happened, then they come back to it with their own children and grandchildren and tell me they’re rediscovered history’.

A visit to a National Trust property, Mompesson House in Salisbury Catherdral Close, sparked her own interest when she was 19. ‘I realised that people actually worked there and that this was something I wanted to do’.

After graduating from Oxford with a history degree, she gained a PhD in art history and worked for Milton Manor, an historic house in Oxfordshire, before moving on to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, English Heritage and her current post.

Recently seen in The Lost World of Dorothy Hartley in November on BBC4, in her forthcoming BBC4 series, A Very British Murder, Lucy takes a break from kings and queens to delve into murky waters. In her study of the history of murder from the start of the 19th century to the Second World War, she examines the way such grisly crimes were treated in popular art and culture.

‘I’ve always been really ghoulish’, she admits, ‘and detective fiction is something I’ve very much enjoyed. I especially like girl detectives, having grown up believing I was Harriet Vane (from the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries) reborn. Female sleuths are great as fictional devices because they don’t have to be at home doing the dishes. They can go out into the man’s world, dress up, spy on people and use their intelligence to right wrongs.’

Friendly and forthcoming, with a hearty laugh that belies her slight figure, Lucy Worsley is a natural communicator. You can see why she misses giving those talks she enjoys so much.

Busy as she may be but, should the WI call with an invitation, she promises: ‘I’ll be there like a flash’. Ask nicely and she might even dress up…’

One thought on “I am proud to be in The Women’s Institute’s magazine

  1. Chris Cole

    Hello, when is your programme on the WI being broadcast?


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