February 3, 2012 10:06 pm

In whom we trust

Robin Lane Fox talks about the National Trust’s success as a popular destination with historic houses and gardens

The banks may be tottering under stress-tests, but one clear British winner has emerged. Membership of the National Trust has just topped 4m. Instead of cancelling their standing orders, members have multiplied. In the past 10 years they have grown by 60 per cent. Since the stock markets slid in autumn 2008 another 7 per cent has been added to the Trust’s total. Historic houses, gardens and landscapes have never been more widely supported.

On the morning after the Trust’s exclusive policy-dinner I asked the chairman, Sir Simon Jenkins, to explain his institution’s success. Twelve senior guests, four from the Trust, eight by invitation, had just spent hours round the dining table in the Trust’s historic London headquarters addressing this very question. “There are three reasons,” Sir Simon informed me, none the worse for a three-course evening. “Stay-cationing, cheapness and a wish to be reassured about the past.”

Instead of a second break abroad, canny members realise they can have as much fun more cheaply on a weekend visiting Trust properties in Britain. Their family ticket is valid for a year’s access to all of the properties and costs less than a single train ticket to and from Paris. No revolution or invasion has ruined Britain’s great houses and nowhere else has such great gardens. Are we really needing to be reassured about this past? I think members are aware of it and proud of it. More importantly they can bring that essential companion, the dog. Try taking a spaniel into the Vatican, let alone into the Louvre.

The gardens, the chairman insists, are crucial to the Trust’s success. By in-house slang, staff in the Trust are divided between two categories. “Lilies” are those who prefer the houses, whereas “gumboots” are those who prefer the gardens. Three years ago Jenkins was definitely a lily. Experience has turned him into an enthusiastic gumboot.

The statistics make me beam with pleasure. Most of the Trust’s 20 most-visited properties are gardens rather than houses, places like Wakehurst or Hidcote, Sissinghurst or Studley Royal. The reason, Jenkins believes, is not the dog-friendly policy. When visitors have seen inside a house they rarely want to revisit. Gardens, by contrast, bring them back throughout the year. The pattern is an eloquent tribute to gardens as processes, not finished products. Trust members return to see each act in a garden’s yearly drama. They are now able and willing to go earlier than ever before.

Fans of the 2009 BBC4 series on the National Trust’s Sissinghurst will remember the welcome by the property’s family tenant Adam Nicolson, grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson. Sitting in his soft garden chair on a balmy mid-April morning he gestured towards the garden gate as it was about to open for the season. “When it opens,” he told the camera, “in will pour rivers and rivers of lesbians.” They come to pay their respects to the garden in which Vita once made love with the novelist Virginia Woolf. Now the garden opens even earlier in March while the beds are still bare earth, “wet mud” in Jenkins’s view of them. Nonetheless visitors stream in to see the conditions from which the plantings will develop. For Sissinghurst’s new early opening day those lesbians need to wear galoshes.

Dyffryn House and Gardens

Dyffryn House and Gardens

This year, the Trust will open a new historic venue, Dyffryn Gardens in Wales. It will also be pondering the recent TV makeover for its underdeveloped garden at Avebury House near the prehistoric site of Stonehenge. In a mere three weeks, volunteers and TV experts turned the bones of Avebury’s garden into a well-cleared and planted whole. For once a TV makeover made fascinating viewing. If the Trust had set about the garden with its usual guidelines, it would never have made such a leap in less than a month. “We need to learn from the programme,” Jenkins admitted, but the National Trust still runs our best scheme for training gardeners. Recently revised, its three-year careership course now has more flexibility and a diploma award of its own. It has trained more than 200 gardeners in sites where practical knowledge has to be properly passed on.

How can the historic houses and their interiors compete with the gardens’ popularity? “I would dress up as Mickey Mouse,” Jenkins tells me, “if it helped houses to be visited.” I put it to him that the Trust has started to apply “historic” pastiche to its assets. In the very kitchen of Wordsworth’s cottage, a Trust attendant has served tea to visitors in a most unromantic mob cap. Elsewhere staff in period knee-breeches are said to be welcoming visitors as if to the prequel of Downton Abbey.

“I have nothing but admiration for Disney,” Jenkins replies. “They know how to make a visit fun for visitors and we even have senior recruits from Disney with us at the Trust.” Nor is the Trust into full-scale “period” experiences. “You are muddling us with English Heritage.” The chairman’s motto has been different; BPL, or Bring Properties to Life. Fires are now lit in the room’s historic grates. Those awful red ropes are mostly gone and visitors can wander freely round a room. “Don’t they pinch the objects?” I ask, apprehensively. “No more than before,” Jenkins assures me.

There is no order from on high that staff must dress in docurama wigs. Rooms, rather, are given an occasional “historic” makeover. At Berrington Hall a former Lady Rothermere was known to have dumped her husband after a turbulent scene upstairs. After some miserable weeks on honeymoon in his Lordship’s company she demanded a divorce in the main bedroom. It was then turned upside down by her enraged spouse. The Trust re-created the untidy aftermath and advertised the chance to see an impression of matrimonial chaos. Two things happened. Visitors multiplied but some of them were troubled by the bedroom’s disorder and set about tidying it up. A national journalist then attacked Jenkins for turning the house into a “pornographic centre”. Promptly, the visitor numbers soared even higher.

What about the Trust’s other green portfolio, its coastlines, walks and landscapes? In a hotly-debated decision it has just bought yet more of the white cliffs of Dover to protect them forever from development. It now stands admirably in the path of the very government which ought to be its “green” friend. As never before in its history the Trust has had to venture outside its specific brief. Repeatedly it has stood up to the government’s new mania for “sustainable” development in country settings and its disastrous proposal for a new high-speed trainline. This political stance was tested at the Trust’s recent AGM. Jenkins anticipated no more than a two-thirds majority vote in its favour. In fact the vote was almost unanimous. In reply, government spokesmen have sunk to caricaturing the Trust as a voice of “leftwing” little-Englanders. In fact, more of its members have signed a voluntary petition against the changes to planning permission than the entire total of those who pay subscriptions to the Tories. The Trust’s full membership is nearly 20 times bigger than the memberships of the coalition parties combined.

I foresee some heroic battles and they will not stop within the gardens’ walls. The National Trust is the leaseholder of land at Hartwell House in Buckinghamshire, directly on the line of the new express journey to Birmingham. The lease excludes any such development, Jenkins assures me, and if the government want it they will have to pursue it by Act of Parliament in each local instance. We are in for some stirring debates. By the time they finish, the Trust will have more impassioned members than all the parties who plead a “mandate” for their vandalism.

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