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The history woman

It’s going to be a busy year for Lucy Worsley

Claire Pitcher

Reporter:

Claire Pitcher

A former pupil of St Bart's School, Newbury Lucy Worsley has been dubbed the ‘Queen of television’ and is also the chief curator of Hampton Court Palace, which is celebrating its 500th anniversary this year.

Lucy Worsley’s earliest memory is picking blackberries in Whiteknights Park and attending playgroup near the University of Reading, close to the family home in Northcourt Avenue.

Her father Peter was professor of quaternary geology (the most recent two million years in the Earth’s history) at the university.

A BBC presenter, writer and chief curator at the Historic Royal Palaces, Lucy has a strong connection to Berkshire, which started when she was at school. “I went to the Abbey School in Reading and later on St Bartholomew’s School in Newbury. My history teacher, Mr King, has now retired, but I was delighted to see him when I went back to the school a couple of years ago to award the end-of-year prizes to the pupils. I couldn’t get my head around the fact that people were calling him ‘John’, though – he’ll always be ‘Mr King’ to me,” she laughs.

It was Mr King who inspired Lucy’s further studies in history which would eventually lead her to the prominence she has today.

“History always seemed to me at school to be the subject that was least like ‘work’. I guess I’m very fortunate that my job as a historian still doesn’t seem like ‘work’, just an interesting and challenging form of play. It’s a vocation, and I’m lucky to have it,” she says.

From school to college – and whereas some would choose their place of learning based on academic results or popularity of the course, Lucy saw things differently.

“I selected my college [New College, Oxford] on the rather geeky grounds that it was the most architecturally perfect of the colleges, with quads from three different centuries,” she admits. Not just a job After leaving university with a first-class honours degree in ancient and modern history, Lucy’s first job was as an inspector of historic buildings for English Heritage, before moving up to Scotland as major projects and research manager for Glasgow Museums.

It was this experience and passion that led to her current position, where she oversees the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace state apartments and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens.

“As chief curator, I’m responsible for looking after and making additions to the collection, getting it out on to display for our visitors and carrying out research into the buildings, and the stories that unfolded within them. For someone interested in social and art history, as I am, it’s really one of the best jobs imaginable.”

Star of screen

Although she describes being called the ‘Queen of television’ as very flattering, Lucy says she won’t be demanding curtseys from her dedicated subjects. In fact she insists that her onscreen career was a bit of an accident.

“It just arose naturally out of the rest of my work, which is entirely aimed at getting people interested in the past,” she says. “All curators have to give guided tours of their museum, give talks at adult education sessions or speak on the local news when a new exhibition opens, so I think that making a TV programme about history is just the continuation of the same mission by other means.”

Three of her many mini-series and one-off programmes include popular watching such as A Very British Murder, Tales from the Royal Bedchamber, If Walls Could Talk: The History of the Home and Antiques Uncovered.

With her warm personality and natural presenting skills, it’s no surprise she was approached to appear on so many documentaries. So would she ever consider a fulltime television career?

“No, I wouldn’t, because my main work is as a curator. That’s why you won’t see me in programmes that aren’t to do with history.”

Which is all good news for us, as Lucy’s time is far better spent bringing history to life, whether it’s at Hampton Court or on screen. However, while our history is much more accessible, thanks to programmes such as those Lucy makes, for her getting people to watch what happened in the past is only half the battle.

“I think it’s great that history forms a reasonable chunk of what you can see on television at the moment, but the end goal for me is to get people to vote with their feet: to visit the museums, historic houses and places we have in Britain, to value them, and to care for them. “There’s still a lot more to be done.”

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