Tuesday 29th September 2020
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Words: Barbara Young
Featured in the September 2020 issue

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Barbara Young travels back in time and enjoys a glimpse of rural days gone by as Navenby’s historic treasure reopens its doors after being lovingly restored and refurbished.

Popular historic Lincolnshire visitor attraction Mrs Smith’s Cottage in Navenby reopened to the public last month for the first time for seven years after extensive refurbishment made possible by Heritage Lottery Funding.

Vital works have been taking place on the site of this hidden gem since 2016, to repair the structure of the building and help preserve it for the future, and visitors can now return and enjoy exploring the cottage and garden to get a feel for how Hilda Smith lived her life.

The closure also gave the visitor attraction and museum team an opportunity to look at innovative ways to share the story of the cottage and the eponymous Mrs Smith, as well as a new programme of engagement and education. 

Born and bred in Navenby in 1892, Hilda Craven, who later married Joseph Smith, lived all her life in the village and her cottage, whose interior has remained almost unchanged over the decades, is synonymous with tradition and rural life providing visitors with a real “time capsule” into a humble life from a bygone era.

After Hilda’s death in 1995, villagers were concerned about what would happen to the cottage. A public meeting was called and North Kesteven District Council (NKDC) became involved. It was decided that the cottage should be opened as a museum and NKDC helped in the preparation of a bid for Lottery funding before opening in 1999.

The site has been closed to the public for the past seven years due to the safety of the building needing urgent improvement.

“One look around the cottage shows that the visitor experience has been radically improved since the reopening,” explains Gavin Thomas, North Kesteven District Council communications officer. “Thanks to £660,000 funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, we have been able to improve the safety and quality to the structure of the cottage, and introduce a new interpretation of the life of Mrs Smith, including a new story board in the customer entrance, interpretations from Mrs Smith’s famous diary that she kept daily, and a brand new educational programme.”

Gavin describes the Mrs Smith’s Cottage visitor experience as “a real window into the past”.

“Whether you want to explore and learn, take in the sights and sounds of the garden, or even play an authentic game of Scrabble in the front room, there’s something of interest for everyone at Mrs Smith’s Cottage,” he says.

A full events programme is planned with the team ensuring that the visitor experience remains fresh and interesting.

There will also be a chance to see the research into the cottage’s decorative interiors, which was undertaken by project partners Lincoln Conservation from The University of Lincoln. An exhibition based on this work and a series of both virtual and physical events is planned in the future.

“One thing we can say is that Mrs Smith liked her wallpaper,” said Gavin. “The wallpaper in the cottage tells a story of her life over the years and one interesting fact we know is that Mrs Smith had a black and white television in her bedroom, and used to love watching snooker on it, but how did she know what colour the balls were?”

Visitor feedback since the recent reopening has been positive too.

“Our opening weekend was a huge success and we were inundated by guests telling us how much they enjoyed it and how much of an improvement it was from before the closure,” said Gavin. “We’ve had a good mix of visitors including those who have never been before, and those who had visited before the closure, and both types of guest have enjoyed it equally.”

Grandmother Jenny Hippisley from Louth, who was one of the first visitors, enjoyed her day out. “Ten years on from my last visit, it was lovely to see that nothing’s really changed,” said Jenny, “face coverings and social distancing aside.

“The experience though is so much nicer, more personal and better interpreted. I went with my son and three grandchildren and we all found something of interest and delight.

“For me it was a trip down memory lane as there are so many similarities to the home of my husband’s aunt which I enjoyed visiting in Scopwick in the 1960s, ’70s and early ’80s. What is lovely is the way that this is shown to be the ordinary daily lives of people, as opposed to something novel, unusual or eccentric.

“To be able to sit and play Scrabble, flick through Mrs Smith’s photos, read her letters, sit at her table, rummage in her cupboards and walk into her pantry are all delightful touches backed up by insightful and informed curation by the staff and volunteers.

“The garden is delightfully authentic, the wallpaper reassuringly wonky and the ways in which her personal thoughts, priorities and practices are brought to life so clever, such as the encouragement to take home a daily reflection.

“It’s a credit to the entire team and I’d be keen to return and enjoy it as soon as I can.”

Council leader, Cllr Richard Wright also enjoyed his visit. “It took me back 40 years to my Sunday morning visits to the lady we all called ‘Granny’ whose home and front room were so similar to Mrs Smith’s. The cottage had a really homely feel and is a testament to all involved.”

Gavin says the team is now hoping to open a dedicated visitor centre in the building next door.

“This will add even more depth to the visitor experience, and allow us to deliver an improved educational offer. We are looking forward to working with local schools and community groups to have educational visits, where guests can learn about the life of Mrs Smith and how she was so synonymous in the area for living a humble and traditional way of life. Above all else, it will be fun and entertaining, as well as educational. We hope to see as many people as possible, but they do need to book for a slot on our website.

“Mrs Smith’s Cottage gives people an authentic view of life in Lincolnshire in the early to mid-20th century. There aren’t many places like this left in the whole country anymore, let alone the local area. What you experience at the cottage, you won’t experience anywhere else!”

To enjoy this unique experience, visitors need to pre-book by visiting www.mrsmithscottage.com.

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