Ever since it was founded in 1895, the National Trust has been considered a good thing. That oak tree sticker on the windscreen isn’t just a passport to some of the country’s finest heritage. It is a middle class status symbol declaring that you are cultured, a lover of the bucolic, someone who’d rather their children went out collecting tadpoles and tramping round nature reserves than staying in glued to an iPad.
But the Trust, originally set up to ensure ‘the preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements of beauty or historic interest’ seems to have abandoned at least one of the laudable aims that made it so popular. As the country’s second largest landowner (after the Forestry Commission and well ahead of the Queen), with estates that generate nearly £500 million a year, it can afford to behave as it likes. And this summer it bought Thorneythwaite, a 303 acre farm in the Lake District. The Trust’s opening bid was an astonishing £950,000 — £200,000 over the asking price. In one stroke it priced out local farmers who had hoped to preserve Thorney thwaite as a working farm to pass on to the next generation. That used to be the Trust’s aim, too, but here it wanted just the land; not the farmhouse and outbuildings, which were a separate lot priced at £800,000 and have reportedly been bought by another bidder.
Outside the Lakes, only Melvyn Bragg seemed aghast at this. Famously proud of his Cumbrian roots, Lord Bragg denounced the purchase as ‘disgraceful’, arguing that had a billionaire made the same bid there would have been a ‘deserved outcry’. The Trust claimed that it was concerned by just that — a prime slice of the Lakes being snapped up by a foreign owner or property investor. It didn’t seem to have dawned that its own action was equally abhorrent to locals.
By failing to bid for the farm buildings it seems probable that the Trust has now killed off an active farmstead and the farmhouse is likely to end up as just another holiday cottage. In the Lakes, as in most other beauty spots, locals struggle to find a place to live where they grew up because second home owners price them out of the market.
In the early 1900s, Beatrix Potter bought up almost 4,000 acres of farmland in the Lakes to protect both the landscape and the hill farming way of life. That’s the sort of work the National Trust used to do, and on her death in 1943 Potter donated her farms to it, believing it would continue to preserve the vulnerable crofting tradition. Now its mission seems to be one of reshaping the Lakes according to its own political stance, which elevates environmentalism above all else. How else does one explain its enthusiasm for wind turbines? Most people who actually live in the countryside loathe them, but Dame Helen Ghosh, director general of the National Trust since 2012, says they are ‘rather beautiful things’. She also says tackling climate change is the priority to stop ‘parts of our coastline falling off into the sea’.
So now the Trust has set itself against hill farmers who have been maintaining the land in its present state for hundreds of years. In one leaked email, a National Trust director described Thorneythwaite as ‘the remaining part of a jigsaw which might allow us to restore the river to its floodplain’ — suggesting that its real aim may be to divert a nearby river and relieve flooding downstream.
Many suspect that the Trust would quite like to see the Lakes rewilded — a controversial issue hotly debated in The Spectator recently by Rod Liddle and Melissa Kite. After all, Ghosh’s six point plan for farming after Brexit, announced in August, includes removing subsidies from farmers who don’t prioritise wildlife.
Local shepherd James Rebanks complains: ‘They are trying to create a second rate Alaska, completely missing the point that the Lake District is a unique and special place all of its own. Instead, they are pursuing their own secret agenda, minus the farmers and minus the sheep. It is very, very worrying.’
This may seem like a small local issue — but Thorneythwaite is a symptom of a much greater problem. If the National Trust is allowed to pursue an essentially political agenda it could, like the RSPCA before it, lose its way. The Trust ought to stick to campaigns we can all get behind, such as its recent bid to preserve Churchill’s Chartwell heirlooms for the nation, and butt out of rural matters that are none of its concern. Then we can all keep on showing off our oak tree stickers as a badge of pride.