A welcoming special place at Himley Hall: What it's like to manage a stately home
For centuries it served as a home to the Lords of Dudley and their knights before becoming a popular weekend retreat for members of the Royal Family.
Today Himley Hill and Park is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year and is a glamorous setting for civil wedding ceremonies, receptions and many other special occasions.
Helping to make the former stately home and picturesque parkland a welcoming place for guests is the job of hall manager Tracey Reece, who has been working on the estate for 20 years.
“Himley is a special place for a lot of people. It’s their go-to place when they are feeling happy or sad. With the beautiful views across the lake, it’s a very calming place to visit,” she says.
Tracey, who began working for Dudley Council as part of the youth training scheme at the age of 17, was the hall’s first catering manager.
She then took over the reins from former estate manager Sally Newell after she retired from the post last year.
Himley Hall has a rich history which Tracey believes is also part of the 18th century home’s enduring appeal.
There has been a hall on the site since the 1600s when the original Himley Hall was a moated manor house, which stood next to the medieval church and village.
It has seen many changes over the years with significant work undertaken in the 1800s when John William Ward became 4th Viscount Dudley.
To reflect his growing status and wealth he brought in the famous London architect William Atkinson, creating the template for the hall as it is today.
From the 1920s, the hall became a regular weekend retreat for royal visitors and was brought up to contemporary standards, with the addition of a terrace around the hall, a tennis court and a nine-hole golf course.
It was so fashionable that in 1934 the Duke and Duchess of Kent spent the first two weeks of their honeymoon at Himley.
During the Second World War the hall was handed over to be used as a Red Cross hospital and after the conflict the estate was sold to the National Coal Board for £45,000 for use as a regional headquarters.
In 1966 it was purchased jointly by Dudley and Wolverhampton councils and the park was opened as a public leisure area.
Then in the late 1980s, Dudley bought Wolverhampton’s share, gaining outright ownership, and began a phased programme of restoration.
Tracey has seen many changes during the two decades she’s been at the Grade II Listed hall, including the refurbishment of the north wing in 2009.
Complete with an art deco-style swimming pool room and cinema bar, it is now used as a popular wedding venue.
Last year the coffee lounge was opened to the public in the south wing giving more people the chance to visit the hall for the first time.
It looks out onto the terrace and across the lawn into the grounds of the park and opens directly on to the hall’s gallery space.
“For such a long time the hall has been tucked away on the edge of the estate and a lot of people thought they couldn’t come up to the house.
“A lot of people have said they’ve been visiting the park for umpteen years but never been inside the house so it’s been really nice to open it up to people – it’s a public building after all,” says Tracey, who lives in Amblecote.
This year the west wing, which has been hosting wedding ceremonies for 10 years, was given a facelift.
This included the transformation of the hall foyer into an informal reception area for guests with a pop-up bar, and the use of the stairwell and its chandelier backdrop for photos.
Tracey and her team of around 15 permanent staff and a bank of casual workers host a variety of functions from weddings to birthday parties as well as conferences during the week and at weekends.
“The staff are so lovely and they go above and beyond what they are paid for. Everyone has to wear lots of different hats. They might go from working in the coffee lounge and serving afternoon tea to working at a wedding. Everyone comes together and for me it all starts with greeting our guests.
“It can be daunting walking into a big house so we want people to feel as welcome as possible and I think if we can do this before they’ve even sat down at the table and had anything to eat then we’re on a good footing.
“I enjoy spending time with people, talking to them about Himley and making sure they have a wonderful experience here,” says 52-year-old Tracey.
Weddings are always a special time to be working at the hall, which is set within 180 acres of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped grounds.
“It’s a real privilege to be part of a couple’s special day and you feel like you know them really well by the end of it.
“There is pressure but then I think something would be wrong if you didn’t feel under pressure to make sure everything is exactly right and how the couple want it.
After a wedding we may feel exhausted but when we know everything has gone well and everyone has had a great time and we know we’ve played a part in that – then that definitely outweighs how tired we are feeling at that exact moment,” says Tracey.
Despite having been a key part of the venue’s team for two decades she says still feels very fortunate to be able to work at the hall every day.
“I think Himley gets in your blood when you spend so much time here. The building and parkland are so lovely and even when you’re having a hard day, it doesn’t take long to stop, look at the view and think I’m really lucky,” says Tracey.