The National Trust

Source: The Hindu, India

Cambridge Letter: A vision unfolds by  Bill Kirkman

Last week, my wife and I visited a very large estate about 10 miles outside Cambridge. We decided at the last minute to go there, because the weather was fine. We walked through a variety of woodland and well-kept gardens. There were many visitors, but because of the size of the place, no sense of being crowded. One of the features of this particular estate is an early-20th century Jacobean style house, which can be visited. (We have been on several previous occasions and did not go this time.) What we did do after our long and pleasant walk was to have lunch in the large restaurant which is part of the visitor centre near the entrance to the estate.

My reason for writing about this visit is not self-indulgence. I am using it as just one example of the huge and varied resources which are owned and managed by the National Trust, all around Britain.

It is always pleasant to write about a success story, and the National Trust is certainly that. It is responsible for maintaining and managing more than 350 historic houses, gardens and ancient monuments. It also looks after forests, beaches along the coast, islands and archaeological remains. It is responsible for castles, and for historically interesting villages.

It is, in short, a very large organisation. It is also a registered charity, and a membership organisation. We have been members for about 40 years, and during that period the membership has grown greatly. In 1975 there were five lakh members. The current membership is far greater — more than 37 lakh (1 lakh is 100000 Rupees).

Sense of belonging

There are, obviously, many staff, with a wide variety of skills and expertise, but there are in addition many volunteers, who carry out a variety of jobs. Our membership cards on our recent visit were checked by a volunteer, for example. A friend of ours volunteers regularly at the second-hand bookshop which is a feature of this particular estate — raising money towards the running costs. The volunteers provide a good example of a sense of belonging — which is not found in all membership organisations.

The National Trust was founded in 1884, and bought its first building (for £10) 12 years later. In 1931, the sister body, the National Trust for Scotland, was formed, and works closely with the parent body.

By any standards, the continuing successful existence of an unofficial — that is, non-governmental and non-commercial – organisation of this size is remarkable. What, to my mind, makes it even more so is the fact that, in spite of its size, it has managed to retain a sense of unique individuality in each of its properties. They are different, and manifestly so. To take just one example, the food which is served in National Trust properties is of a uniformly high standard, but each restaurant (if I may be forgiven the pun) has its own flavour. Eat in a Trust property, and you will enjoy local food, prepared on the premises.

Local flavours

That is, of course, dramatically different from what you will find in any of the chains of eating houses around the country. It is the reason why, when we travel to the north of England, we make a point of breaking our journey for a meal at one of our favourite National Trust properties.

Another very attractive thing about visiting a National Trust property is that you feel that you are a welcome visitor, not just a customer. I think that is true not just for members, but for other visitors (who can pay an entrance fee to visit). Running the Trust is clearly a major operation and it requires a high level of organisation and efficiency. Achieving that while at the same time retaining a sense of welcome to the visitors is, I believe, a major success. So far, during some one hundred and thirty years of existence and quite dramatic growth, the National Trust has managed it.

Quite often in my Cambridge Letter I find myself looking critically at things that have gone wrong, politically, economically, socially. I certainly would not wish to ignore things that go wrong, or pretend that everything is perfect. That would be an immature approach to exploring aspects of society.

It gives me real pleasure on this occasion to write about a British organisation that was founded, clearly, by people with true vision, and which continues to follow that vision while at the same time responding to greatly changing needs.

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