Robin Mills

Senior Building Surveyor, National Trust 1988 - 2019; Knole volunteer 2019 to present

Interviewed by Veronica Walker-Smith, 2014 to 2022

Building surveyor Robin started working with the  National Trust in April, 1988 as Regional Building Manager for the Kent & East Sussex region. He was based at [NT regional office] Scotney Castle and Knole was part of his area of responsibility. From 2011 onwards, he was instrumental in writing Knole’s successful bid for funding the ‘Knole Unwrapped’ (2011-2012) project as well as the Inspired by Knole project (2013-2018), known as ‘IbK’. IbK was the largest-ever conservation project within the National Trust at that time.

On his retirement from the Trust in 2019, Robin continued to remain connected to Knole as a volunteer. In several wide-ranging interviews from 2014 to 2022, he recalls some key moments in his long association with Knole.

Starting out at Knole in 1988

I was also shown round to Knole by Hugh Sackville-West who was then the Trust’s agent at the property, notwithstanding there was an administrator here, Richard Wakeford. And Mr. Hugh took me round, I think, the showrooms and some of the other parts of the house, and I remember ending up in his kitchen in the North Wing for a cup of tea and a chat.

Knole was always one of those properties that you walked in and thought, “Wow! But where do I start?” It’s enormous, it’s daunting, and quite unlike anything I’d ever looked at or tackled or thought of ever trying to look after before. And coming in new, as I say, it was a new role – Building Manager – there were no records, there was nothing done before, except by Mr. Hugh, and I think the direct labour team here. So, as I built up the Building Department at Scotney, and started to dream up portfolios for different staff, it became obvious that Knole was just too big to give to anyone with a normal portfolio. And so effectively from day one I hung onto Knole myself [laughter ]. And the rest of my team had all the rest of the region divvied up between them. So really no one else has had a look-in.

I’ve been the surveyor, for better, or for worse, here for, whatever it is, 26 years and counting, which is great [laughter].Actually, you know,  I love the place, and love what I am doing, but in the early days it took its place in amongst other priorities in the region. And so I was looking after a team, looking after other properties as well, and managing the department and staff.

Highlights of the Inspired by Knole project

The HLF [Heritage Lottery Funded] part is the interiors and the contents. What I’ve just finished in February this year [2014] is 18 months’ work on the outside of the show rooms. So we have re-roofed all those areas, we’ve dealt with the windows in all those areas. And, the timber-framed east elevation, and a bit of the north elevation has been stripped of its cement render and re-rendered in lime, which means it is both, good for another hundred years, and it has a vapour permeability, which means the atmosphere can help to breathe through the structure. And we’ve put insulation in the external envelope of the timber frame to start the process of the conservation heating that will go into the show rooms, which will need insulation in the floors and in the ceilings to give us a sandwich of conservation atmosphere through the showrooms.

And we were then talking about how we could extend the visited area to the house, and were successful in negotiating back some areas of the house that are not seen by the public – partially derelict, fully derelict in some areas. So, the Pigeon Lofts, which are fairly derelict, and are used as a store, adjacent to the kitchen, the Old Kitchen. And we now will take visitors into the Retainers Gallery and the South Barracks, and the Upper King’s Room, which have been off-limits to the public. But Trust staff have been through occasionally, but they’ve been Lord Sackville’s areas up to now. Those areas will remain very much as they are now, as a contrast to the show rooms downstairs, and to show how houses evolve into this kind of state when they move into the 20th century – indeed, the 21st century.

Lord Sackville's commitment to the six-year IbK conservation project

He has given us access everywhere we wanted. You know, he’s, I think, totally on board with the project and what we’re trying to do and is interested in what we’re uncovering as part of the story of Knole. And very kindly has given us permission to go into these attics, go into the Sewing Room and other rooms that they use, to lift floors, to where we can actually do works to ceilings and put in insulation and so forth. So, there isn’t any sort of hold- back from him on that. It’s a matter of judging when it’s something that he’s interested in seeing, he’s got the time to, he and Jane [Lady Sackville] to come over and have a look. So, he’s been over a number of times. He’s seen the outside and he’s seen the inside, so, it’s good.

