13 April 2012

The National Trust and Tyntesfield

I have been one of the National Trust’s millions of members for nearly 40 years and still support it, although nowadays I am nonplussed by some of its activities and attitudes. For example, the NT has recently produced a report, Natural Childhood:
This report presents compelling evidence that we as a nation, and especially our children, are exhibiting the symptoms of a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’. We look at what this disorder is costing us, why it’s proving so difficult to reverse, and gather current thinking on what we must do to eliminate it, before opening up the question to the nation for consideration.
This met with a scathing response from Colin Blakemore, Professor of Neuroscience at Oxford, in The Times (£) on 10 April:
… what should we make of the National Trust’s recent report that a new, socially infectious illness — “nature deficit disorder” — is laying waste our children? The symptoms are indeed very worrying. Children with this disease can recognise Daleks but not magpies, and three times as many of them are injured falling out of bed as falling out of a tree. The predisposing environmental factor for this disease is — well — a lack of environmental experience. The National Trust is, of course, complaining that kids don’t get outdoors as much as they used to. We should be concerned. But it’s lack of exercise and the resulting heart disease, obesity and diabetes that we ought to worry about, rather than nature deficit disorder (or magpie- agnosia, as we doctors call it).
… But by putting a medical name on mere social change, the National Trust trivialises genuine disorders of the brain. Maybe it was done tongue in cheek, but it distracts us from the fact that more than 130 million Europeans suffer from genuine, often painful and incapacitating disorders of the nervous system, the economic cost of which probably exceeds £500 billion.
Unfortunately, as anyone who reads the report will realise, there was nothing tongue in cheek about it. It concludes:
With this report, the National Trust is launching a major consultation process, asking individuals and institutions to come up with practical, workable and effective solutions to reconnect Britain’s children with the natural world.
Some people might think this to be a rather broad interpretation of the role (“What we do”) the NT normally projects:
… a charity that works to preserve and protect historic places and spaces – for ever, for everyone.
but nonetheless predictable behaviour for a powerful not-for-profit corporate body. The NT has recently run an effective campaign against the revisions the Coalition government proposed to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). Such is the influence of the NT (Power in the land as The Economist put it last year,) that its Director-General Fiona Reynolds lobbied the organisation’s point of view at ministerial level. But its website’s explanation as to Why is the National Trust involved? in the NPPF debate is revealing. As one might expect, and quite rightly:
Our statutory purposes (under section 4 of the National Trust Act 1907 and section 3 of the National Trust 1937) include the purpose of promoting the preservation of special places for the benefit of the nation. This doesn't just mean the places we own. It goes wider to mean any special places which are under threat. We support the legal and policy safeguards that protect such places, and would be very concerned if those safeguards were diluted or removed. We have a duty to oppose such measures and to bring the issue to the attention of our members and supporters.
… As a charity that owns land, we have been involved in developing homes, businesses and other commercial opportunities ourselves.
… We know from our own experience that new development can combine economic benefit with great results for people and the environment.
The press release in March which announced that the current DG would be standing down described the NT in the ‘Notes to Editors’ as:
With more than 250,000 hectares of countryside and 710 miles of coastline across England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are plenty of opportunities to enjoy the great outdoors with the National Trust. The charity is one of the most important nature conservation organisations in Europe. It promotes environmentally friendly practises and cares for the diverse and rare wildlife that lives on its land. It also looks after for more than 300 houses and gardens, from workers cottages to stately homes …
which puts the great outdoors first and the built environment second – spaces before places. Activities like lobbying against the NPPF and raising awareness of “nature deficit disorder” might be more representative of the future direction of the NT than acquiring more properties.

Nowadays I seem to visit only a couple of NT properties a year, most recently Tyntesfield near Bristol. This large Victorian Gothic pile acquired in 2002 could well be one of the last large properties which the NT will take on and is a reminder of how much more money there was around ten years ago. The NT quickly collected £8 million from the public, followed by donations from the National Heritage Memorial Fund of £17.4 million and £20 million for restoration from the National Lottery to follow.   Seaton Delaval Hall is the only large property acquired since 2002 and at a much lower cost. From now on it may well be the case that not only are there fewer properties left to come to the NT – they are already in the Trust’s hands or, like say Chatsworth, have worked out their own salvation – but lack of funding may restrain the ambitions of the NT’s management to acquire more anyway. In those circumstances embracing “nature deficit disorder” and launching major consultations would seem like a good bureaucratic survival strategy.

