“Is this place only full of old people?” is what I hear from younger family members who dig deep to drum up enthusiasm for yet more hunt-the-horses, or count-the-crests whilst we visit another National Trust (NT) property. “Don’t go anywhere, near anything, or see if you can fit into that wardrobe, just in case, god forbid, you breath on something valuable and I have to re-mortgage the house”. It’s not like that really, but I still find myself repeating this phrase ad nauseam.
Mention the NT, and you will get all sorts of reactions; coloured by your age, heritage tolerance levels and demographic. Traditionally the preserve of the retired and middle-class families with young children, the NT is doing all it can to broaden the heritage appeal. A noble cause.
Founded way back in 1895 the NT’s aim is saving the nation’s heritage and open spaces. Alongside are the very powerful conservation laws that means that there are no longer shocking acts of heritage vandalism or spite – as in the case of the Reverend Francis Gastrell. He bought Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon house in 1753 but quickly became irritated with tourists who kept showing up wanting to see it, says architectural historian Gavin Stamp. Not content with merely chopping down a mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare in the garden, in an extraordinary fit of spite, he demolished the whole house in 1759! It was never rebuilt and only the foundations remain. This thankfully, would not happen today.
With a reputation for being successful, the NT also ‘get’s’ heritage, with lots of effort expended on events, trails, how-to guides, competitions, re-enactments and food. They also rely on over 60,000 volunteers waiting to greet visitors in each and every space, just itching to share a little-known fact or anecdote, which makes the NT the largest voluntary conservation organisation in Europe.
I joined the ranks of NT stalwarts last year and bought my membership card as I kept finding so many properties and gardens near my home, it seemed silly not too. Half way through the year, I am struggling, to get my membership value for money. Odd because I haven’t stopped splashing cash at other museums and visitor attractions.
Perhaps it has to do with the reality of a visit; the bossy language, the endless lists of things we parents should have done with our children by the time they reach the age of five, 15 and 50, is just guaranteed to make those amongst us who are not into competitive parenting, feeling resentful and a trifle embarrassed.
The events programme is extensive and well-developed, with very public opportunities to forage for food, make your own wreath, candles or cake. My family hates all the above, and prefers a more low-key visit, absorbing things in our own way and in our own time.
Over-priced restaurants flogging organic-just-been-picked-with-the-dew-still-intact tuna sandwiches with a price tag that wouldn’t make a central London sandwich shop blush. Yes I know you can take your own picnic, but that’s not the point. The merchandise in the shops does not always match up to the new demographic – unless children like to wear lavender?
There are still ropes aplenty, and by national museum standards, not much visitor interpretation, precious few touch-screens or audio guides, but then you have the wonderful volunteers, furnished with all the information you could ever need and more. I wonder how many hours they give up, how much training they undertake, how many children they have patiently explained the treasure-trail of the day to, and cups of tea they have put away?
They are under-rated and for me, what makes a visit worthwhile. Forget the instructions on how to build a den, or how many puddles little Noah should have jumped in by now; tell us why Andrea is working her shift in this historic property, what is her connection to the area, her knowledge and take on the Duchesses dalliances – so ‘Now magazine” I know, and the elegant Mrs Tickell looking down from the walls might not approve, but it’s all about the story-telling that really brings any heap of stones or ancient landscape alive. And that is why the volunteers should be celebrated. They give so much without presuming to know what it is we need from our brush with heritage.
Record numbers volunteer for the National Trust – BBC News
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