What to Pack for Attingham: A Guide for the Ladies

I always get a kick out of my google stats between March and June because every few days I get somebody googling “What to pack for Attingham.” This delights me for several reasons:

1. Attingham is THE BEST.

2. I can reflect fondly on the low-grade panic that defines those months leading up to Attingham. Somehow you must read 48 books AND pack everything you need for mercurial English weather in a sensible carry-on… It all seems terribly daunting, but in retrospect it isn’t worth the stress.

3. The what-to-pack list is impossibly British, so I KNOW it is American ladies googling me wondering if it is OK to bring tennis shoes and jean shorts. I’m joking!

Let me help you out, ladies.

Last year at this time I got an email from one Meg Nowack, Manager of Curatorial Resources at Villa Finale in San Antonio, Texas. She found me through this blog. Meg and I had never met, but that didn’t matter because her email cracked me up. She wrote:

“You are going to laugh when I tell you why I’m writing:  I have been accepted into the Attingham program, class of 2011.  I’m not writing to you about the content or the experience, etc., etc., or serious cerebral matters! but, WHAT TO WEAR!  It seems that the Attingham participants are always looking a bit warmish.  How odd for England.  How did you manage? ”

What Meg didn’t know was that she was doing the same thing I did a year earlier, which was email a past participant out of the blue and beg for fashion advice. My fashion fairy godmother was Janet Blyberg, Research Associate at the National Gallery and friend to my husband’s cousin (true story!). I found her advice most helpful! Hopefully you will, too:

“Okay, so Attingham…congratulations! I am so excited for you. It is an amazing experience, so just soak it all in. Take advantage of everything, get to know your classmates. You will make life-long friends and contacts. I had NO idea of the value of those contacts. And that includes anyone who has ever gone through the program (other alums).

So, the practical side…yes you do need comfortable shoes. But, it is a difficult thing, because you have to look NICE. In other words you can’t wear sneakers. I suggest getting a cheap pair of black or brown flats (or an old serviceable pair) that look nice, but you don’t mind trashing. You will be tromping through fields, stepping in sheep poo, wet grass, mud. And you don’t always have warning that you will be doing it. [Editor’s note: this is ABSOLUTELY TRUE] Also, I bought a pair of little rubber rain shoes. I didn’t want to drag along a pair of wellies (which is overkill), but the shoes were great because I would just stick them in my canvas tote and bring them on the bus in case I needed them.

Don’t over pack! You have to drag your stuff around for three weeks! And you will be filling your suitcase with books along the way. Bring a few nice pants and skirts, little cardigans, and enough underwear for the three weeks. There are opportunities to do laundry, but they are few and far between. You will get to know everyone’s outfits really well…! There are a few dressy occasions…like the day you have lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. And there’s a gala (very dressy). Oh…and the last night usually includes a “fancy dress” party (costume party)…inspired by something you saw on the trip. I can give you more info on that…! Bring a warm scarf or wrap, because it can get cold.

West Dean (where you stay the first week) is the nicest of all the accommodations, enjoy it. The food there is so good…so indulge. [Editor’s note: I always do…] Eat a good breakfast every morning because lunch tends to be on the fly and you will be starving if you don’t have a good breakfast. There are no places or opportunities to stop and get a snack or a Starbucks!”

I forwarded Janet’s advice to Meg last year, along with a few of my own observations. Here is what I wrote:

“First of all: we were super, super lucky in 2010 because we only had one (ONE!) day of rain the entire time. I think that is some sort of record for England. The only thing I brought for rain was a waterproof trench coat. It was super lightweight and I used it for other things along the way (picnic blanket, chair cushion, etc). Highly recommended.

Clothes: I packed everything black, white and grey and included a few scarves/jewelry to liven it up. I packed mostly dresses (since it’s essentially a whole outfit in one!) and I also brought one or two shirts/a pair of pants for sunny days. I just packed like I was dressing for work every day (or at least work when I have a meeting), and packed LIGHT. You move around three different times, and each time you will be loaded down with what seems like a hundred extra books, so I should emphasize packing light. I used a roller suitcase from Target that is small enough to act as a carry-on, and brought a large, foldable duffel bag to use for extra things I picked up along the way. That duffel filled up fast. You will definitely see all packing styles represented – I was on the lighter side, so don’t feel ashamed if you MUST bring hot rollers or something. Side note: there is a swimming pool at West Dean, so if you are so inclined you might pack a swimsuit.

Shoes: I brought two pairs of black flats and a lightweight pair of sandals. It helped to have options when I developed a rogue blister in the first week (with shoes I had already worn for years!). Turns out the new pair of “cheap” black flats I bought was the best investment ever made. They got me through most of the trip. I believe they were Borne brand. They were so disgusting by the end I threw them in the trash at King’s Cross.

