The latest National Trust row highlights a depressing truth: the Trust is rapidly becoming a mammoth eco-warrior, rather than the preserver of historic houses and beautiful landscapes it is meant to be. It’s just paid £200,000 over the guide price to buy land at Thorneythwaite Farm, Borrowdale in the Lake District, without buying the old farmhouse that went with it. Bang go the chances of a sheep-farmer buying the land and the farmhouse. And now the 300 acres of land enter into the National Trust’s Disney-fied version of the countryside, where the eco-religion holds sway – at the expense of the farming practices that have carved out our exceptionally beautiful landscape.
Chief among the eco-warriors is the National Trust’s director-general, Dame Helen Ghosh. Earlier this month, she suggested farming subsidies should be changed to prioritise wildflowers, bees and butterflies, over food production. Her other great concern is climate change and the need to stop land falling into the sea, and to nurse the natural environment back to health. Nothing wrong in all that, of course, but Lady Ghosh’s job is not to save the environment: it is to preserve beautiful buildings and landscapes.
The full name of the Trust is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Its explicit aims in the National Trust Act of 1937 were: ‘(a) The preservation of buildings of national interest or architectural historic or artistic interest and places of natural interest or beauty’; and ‘(b) The preservation of furniture and pictures and chattels of any description having national or historic or artistic interest.’
These days, the National Trust has very much downgraded its old role as the world’s greatest protector of beautiful buildings. Lady Ghosh has herself said people are put off our stately homes because there’s ‘so much stuff’ in them. Try telling that to the four million Trust members who devote their weekends to admiring that stuff – some of the best stuff ever painted, sculpted and built on the planet, incidentally.
I’ve heard that many of the Trust’s most senior employees actively dislike the country house side of the Trust – for all its elitist, old-fashioned, intellectual, yadda-yadda-yadda connotations. You can see the attitude at work in the Trust’s magazine – where you might catch sight of a stately home in the blurred background of a picture; but the sharply-focussed foreground of that picture is much more likely to star a three-year-old getting muddy, and embracing all the eco-qualities of a natural landscape.
I’m all for birds, bees and butterflies – which will thrive, in any case, on well-managed farmland. But they are a by-product of the Trust’s main role – which is protecting our landscapes and Britain’s greatest contribution to world culture, our country houses. That role is being neglected.