HELEN MEAD went behind the scenes at a North Yorkshire stately home as it prepared for spring

Spring cleaning a three-bed semi can be challenging enough - so imagine tackling a country manor house.

Well before the high season begins, period properties managed by the National Trust come under scrutiny in an extensive deep clean that leaves them like new pins.

Grand staircases, floorboards, ornate ceilings, carpets, paintings and antique furnishings are give a brush and polish by staff members specially trained in what can be a delicate and painstaking operation.

At Nunnington Hall in picturesque Ryedale, North Yorkshire, work goes on all year round to keep the house spick and span.

During the brief winter closure, all hands are on deck, as every piece of furniture, picture frame, cushion and ornament is inspected, every carpet beaten and drapes vacuumed.

“We remove surface dust and dirt that could cause long-term problems if left,” says Iain Kelly, Nunnington Hall’s house and collections manager, “We remove dust from everything - light fittings, walls, furniture, paintings, you name it. We monitor for signs of pests such as moths, mould and damage.”

In such a property - the present hall dates from the 17th and 18th century - it is not a case of whizzing round with a vacuum cleaner and squirting a spot of polish on a table top.

Care and respect for the age and significance of the items is paramount.

Even the dusters used are not as most of us know them, says Iain, clutching a square white cotton cloth. “They are undyed so that nothing can potentially transfer to any historic object or surface. If a surface is damp a coloured duster could bleed. They are also hemmed to prevent threads from catching.”

Slightly larger than a standard duster, the cloth is folded into a pad and used in a circular motion. “This catches dust, rather than spreading it around,” says Iain.

During opening hours, a basket of dusters lies at the foot of the fine staircase, inviting the public to polish the banister.

For picture frames, small brushes are used to access delicate areas. Two types of brush, one made from rough hogs’ hair, the other softer pony hair, are used on different surfaces, with dust being carefully swept towards the nozzle of a special vacuum cleaner designed for painting conservators.

Demonstrating how it’s done, conservation assistant Ben Moorehouse shines a torch along the gilded frame of an 18th century etching. Wearing rubber gloves, he checks for mould spores before gently sweeping a pony hair brush towards the small pipe.”

Like other member of the five-strong conservation team, he loves the in-depth clean. “It gives you a chance to get a proper look at the objects and at the house as a whole.”

He adds: “It is satisfying to give things a thorough clean - I’m a bit obsessive in here, but I’m not like that at home.”

Before vacuuming textiles such as carpets and drapes, a test is carried out through a muslin cloth to check for loose threads that may come adrift with the suction. Certain items such as old, finely-stitched tapestries are sent to special conservators for cleaning. Specialists are also called in if problems like mould or moths are detected.

Natural wax furniture polish is used throughout the hall. “It is applied by hand - it’s a hard job,” says Iain, spinning a long lambswool brush like candy floss around the door frame.

Plain tap water is used for windows, which are, surprisingly, washed just once a year. “No detergents are used apart from the occasional spot of washing-up liquid,” says Iain, “The chemicals in many modern cleaners are too harsh.”

Nunnington Hall houses pieces of military equipment including rifles and pistols belonging to previous owner Colonel Ronald D’Arcy Fife, whose big game trophies are also on show.

“We clean these the same way we clean the picture frames,” says Iain.

Certain objects need very special attention. “Colonel Fife’s military chest had been in storage in the attic and needed more detailed cleaning - we had to remove ingrained dirt and treat it for a spot of woodworm.”

If the hall itself is a challenge, a special exhibit on the top floor takes cleaning to a new level.

The attic rooms contain the Carlisle Collection of miniature period rooms assembled by Londoner Kitty Carlisle between 1923 and 1970. These include a Queen Anne drawing room, Georgian bedroom, Adam music room and nursery.

“We use small brushes and vacuum cleaners on a more delicate scale,” says Iain. “It can sometimes take as long to clean one of these tiny rooms as it takes to clean one in the main house.”

Carpets are tackled in an ingenious way. “We don’t take them out to beat them,” laughs Iain, explaining how acid-free tissue paper is laid down covering half the carpet. “The other half is folded on to, then we beat the underside so that any dust or dirt falls onto the paper. It is very effective,”

Visitors who want to know more about such techniques and observe some of the day-to-day cleaning can attend weekly ‘conservation in action’ sessions at the hall.

Nunnington Hall, Nunnington, North Yorkshire YO62 5UY. For more details and opening times visit nationaltrust.org.uk/nunnington-hall. Conservation in action takes place at 12.30pm on Wednesdays.