The Gibbs family who created the neo-Gothic Tyntesfield made their fortune from the importing of guano fertiliser. Like others who became wealthy in the early Victorian period, they followed the pattern described in Martin Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit: 1850-1980 and joined the English upper classes rather than, say, establish an agro-chemicals empire. In time the family fortune dissolved like guano and assets were sold off to maintain some semblance of the pre-1914 upper class country house life. There were Gibbs at Tyntesfield until 1901 and a photograph of the last, Richard, reminded me a little of Harold Macmillan, Conservative Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963, who had also served in the Grenadier Guards. A speech Macmillan (by then Lord Stockton) made in 1985 about the Thatcher government’s privatisation policy seems to reflect the state of Tyntesfield at the time:
'It is very common with individuals or estates when they run into financial difficulties to find that they have to sell some of their assets. First, the Georgian silver goes, and then all that nice furniture that used to be in the saloon. Then [similarly?] the Canalettos go.'
but in Tyntesfield’s case it was Turner, not Canaletto. The Tory Reform Group have retrieved the tape of the speech (often misquoted as “selling the family silver”) and made it available (about 18:30 for the above). Listening to his delivery, even at nearly 92, one can understand why Macmillan was so often called the great actor-manager of British politics.

The weekend I went to Tyntesfield it was surprisingly busy and visitors seemed to be enjoying themselves. The long queues at the restaurant and café could have been reduced if there had been more paid staff but there were plenty of volunteers everywhere else. These were mostly from that age group that can be relied on to turn up, be it at work or the polling booth. Inside the house there was more evidence of the modern NT preoccupation with kitchens and the ‘Upstairs, Downstairs at Downton Abbey’ experience than of instruction on the Gothic Revival movement. I would like to have learnt what connections there might be between Tyntesfield’s architect, the Bristolian John Norton, and Augustus Pugin during my visit rather than afterwards from Wikipedia.

It costs a family £31.30 to visit the house and the garden at Tyntesfield (£34.50 with Gift Aid). But NT members can pay an annual fee allowing repeated visits to all NT properties – for a family this would be £93.50 after the first year. So it’s not surprising that the NT has nearly four million members mostly drawn from the better-off A B and C1 socio-economic groups. Though, interestingly, the Cadw Pan-Wales heritage interpretation plan explains that “the National Trust have now abandoned socio-economic profiling in favour of segmentation”. This “allows them to look at the level of interaction visitors want, the elements of a visit that are important to them, and how to present these in the most accessible way”. Attached as an appendix to the plan were the market segments used by the NT which I can’t resist repeating here:
Out and about
Spontaneous people who prefer chance encounters to making firm plans and love to share their experiences with friends.
Young experience seekers
People who are open to challenge, in a physical or horizon-broadening sense They make and take opportunities in their journey of personal discovery.
Curious minds
Active thinkers, always questioning and making connections between the things they learn. They have a wide range of interests and take positive steps to create a continual flow of intellectual stimuli in their lives.
Live life to the full
Self-driven intellectuals, confident of their own preferences and opinions and highly independent in their planning and decision making; these people are always on the go.
Explorer families
Families that actively learn together, the adults will get as much out of their experience as the children. To fit in the interests of all family members planning, sharing and negotiation are essential.
Kids first families
Families who put the needs of the children first and look for a fun environment where children are stimulated and adults can relax; they’re looking for a guaranteed good time.
Home and family
Broad groups of friends and family who gather together for special occasions. They seek passive enjoyment of an experience to suit all tastes and ages
Q:  Am I a Curious mind or do I Live life to the full?
A: Neither, you’re a sad old blogger, mate!

This base, however it is sliced and diced, gives the NT and its leadership considerable political clout. It was almost predictable that the retiring NT Director-General would next year become Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. These Oxbridge posts are favourite destinations for those who are part of the British “Great and the Good” but not managed to go global. For example, the FT (£) recently suggested of the departing Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, that it “might be logical for him to take up the mastership of an Oxford College”. It will be an insight into the way the Coalition works when we learn who gets appointed next to both these "Director General" posts.


Amended as the relevant part of Macmillan's speech has become available on YouTube.

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