The Surrey characters behind our county’s most loved attractions
PUBLISHED: 16:31 30 April 2019 | UPDATED: 12:17 08 May 2019
To celebrate the first Surrey Day on May 4, we took a peek behind the scenes at some of the county’s best known and loved locations to meet the people who devote their lives to these special places
From the magnificent spectacle of Virginia Water to the world-class greens of Walton Heath Golf Club, Surrey boasts some of the UK's most notable locations. But naturally it takes a team of people to keep these places running smoothly. From greeting visitors, to trimming hedges and tending to their animal residents, there are plenty of unsung heroes working hard all year round. We asked some of them to share their experiences of just what it takes to have an essential role at a local landmark.
Izzy Coomber, deputy head keeper at The British Wildlife Centre in Lingfield has always loved animals. At the age of six she recalls having over 20 pets, and her current menagerie includes a dog, a snake, three lizards, a hawk and - wait for it - a tawny owl called Florence! "Yes, it's an unusual one to have as a domestic pet," Izzy admits, but Florence not only lives with Izzy, she also travels to work with her on the front seat and is a star attraction at the live animal talks Izzy is in charge of. The Centre is home to all kinds of native British animals including deer, badgers, pine martins, red squirrels, bats and hedgehogs. Izzy describes her job as "not at all glamorous," but she relishes the chance to connect visitors with nature and creatures they never may have had the opportunity to see before. "I'm very proud of my job and the fact I get to see people go away with a new passion for wildlife," Izzy says. "People often ask me if our animals ever escape, but actually we have more of an issue with animals getting in - it's such a nice environment for them to live."
"My job is literally like running a hotel," explains Dominic Toole, stables manager at Epsom Downs racecourse. Except in this case, the guests happen to be some of the most prolific racehorses on the planet. Describing these beautiful animals as "the Usain Bolts of the equine world", Dominic's love for horses is evident. He started working at a racing yard when he first left school and progressed to riding as an apprentice two years later. He joined the team at Epsom Downs in 1989 and 30 years later he's still there. Today, he lives in nearby Langley Vale - just five minutes from the racecourse. "If they moved a few houses out the way I could see the runners setting off for the Derby," Dominic laughs. In fact, Derby Day (this year on June 1) is the highlight in the Epsom Downs calendar. "It's such a big occasion," he enthuses, "As a team we make sure every detail of the grounds is perfect. There's a real buzz in the air in the run up and often over 200,000 people in attendance on the day. But behind the scenes in the stables it's peaceful and quiet. " And, naturally, that means Dominic's 'guests' are receiving the full five star treatment.
Charlie Powell, assistant curator at The Sculpture Park, just outside Farnham, was destined to follow a career in art. His father, Eddie set up The Sculpture Park 16 years ago, transforming this tucked away site of 10 acres and over two miles of narrow, woodland trails into the ever-changing sculpture exhibition it is today. Charlie describes having a spade in his hand at the age of nine years old, and now, aged 28, he's still getting stuck into his hands-on role. "I do a bit of everything," he admits. "From moving, installing and keeping existing exhibits in good condition to maintaining the grounds, which is home to all kinds of wildlife, including a family of Kingfishers." Off site, Charlie's day may involve delivering a new piece to a private home or commercial site. "I've been known to drive naked sculptures through the streets of the capital," he recalls. "I've also found myself hanging off the side of a building in Mayfair, fitting a giant Tarantula." His biggest thrill comes from seeing the pleasure in the faces of their many visitors. "It's a great place to work," he smiles. "I really believe in it, and when you realise that people coming here feel like they are discovering a new world, it just couldn't put you in a better mood."
"I'm a bit of a weather geek," laughs Michael Mann, course manager at Walton Heath Golf Club. No surprise really, in Michael's job - responsible for the green keeping and maintenance of the two heathland courses set in over 250 acres - you have to be. "Walton Heath is quite unusual in its geology," he explains. "It's been managed heathland since Roman times and it's the heather that gives the course its unique character." These days, along with ensuring the surrounding land is well maintained, he also prides himself on world-class standards on the greens. "The club has a rich history. Its members have included four prime ministers, including Winston Churchill, and its first ever Captain was King Edward VIII." As host to many professional and amateur tournaments, including the Ryder Cup in 1981, Michael sets the bar high in every detail of presenting the courses. It's a trait he learnt when he started out green keeping in his native South West Scotland. "Surrey is blessed with beautiful landscapes," he enthuses, "It gives me great pride in looking over the course knowing it's looking its best. And if I manage to get a few holes in myself at the end of the day, even better."
"Clandon Park is entirely unique in the sense that it encapsulates the past, present and the future," explains Hannah Miller, visitor experience officer at Clandon Park. Indeed, this contemporary ruin is the National Trust's biggest re-build and restoration project in a generation. Devastated by fire in 2015, it's Hannah's job to make sure visitors to the site get a taste of what this much-loved Palladian location once was - and sharing the plans for what it will become in the future. "Our visitors have a huge amount of affection for the building," Hannah explains. "Some people have even got married here, and now they are bringing their children to see the work we're doing." While the house is effectively a building site, it doesn't stop Hannah from admiring the beauty in the bones of this historic mansion. Armed with a hard hat and high-vis jacket, Hannah says she loves showing people the human touches that are still very much alive in traces of the architecture and what lies beneath the façade of Clandon Park. "Not all parts of the house are accessible, but we have kept open as many as we can so that our visitors can still enjoy seeing significant rooms and understand how they are being brought back to their past glory."
When Nicholas Day, head of visitor operations at The Crown Estate first took on his role 12 years ago, he didn't expect to be dancing around a campfire as guest of honour at a tribal ceremony. However, in a bid to restore the iconic 100-foot Totem Pole, which has stood by Virginia Water for the past 60-years, Nicholas travelled to British Columbia to meet the tribe responsible for carving it. "That's just one example of how every day is different," he laughs. Nicholas is fiercely proud of Windsor Great Park, which straddles the county boundaries of Surrey and Berkshire. "This large expanse of pristine countryside sits in the middle of suburbia," Nicholas explains, "and our job is to preserve it by protecting and respecting it." While Nicholas admits he knows the park well, he describes the beauty of it as being so varied: "even now I can take a walk through and discover something new." And while the good days outweigh the bad, Nicholas knows where to head to put things in perspective, "When you're having a bad day you can go and sit under a 1,00-year-old oak tree." Not many workplaces that offer those kinds of perks!