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How do you preserve historic books, keep a huge chandelier sparkling or dust precious heirlooms in NI's great homes... the National Trust shares its secrets

Experts from some of the conservation charity's most fabulous properties in Northern Ireland tell Stephanie Bell some of their spring cleaning tips and how they can be adapted for our more modest homes

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Mount Stewart in Co Down

Mount Stewart in Co Down

�NTPL/John Hammond

House steward Mhairi Walton polishing the precious antique floor at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh

House steward Mhairi Walton polishing the precious antique floor at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh

At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor

At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor

At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection

At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection

Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry

Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry

�NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier

At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier

Mount Stewart in Co Down

Lockdown has done wonders for our homes as most of us get stuck into cleaning to pass the time. The May bank holiday traditionally heralds the start of our annual spring clean regime and while most of our homes are already sparkling, for Northern Ireland's stately houses it is one of the busiest times of the year.

With chandeliers needing polished, antique floors waxed and dozens of windows cleaning, the mammoth spring clean stately-style will be getting under way in our National Trust properties this weekend.

As a conservation charity the National Trust looks after some of Northern Ireland's most treasured historic houses and their collections.

Keeping them in tip-top condition requires expert knowledge, patience and plenty of time.

The trust's conservators draw on an array of tips and techniques which have stood the test of time, many of which can be applied in your own home.

Claire Magill, conservator for the National Trust in NI, explains: "Despite our houses being closed to the public while the trust follows guidance to prevent the spread of Covid-19, a core team of staff remain in place to carry out essential care and cleaning tasks at our places.

"Dusting, cleaning and polishing are just a few of the daily tasks our house teams carry out. When cleaning we apply a range of researched techniques and natural products which housekeepers in the past knew were effective and which give great results.

"And by using natural materials wherever possible you can be reassured these methods are good for the environment as well."

Here's an insight into some of the cleaning that's been happening at National Trust houses behind closed doors:

Polishing the Venetian floor at Florence Court: ‘To finish the job, a dry mop gives it a twinkle’

At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor.

Mhairi Walton, house steward at Florence Court, explains: "At this time of year, the Venetian floor at Florence Court can look slightly dry with a smoky reflection.

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At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor

At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor

At Florence Court in Fermanagh, the big task this month is polishing the Venetian floor

"I have been busy gently cleaning the floor with a dry mop before carrying out an inspection to spot-dry areas and places where heavy footfall has resulted in more wear.

"Post-inspection I apply a clear wax all over the floor and leave it to dry for up to 30 hours before removing it with a small mechanical buffer (you can use a mop or brush with a dry, clean towel and plenty of elbow grease on your floor at home). To finish, the floor is given a dry mop which gives it a twinkle."

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House steward Mhairi Walton polishing the precious antique floor at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh

House steward Mhairi Walton polishing the precious antique floor at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh

House steward Mhairi Walton polishing the precious antique floor at Florence Court in Co Fermanagh

Cleaning the books at Mount Stewart: 'Paperback or leather, it's the same method'

At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection. Some of the books are several centuries old and so need special care, but all the books need a dust every so often to keep them in good condition.

Andrea Hutton, senior house steward at Mount Stewart, explains the process which you can also apply to your books at home: "There are many parts of a book and, regardless if it is a paperback or bound in leather, all books are cleaned in the same way.

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At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection

At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection

At Mount Stewart in Co Down the family loved to read, and so they accumulated over 10,000 books in their collection

"To begin we gather up all the equipment needed. A duster for the shelf, a soft brush - we use pony-hair brushes but you can use one for painting or even a clean blusher brush - and a vacuum cleaner.

"Cleaning one shelf at a time, we start from the top shelf of a bookcase and remove all the books, then give the shelf a dust. Taking one book at a time and holding it firmly closed, clean the top of the book by gently brushing the dust away from the spine towards the vacuum cleaner.

