Visitors to Thomas Hardy’s birthplace in Dorset, a small thatched cottage built by Hardy’s great-grandfather, used to be met by a bare house and a guide book. Now they are greeted by a fire in the grate and a curator at the parlour table, dispensing tea and cakes and chatting about the author’s childhood. Those irritated at such intrusion can walk through the house and enjoy the garden undisturbed. Most are entranced.
When I arrived at the National Trust as chairman two years ago, I received two clear messages. One was to relieve its 330 houses open to the public from the ‘dead hand’ of the Trust’s house style, and the other was to cut the suffocation of its centralised bureaucracy. Both were born of past necessity — to rescue the houses from the parlous condition in which most had been received from often destitute private owners, and to put in place controls against runaway costs. In other words, the need was to lighten up. The houses were too aloof and too restricted in their appeal.
Needless to say, I could now draw a Bateman cartoon of the reaction from some Trust conservatives to the chairman who dared move a teaspoon from the ducal sideboard. The art critic Stephen Bayley has recently paraded himself as a fastidious blimp, appalled at the idea that the working classes should enjoy a visit to a National Trust property. In the Times last week, he said that taking down ropes and allowing people to stray into upstairs bedrooms was ‘queasy voyeurism’ and ‘soft porn’. The offending property, Berrington Hall in Herefordshire, will disappoint the crowds who may flock to see such titillation. Bayley clearly has personal issues that are beyond the Trust’s capacity to meet.
What is beyond argument is that the project to ‘bring houses to life’ is working. Fires are being lit in grates, unnecessary ropes removed, blinds raised where light levels permit and visitors allowed to play pianos, billiards, croquet and tennis. Rooms are set aside in which they can sit and read. Involvement is encouraged in ‘downstairs’ activities, such as conserving, polishing, cooking, even farming. Teenagers are beating the carpets at Llanerchaeron. Psychiatric patients tend a garden at Gibside. Land is found for allotments.
Visitor numbers have shot up after such changes. To see fires in the great halls at Petworth, Knole and Stourhead, to see visitors enjoying a Thirties weekend displayed at Upton, riding the carriages at Arlington or recollecting the past in the Birmingham back-to-backs is to see the past come alive to those not schooled in history or fine art.
The risk in all this is obvious. It is that damage might be done to buildings and objects accepted in trust for all time, or that re-interpreting them might corrupt their historic authenticity. There can be only one answer to this: it must not happen. The Trust’s first obligation is to conserve what is most beautiful about the past. This year, spending on conservation topped the £100 million mark, by far the largest such enterprise in Britain. It sponsors a scholarly journal and last month held its first study conference, on Ham House, in collaboration with the Mellon Foundation and Yale University press. No interpretation is undertaken without thorough research into a property’s past.
Having spent all my life trying to save things, I am aware that the exercise is often fraught. Guarding what survives of the fragile architecture, art and other contents of Britain’s great houses is an absolute. Equally we must accept that new interpretations will always be questioned by some and upset others, but not to reinterpret just freezes a past version of the past instead of a present one. Medieval Bodiam castle in Sussex is not original, but rather Lord Curzon’s 20th-century interpretation of medieval. It is none the worse for that.
The Trust has a wider obligation inherited from its founder, Octavia Hill, the promotion and dissemination of what is most beautiful in all the architecture and landscape of Britain. Indeed Hill’s chief concern was not with stately homes but with popular access to the countryside. Hence the Trust’s need to appeal beyond enthusiasts for historic buildings to those who enjoy for free its 600,000 acres of the Lake District, Pennines, Peaks, Exmoor and Dartmoor, and 700 miles of coastal paths.
None of this makes money for the Trust, but money is spent nonetheless, promoting hiking, cycling, camping and, in the West Country, surfing. While Britain’s architectural heritage is relatively safe, this is not true of the rural landscape, threatened by ill-controlled development as not seen since the 1930s. Each month the Trust spends tens of thousands of pounds to add to the rural and coastal estate. This is a desperately important enterprise, a race against development.
The National Trust is experiencing phenomenal popularity. It has defied recession. It receives no core funding from government and is therefore relatively impervious to cuts. Visitor numbers and revenues have risen by more than 15 per cent in each of the past two financial years, and are up again even in this tougher one. The campaign to reduce bureaucracy has cut 11 regions to eight, has decentralised property budgets and reduced a manual of 1,000 instructions to one of 50.
This surge may be attributable in part to Britons not going abroad, but surveys indicate it also reflects something deeper in the British psyche — a search for comfort in time of trouble, a desire to connect with the country’s past as reflected in old buildings, villages and the great uplands and shores. I cannot see why critics should deplore this connection as philistine, let alone as ‘Disneyfication’.
I have recently been uplifted by children dancing with the Mad Hatter across the great lawn at Antony, where Tim Burton filmed his Alice in Wonderland, by teenagers playing croquet at Chastleton and by scholars perusing the Pieter Brueghel which the Trust hopes to buy for Nostell. All these activities embody a shameless delight in beauty, and one that should be treasured for ever.