Interviewer: Would I be correct in saying that really without that level of interest and commitment to the project, we wouldn’t have had the success we’ve had?

RM: Yes. I mean if he’s – if he’d chosen to say, “No, you can’t come through here,” we wouldn’t have been able to do half the project.

You know, if you put yourself in his shoes, irrespective of the size of the house you’re living in, if you have scaffolding outside your windows for six months of the year, you get pretty fed up with it. And you have constant banging by the neighbours next door, you get very fed up with it. And I, you know, I don’t forget that, and try and, as I say, keep one step ahead. But he has put up with a lot. And, whichever window he looks out of at the moment, he sees a builder of some sort [laughter], it seems. Yes, he’s quite patient.

Implementing curatorial decision with fine attention to detail

It is all about those details; it is all about sleeping on things, drawing things; going back and having a look. So yes, I’ve done quite a lot of the designs myself, or influenced some of the designs myself. And had curators scratching their heads over things with me, deciding what to do.

From the lanterns outside the Bookshop and the Visitor Centre – which Emma [Project Curator, Emma Slocombe] took a picture of outside someone’s house which she’d seen and I turned it into a scaled version of it – which then went off with Richard Hill [IbK Senior Project Manager]  to his blacksmith in Norfolk to be made; to re-creating the silver carriage lamp in the Outer Wicket, outside the Porter’s Lodge.

Interviewer: Yes, that suddenly appeared out of the blue, Robin.

RM: It’s taken three years to build – which is a look-and-feel copy of the original one which is now in Robert Sackville-West’s hallway.

Interviewer: not on the [Sackville] carriage which is in the Carriage Museum?

RM: Well, there may be one there. But there’s only one in his hallway. No, I don’t think there were ever carriage lamps there. They’re too ornate. I mean, his is silver-silver; ours is silver-plated.

Interviewer: But it’s very shiny.

RM: It is very shiny. It needs dulling down in a way; it needs the weather on a bit, to kind of soften it. But it’s a good, as you say, it has the feeling of the same size and dimensions, and length. The detailing is too expensive for us to have afforded it. It’s quite expensive enough as it was. So, I drew that up and passed that in front of everybody and got the detailing right and discussed it with the manufacturers. So that’s come out rather well.

I designed the two lights which are in the Brown Gallery lobby and the Prayer Closet at the end of the Brown Gallery [leading to the Ballroom].  Those two new lights there – brass – again were my interpretation of Emma’s thoughts on the kind of thing that perhaps ought to be there. Because there no lights there in those two spaces.


Robin's best moments in the IbK project

I think the upside has been the teamwork; I think it’s the feeling of wonder about the whole thing. Everybody pulling in the same direction; everybody helping find solutions to problems, I’ve always tried to have a can-do attitude. Something goes wrong, stop trying to work out why it went wrong, unless it’s really useful. What can we do to get it right? And getting everybody to focus on what they can do to help turn it round. Things always go wrong but you know, the good bit is when you can come out the other end and say, “Yeah that wasn’t so bad.”

And it’s also been uncovering parts of the house – there’s a real thrill to uncovering parts of the house which you know haven’t been uncovered for a hundred years, or in some cases, longer. And knowing that you’re touching something that very few other fingers have touched.

Robin's favourite space at Knole

Interviewer: Do you have a favourite space at Knole?

Robin: Yes!

Interviewer: Do tell.

Robin: I always get a small shiver in the upper part of the Second Painted Stair. If you’re coming up and you come past the 18th century decoration and into the early decoration, on that half-landing where you’ve still got the top of that window of the first floor – and the newels are beautiful and it’s an untouched area; it’s an area that we’ve not touched as part of the [Inspired by Knole] project. It lies between areas we have been, and you look down to it, the beam there. What I’ve got, or what we’ve got, on the system and what I’ve printed off and put above my desk at Scotney, is an 1830s’-something pencil sketch, of looking through that door open, to the head of the Second Painted Stair, with the newels that we’ve placed there; looking through to that door to the South Wing and the stairs up. I was trying to re-create that and you can see the door, the edge of the door lock, you know. You can see it standing open. I think I’ve got a photograph of the same thing as the 1830s’ pencil sketch.

This page was added by Veronica Walker-Smith on 04/07/2023.

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