Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

The National Trust has lost the language of architecture


Press officers, breathe easy. This is not another column attacking the National Trust. Actually, I tell a lie. It is. But my complaint isn’t bullying or slavery or LGBTQ+ery or even chocolate Easter eggery. It is more single and specific: the National Trust does not speak architecture. Or if it does, it’s keeping shtum.

Since the great May reopening, I’ve dragged my husband around half a dozen National Trust properties, landscapes and gardens (he hardly ever protests, always pays for tea). We’ve done Stourhead, Oxburgh, Ickworth, Lacock, Cobham Woods and Disraeli’s Hughenden Manor. In the gap between lockdowns last year, we did Sissinghurst and Knole.

I cannot fault the car parks, the rhododendrons or the second-hand bookshop in the Oxburgh potting shed. The volunteers are as charming a collection of people as you could ever hope to meet. Pick any property, pick any parterre and the woman on the door and the man by the greenhouse will be kind, knowledgeable and keen as English mustard. Speaking of which: the tea rooms are universally dreary. Come on, chaps. In the era of sourdough, you can’t go on serving stale scones and flabby flapjacks.

‘That’s quite an achievement, son.’

Pelargoniums are clearly labelled, trees identified and tagged. But we hunted high and low for information on windows, follies and cloisters, and answer came there none.

When I say that the National Trust doesn’t speak architecture, I mean speak. Architecture is a language. It has grammar and vocabulary and like all languages it has to be learnt. My A-level history of art teacher used to give us temple tests: a print-out of a classical portico and ten minutes to label as many bits as we could. Triglyph, metope, guttae, fascia, astragal, flute, scotia, fillet, torus…

At Lacock I stood with a friend — we met doing the same university special subject on 18th-century British architecture — trying to remember what those bull’s head thingies on the frieze were called.

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