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How bread, milk and pony hair are helping to get Audley End House ready for reopening after Covid lockdown

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With warmer weather and lighter evenings, thoughts often turn to spring cleaning – and none more so than at historic Audley End House, where old-fashioned techniques are being put to the test.

Scrubbing flagstone floors with milk, using potatoes to clean oil paintings and stale bread to scrub out cooking pots or even brighten wallpaper were just some of the seemingly bizarre methods employed by house staff over the centuries.

Now English Heritage, which owns the Audley End estate on the outskirts of Saffron Walden, is experimenting with these historic practices as it prepares to welcome visitors back inside its properties from May 17, after more than a year of being closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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It has just released its latest YouTube video, The Victorian Way, which features its popular presenter, cook Avis Crocombe, a character based on the 19th-century head cook at Audley End of the same name, revealing her top cleaning tips of old that can be used in homes today.

A spokesperson for English Heritage said: "With no supermarket around the corner or internet shopping to cater for their every need, historic housekeepers had to be much more resourceful in their cleaning techniques, often relying on items from around the house and an array of cleaning brushes and old-fashioned elbow grease.

"The experiments have shown that skimmed milk could indeed be a useful cleansing agent for stone floors. Tests with white bread have also shown that it can collect an impressive amount of dirt when used on wallpaper."

Amber Xavier-Rowe, head of collections conservation at English Heritage, said: “Although we may not recommend some of the more bizarre historic cleaning tips, like using a potato to clean an oil painting, housekeepers of the past were often spot on with their methods, despite relatively little scientific knowledge."

But although housekeepers of the past were often on the right track, some of their methods are slightly puzzling and not always recommended. English Heritage conservators have compiled a list of historic cleaning tips that you should definitely not employ this spring, including using Worcestershire sauce to polish silver.

Other ideas that might cause more harm than good include sprinkling the carpet with dried tea leaves, putting paintings in direct sunlight to help remove mould, washing oat floor boards with beer and using salt and lemon on old copper pans.

You can, however, use bread to clean wallpaper, skimmed milk on flagstone floors, a pony hairbrush to dust furniture and ornaments, a soft chamois leather to shine mirrors – which is more environmentally friendly than glass cleaners – and rejuvenating waxed wooden floors with a mixture of beeswax and turpentine.

Routine was key to keeping on top of the housework in large stately homes, with strict daily, weekly and fortnightly cleaning tasks for the staff.

Today, English Heritage carries out extensive cleaning at some of the 400-plus historic buildings and sites within its care, and used the winter closure of properties to carry out a top-to-bottom refresh.

"The annual spring clean is a major job and English Heritage’s conservation experts have been busy lifting and rolling carpets, dusting books on shelves, cleaning silver and copper and washing chandeliers to prepare for the opening of the historic interiors at English Heritage sites on May 17," said the spokesperson.

Audley End dates back to the 17th century, when it was one of the grandest houses in England. It was built by Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk and Lord Treasurer to James I, who took an earlier house built by his grandfather and rebuilt it on the scale of a palace.

It has undergone many renovations and modernisations over the centuries, with gardens created in the 1760s by celebrity landscaper of the time, Capability Brown, and a reduction to a more manageable scale. Today's house is just a third of its original size.

To pre-book tickets for the season ahead, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk.

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