The National Trust needs its cultural revolution

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Who doesn’t love a National Trust cream tea? How could you not savour the chance to sit down after a wander through dusty rooms patrolled by earnest tweed-clad volunteers whispering endless reminders not to touch or go beyond the barricades?

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It was always a very ‘them’ and ‘us’ experience: grand dining rooms or stately bedchambers adorned with pictures and books placed tantalisingly beyond the velvet ropes. A guidebook might offer descriptions of what was there but it was left to the visitor to imagine the life that such rooms witnessed. By the time you reached the tea room you were more than ready to sit down, relax, pick things up, talk, taste, smell and enjoy.

Such were my earliest, and indeed fondly held, memories of countless childhood trips to National Trust properties across the country. The delight of a can of coke and a cake after the hushed tour was only trumped by the trip to the shop on departure and the purchase of a pen, a ruler, and the curiously appealing Kendal mint cake.

But things are changing. A spirit of cultural revolution is sweeping through the National Trust. The barriers are coming down, fires lit, doors opened, ‘do not touch’ signs removed and tweeded stewards replaced by guides in period costume. Non-precious chairs might now be sat on, clothes tried on, snooker tables and pianos played, and in some cases beds even bounced on! This is all, to use the Trust’s own jargon, about “making houses come alive”.

For rather too long the Trust, understandably concerned with conservation, has struggled to find ways to show that their 300-plus ‘properties’ were also ‘homes’ where people lived, ate, slept, and entertained. And it is the rich daily life within their houses that the Trust is now looking to make visible. This very much chimes with current popular interest – think If Walls Could Talk; The Country House Revealed; At Home with the Georgians. The British public have an apparently insatiable appetite for a glimpse behind closed doors. The Trust is quite rightly trying to get in on the act.

And so now at Berrington Hall visitors can go into the bedroom of the newly wed Lady Rodney, sit down at her dressing table and smell her perfumes as well as read her letters and discover what happened to her marriage. In the saloon at Croft Castle, the scene is set in 1777, prior to an evening party. Visitors can take a seat in front of the fireplace to chat, play cards or read some poetry. At Wightwick Manor visitors are invited to play billiards in the games room as cigar ends and half-finished drinks are littered around them.

All of this is not without controversy. Simon Jenkins, the chairman of the Trust, has ruffled the feathers of traditionalists by claiming “there are things to learn from Disney”.

Unsurprisingly, some of the Trust’s 3.8 million members have voiced very real concerns. Isn’t the National Trust about preservation, they ask, and doesn’t this represent little more than dumbing down or fudging history?

The challenge is to conserve the nation’s heritage while making it accessible for all. This is an expensive and competitive business. The National Trust is a charitable organisation, does not receive government funding and so relies heavily on its visitor income. While remaining true to its values and conserving the past, it needs to adopt a 21st‑century approach to attract a younger generation.

And so the Trust is reaching out in new ways. This summer saw a special-issue Beano/National Trust comic dedicated to enticing younger visitors through its doors, and millions of people will be enthralled by the reinterpretation of Avebury Manor as part of BBC One’s prime time series for the autumn, To the Manor Reborn. Undoubtedly, expectations for all Trust properties will be raised and whether or not these can be fulfilled across the country remains to be seen.

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This is a revolution perhaps, but surely one that Trust founder Octavia Hill would have welcomed. Her vision was, after all, for the Trust to contribute to the “everlasting delight of the people”.