After many ad hoc visits, I decided earlier this year to buy a membership to the National Trust. The great virtue of the membership card lies in enabling its bearer to pass unmolested into a Trust property, without being subjected to the sales pitch of the door staff. A lady of my acquaintance, a retired history teacher, had been so embarrassed by the cross-examination she received when taking a group of non-members out for the day, that she cancelled her membership forthwith, wrote to the Trust to explain why, and has boycotted it ever since. It has certainly been my experience that some of the admissions staff are possessed of that ugly haughtiness which infers plebeian qualities in anyone who resists their siren song.
My favourite part of their sales routine is an insistence that, by buying a year’s subscription on the spot, you can gain admittance into the present property ‘for free’. Of course, this holds true only if you visit a sufficient number of properties during the year (which, in many ways, is a good deal, since you can visit each as many times as you like). It is faintly amusing to watch some punter struggling to comprehend how he can ‘save’ by swapping the ad hoc £8.50 admittance fee for a payment of £70. I think many people capitulate simply in order to avoid holding up the queue. What the Trust really wants is your direct debit—the jewel in the crown—knowing that indolence and amnesia are an irresistible combination that will likely see your membership renewed year after year.
But what of the experience once through the turnpike? I find it a peculiar mixture of excitement and ennui, a very tantalising kind of tedium. The problem, I suspect, lies partly with me and partly with the vague and sometimes contradictory idea of conserving the nation’s heritage. What I seek to gain from wandering a preserved property is likely very different from a family looking for something to do in the holidays. To get philosophical for a moment, places like Buckland Abbey in Devon are physical invitations to muse on the question: what is history? The Trust has, to some extent, preserved the building’s layout, but its interior is less the home of Francis Drake and more a museum about a simulacrum of the home of Francis Drake. I think historians would agree that history is emphatically not a collection of dusty dates and dry facts. We all know that Hastings went down in 1066, but would it greatly affect our understanding of the event’s significance if we were suddenly to discover that it really happened in 1067, or 1166?
To answer this, we must define what we mean by history. As an aficionado of pub quizzes, I am naturally inured to historical names and dates; yet these are not the essence of the subject, but only a few bones in an incomplete skeleton. Historians must mould the flesh and clothe the body; they must tell us, not merely who and when, but why. I have always thought the essence of history to be change and the conclusions we can draw from it. Names and dates supply interesting (sometimes fascinating) details, but what really matters is how one set of events is caused by, and is in turn the cause of, another. Where there is no change there is no history. It is here that conservation runs into troubled waters: if history is change then the conservationist risks becoming the butterfly collector and his preserved estates the killing jars of a past once vibrantly alive.
Returning to Buckland Abbey, it presents itself as a series of spaces containing artefacts: some in display cases, some not. The walls are adorned with boards giving historical details of the room and the life of its erstwhile owner. The same pattern is repeated in all the Trust properties I have visited. Often, a room features a staff member or volunteer who is happy to wax lyrical about the wallpaper in the reign of Victoria. For me, however, this rarely seems to coagulate into an inspiring experience of history. The many rooms and innumerable bibelots are too many to process; the forest vanishes among its trees. I see many things, but I do not see their significance; they are merely objects (often pretty or interesting) fighting an ongoing battle against dust. History per se is not in any one place, it is an abstraction of the intellect. I am reminded of Indy’s advice to students in The Last Crusade, that archaeology is a search for fact, not truth, and that students wanting to find truth should head down the hall to the philosophy class. In many ways, I am more inured to the search for truth, and find old houses a little too particular.
I suppose this is a challenge for the National Trust and those organisations who tread a similar path. What precisely is meant by the idea of conservation? What is being conserved? And for whom? How does it relate to history? The Trust was founded in 1895 by three individuals seemingly devoted to the idea of preserving ‘open spaces’ in the wake of increasing industrialisation. They were a motley crew, comprising a Church of England clergyman, a solicitor and civil servant, and a social reformer. In 1896, the Trust acquired, for £10, its first property—Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex. What a diminutive (in the spatial sense) construction this two-storied, thatch-roofed building is, and how different from the sprawling country estates that would later form the majority of the Trust’s holdings!
By the middle of the twentieth century, the Trust had benefitted enormously from the post-war decline of the aristocracy. As their edifices became too costly to maintain, families donated them to the National Trust to escape inheritance taxes and other rigmaroles. This series of acquisitions led to a crisis in the late 1960s, in which the organisation was accused of abandoning its initial vision of open-space preservation in favour of conserving the country piles of the landed gentry. The consequent Benson Report devolved the once-centralised authority of the Trust to regional governing bodies; a move which emphasizes that questions of what should be preserved, and why, were being asked at least half a century ago.
Politics aside, I have to admit that I enjoy the architecture of these country houses very much. Recently, the Trust has branched into what may tentatively be called ‘cultural acquisitions’, such as the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney in Liverpool. I suppose that many would applaud such purchases on the grounds that The Beatles formed an important part of British post-war culture, but I am unconvinced. The Beatles have a museum in Liverpool, and I can’t see how two bland and uninspiring properties can add anything to their, or the nation’s, story. As a fan of the Beatles, I am in no way inclined to want to see Lennon’s aunt’s house; the magic of the group quite evidently didn’t happen there. Once again, the problem of what to conserve rears its tentacled head.
A favourite essayist of mine, Theodore Dalrymple, recently wrote about France’s conservation troubles. Easily the most visited country in the world, ever more of France is being preserved by decree, to the extent that it risks becoming a vast national museum. The magazine Beaux Arts had polled readers to discover whether they wished investment to fund preservation projects and safeguard the past, or to finance new creative initiatives. The overwhelming desire was for the former, a decision looked upon with scorn by the left-liberal newspaper Le Monde. Dalrymple argued, and I tend to agree, that preserving the past is not incompatible with innovation; that such approaches are not mutually exclusive. Furthermore, he drew attention to the aesthetic horror of most modern Western architecture and praised the spirit of conservation for allowing us to see the beauty of the past.
On reflection, I think he has supplied the reason why I like visiting Trust properties: I can revel in the gorgeous architectural creations of centuries past and escape the soulless cityscapes of the present, albeit briefly. The men and families who built and formerly inhabited these places are of secondary importance to me—what matters is not so much the history as the aesthetic and cultural feelings engendered by my visits. As we move firmly into the twenty-first century, the National Trust faces the problems of expansion coupled with an ill-defined sense of purpose. It finds itself in possession of grand estates, acres of field and forest, stretches of coastline and urban terraced properties. Such holdings are connected only in the loosest possible sense, and each requires a very different approach to management. As a result, even the devolved administration of the Trust is looking somewhat unwieldly. I shall be very interested to finish reading my copy of the organisation’s 1995 publication, The Next Hundred Years, to see how it lives up to its pre-millennial vision of what is to come.