Special occasions: the fancy dinner halfway through was a lovely evening at a local pub, and everybody got pretty dolled up. I brought my old workhouse, a silk black dress from Jcrew, and wore it with jewelry and a scarf. Easy peasy! There were definitely some ladies more fancifully dressed than I; feathers and sequins were out in abundance! At that point you all love each other so much that it doesn’t matter what anyone is wearing. There is the costume party the last night. Don’t sweat it. We all made our costumes at the pub the week before out of whatever we could find in Cambridge. Great fun. I made mine out of newspaper and tape. Oh! And the lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire! I wore my other workhorse, a black cotton day dress from JCrew (are you sensing a pattern) with nice flats and felt perfectly appropriate. One of our tutors later told us that it is always the Americans who overdress for the Duchess (“they dress like they are going to Ascot”), so let’s all take a collective step back from the fascinators.

Aforementioned costume. I am enjoying a nice big glass of water, obviously.

Other necessities: A power converter. Desperate Americans kept shorting theirs out and begging them off each other. It got rather dire towards the end. If I had to do it over I would also pack good blister band-aids (the gigantic second-skin ones) and an extra memory card for my camera (although I take LOTS of pictures, so that is up to you). I loved having my ipod at night, because I was always so wired at the end of the day that I had to listen to books on tape to go to sleep.

More thoughts: go to the pub at night! Even if you are tired! I had the best time sitting around and laughing with everybody after our third (!!) lecture of the day. The West Dean pub is the best… as is the food. Oh, everything about West Dean is the best. I would do anything to go back. Make sure you take some time to wander around on your own. Take in the scenery, walk up the hill and lay flat on your back in the sunshine. You won’t stay anywhere nearly as picturesque after the first week.”

I emailed Meg yesterday when I was thinking of writing this post and asked if she had any tips going forward. I believe her class had more rain than ours, so here was her advice:

“I did so well with linen dresses (as you said, a dress is a whole outfit after all!), pashmina wraps, scarves, light sweaters (cashmere – soft, light and pretty) and a nice raincoat.   And comfortable shoes…I wore NAOT sandals almost the entire time.  I brought a travel iron, didn’t use it once.  BUT, I brought a little bottle of Febreeze to refresh clothes, and that was wonderful to have.   Did wear my tennies once to walk – especially at West Dean, and a pair of linen pants.  Travel umbrella’s a must…”

A quick survey of my classmates on facebook revealed the following necessities not otherwise mentioned above:

– A watch
– A small notebook
– A good sun hat
– Gin and plenty of it

So there you go! Best wishes to the class of 2012. We alums are all very jealous of everything in store for you. Enjoy!

(Any fellas care to weigh in?)

A Day in the Life of Virginia Garden Week

The Hermitage played host to several thousand visitors last Thursday as part of Norfolk’s Historic Garden Week. The day was a tremendous success and we were delighted to see so many new faces inside the museum. Many, many thanks to our volunteer docents for taking several hours out of their day to help us educate our visitors about the house and collection. We could not have done it without you.

One of my former art history students, Derico Cooper, dropped by with his camera to take some pictures of the goings-on inside the house. Thank goodness he arrived after the first crush of visitors, or else these photos would just be the backs of people’s heads with my arms waving wildly above the fray. The first hour was crazy! If you weren’t able to join us, I hope these photos give you a good taste of the day.

Colin was a bit shell-shocked after the first hour. (The speech bubble on the painting says "Gee, I wish someone would donate to the Hermitage Conservation Fund so I could fix this tear." -- Shameless pandering!)

Guests enjoying our new Hermitage timelineMeanwhile, upstairs…

Colin and I didn’t get much of a chance to venture outside the house, so I was delighted to see these photos from local photographer Bryan Brough.

I managed to sneak out of the museum in the afternoon to catch Peter Hatch, Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello, lecturing on his new book, A Rich Spot of Earth: Thomas Jefferson’s Revolutionary Garden at Monticello.

His lecture covered a variety of topics related to Jefferson’s 1000-foot-long terraced vegetable garden. Hatch’s insider look at the motivations behind Jefferson’s meticulous record-keeping and lifelong pursuit of the perfect pea was enlightening, to say the least. Many thanks to our Curator of Gardens, Yolima Carr (a.k.a “Spark Plug”), for scheduling Mr. Hatch’s visit. As an alumnus of Monticello’s Historic Landscape Institute, I think she had an in.

We capped off the day’s festivities with a riverside bluegrass concert by Asheville’s own Town Mountain. (In case you didn’t know, I’m from Asheville, so this was VERY EXCITING.) Our own Megan Frost snapped this photo of the band warming up in our meeting room:

The weather held, catered dinner was had by all, and the concert went off without a hitch, thanks to the dedication and perseverance of Megan Frost, our Young Associates, and the first-rate staff of the Virginia Arts Festival.

I can’t finish this post without a few kind words for the Garden Club of Norfolk and the Harborfront Garden Club. Thank you for working to get the Hermitage on the cover of the state-wide guide; we couldn’t have done it without you! See you on the tour next year…