"Then move onto the bottom of the book, and finally the closed pages on the side, always brushing in one direction towards the vacuum. The front, back and spine of the cover are brushed next. We also clean the first and last couple of pages and check for any unwanted activity in the book, ie bookworms or any bugs that might be enjoying the book as dinner.

"Then we repeat the process for each and every book."

Sweeping the dust from Springhill: ‘Today we use a little science’

Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry, as Stephen Byrne, house stewart, explains: "If we didn't clean then dust can build up and alter the appearance of an object, hiding its decorative detail. If left for a long period of time, dust can bind to historic objects and, when dusting does happen, some of the detail can come away with the dust.

"The difference between cleaning objects 'then and now' is that the team today use a little science to look after our objects.

"Over-cleaning and the use of abrasive chemicals have long since gone, replaced with a range of more sensitive tools of the trade.

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Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry

Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry

�NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel

Dusting is the big job at Springhill in Co Londonderry

"Today's vacuum cleaner has a range of suction powers and we always set the power to low suction when cleaning the historic carpets.We also use micro-fibre cloths and horse-hair brushes. These items are more sensitive around our aging historic objects."

Shining the Castle Ward chandelier: ‘We’ve brought sparkle back’

At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier.

Neil Watt, collections and house manager at Castle Ward, explains: "We have taken this opportunity during our closed period to bring some sparkle back to one of our most dazzling objects, a mid-19th-century glass chandelier.

"The chandelier is a real focal point of the house and with Castle Ward normally welcoming thousands of visitors each year, we inevitably see the introduction of dust and dirt from the outside.

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At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier

At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier

At Castle Ward, Co Down, staff faced the huge task of cleaning its fabulous antique 19th-century chandelier

"This dust dulls the natural brilliance and beauty of the glass, giving it a grey, almost milky coloured tone.

"The approach was to carefully remove each piece of detachable glass from the chandelier to a table, where we could use a firm brush to gently brush the dirt and dust away from the glass. If you clean over a white cloth, you will see the amount of dust which comes off which is always very rewarding for those doing the work.

"For the larger pieces of the glass chandelier, we use a ladder to reach them in situ. We brush the dust from the pieces using a small natural-hair brush, collecting what we can with a vacuum nozzle.

"When the chandelier is reassembled, it twinkles and shines, bouncing light from crystal to crystal in joyful and playful ways."

Spring clean your home the National Trust way

The Trust's top tips for spring cleaning and looking after your home are:

  • For routine cleaning of your home, start working nearest the door - where the dirt comes in - and for areas furthest away and those less frequently used, you can clean less often.
  • For a spring clean, start on the upper floors and work down. In each room, clean from the top down - let gravity be your friend.
  • Finish by dusting low shelves and vacuuming carpets or sweeping floors, so you don't have to clean the same areas twice.
  • Dust smooth surfaces like tables or glass using a lint-free cotton cloth folded into a pad.
  • For carved or textured surfaces - including grills on your 'surround sound' speakers - use a natural bristle brush and collect the dislodged dust with a handheld vacuum cleaner.
  • To dust the tops of books, use a softer, natural bristle brush and flick the dust into a hand held vacuum cleaner.
  • To give wax-polished wooden floors a dust and buff up, use a woollen cloth soaked in 50% vinegar and 50% liquid paraffin wrapped around a mop - this is an invaluable time-saver.
  • Wash precious ceramics with cotton-wool balls dipped in a mild detergent solution (such as sensitive skin washing-up liquid, or baby shampoo). Rinse by dipping a fresh ball of cotton wool in clean water and wiping. Avoid holding any fragile ceramic or glass object by its handle or rim - this could be a weak point and a breakage may result.
  • Put glass mats underneath vases placed on polished and decorated furniture to prevent water spills from staining the wood.
  • Always make sure to seek specialist advice before attempting to clean or repair any valuable heirlooms or fragile items, whether pictures, furniture, textiles or other historic materials.

Belfast Telegraph