The National Trust is spoiling beautiful places in the name of people who’ll never visit them

It’s time to take a stand against the absurd, patronising drive for ‘accessibility’

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

15 November 2014

9:00 AM

Broadhaven Beach in Pembrokeshire was once a sublime combination of the works of nature and man. The broad, deep, sandy bay is flanked by towering limestone cliffs. Two hundred years ago, a stream leading to the sea was dammed by Lord Cawdor, the then owner, to form the Bosherston Lily Ponds.

Enter the National Trust, owners of the estate since 1976. Now the spot where the lakes meet the sea is marked with a bright purple National Trust sign, saying,

Return to the start,
a new path you’ll take
Its rocky in places,
don’t fall in the lake.

Perhaps it’s better in the Welsh translation, also featured on the purple sign. Dear God, I hope it’s more literate.

The sign sums up all that’s terrible about the National Trust — and our libraries, museums and galleries. They are being infantilised by the zealous crusade to make them accessible to people who don’t want to go there.

There are more than four million National Trust members: by far the biggest institution of its kind in the world. It dwarfs the membership of all our political parties put together. In other words, the British already know about the National Trust. They don’t need to be told how wonderful it is; to be spoon-fed its beauties like a baby; or to be warned not to fall in a lake.

They already love the trust’s exceptional houses and landscapes. But those landscapes are now scarred by pointless signs like the Broadhaven horror. And the trust does its best to play down its country houses — Britain’s greatest artistic contribution to the world.

In that famous 1988 advert, the Victoria & Albert museum described itself as ‘an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached’. At least it admitted to the museum. These days, the National Trust wants to ignore its incredible houses; and become a smashing playground for the kids to get all muddy in.

On the ‘Big issues’ page on its website, the trust proudly declares: ‘Most of the work we do is affected by wider global issues, which is why our interests extend far beyond just bricks and mortar.’ Those big issues are ‘Energy saving projects’, ‘Natural Childhood’, ‘Land use & planning’, ‘Transport’ and ‘Ash dieback’. So forget about the single greatest collection of buildings in the world, then.

The trust is a victim of the national accessibility disease: partly linked to getting public money; partly to the grand dumbing-down exercise of modern life.

Have you been to your local library recently? I’m amazed cartoonists still do pictures about grouchy librarians, telling people to keep quiet. Libraries are now largely places to chat and surf the internet. Cardiff’s Central Library has concerts every Saturday. Newcastle’s City Library has a crèche and the Library of Birmingham has an entrepreneurs’ club. Libraries hold Baby Bounce and Rhyme sessions, where tots play with drums while singing nursery rhymes — try reading a book in that din.

In last month’s Public Libraries News, an editorial admitted that ‘Public librarians, perhaps in the reaction to the stereotypical “shush” image, have sometimes gone out their way to be louder and more energetic and, in doing so, have alienated some of its clientele and core audience.’

Brian Ashley, director of libraries for the Arts Council, was enraged, saying, ‘It’s all about the age-old stereotype of libraries as a place where some forbidding person tells you to “shut up” or “shhhh”, and it’s frankly something that most of us who work in libraries would like to consign to history.’

That may be true of noise-loving librarians — not for most people who actually visit libraries. But then accessibility has never been about regular visitors to libraries or National Trust houses. It’s about desperately luring other people to places they don’t want to visit — by destroying those places, by removing the silence and beauty that first made them attractive.

For God’s sake, libraries are free! The National Trust’s countryside and coast are almost entirely free for non-members — on the whole, you only pay for car parking and house-entry fees. How much more accessible can you get?

But the desire to appeal to people who don’t want to visit becomes all-consuming. The millions who appreciate silence and beauty without signage have their pleasures spoilt, in order to appeal to people who don’t appreciate these things.

Or don’t appreciate them yet. We all gradually learn to be grown up and like serious things — that doesn’t happen if public culture is permanently simplified and over-explained for everyone, at all ages.

I was bored by libraries as a teenager. Shamefully, I was even bored by the Bodleian Library when I was at university, seeking any excuse to join pals for drinks in the King’s Arms. Now I spend half my life in the London Library — and love its carefully protected regime of silence and seriousness. I wouldn’t appreciate the London Library, and its rules, half so much if I hadn’t been forced to follow the Bodleian’s rules as a bored teenager.

Even at university, I didn’t want to be patronised: I expected serious places to be serious. I realised the Bodleian was the place to do serious, if sometimes dull, work. And the King’s Arms was the place to chat. Once the Bodleian — still, thankfully, a serious, quiet place — becomes the King’s Arms, it loses its point.

But now museum and gallery curators — as well as the BBC — are falling over themselves to extract the seriousness from once-hallowed institutions to make them more accessible.

Radio 3 is packed with lowbrow brainteasers, trailers, B-list celeb interviews and soul-destroying jolly handovers between presenters. Kensington Palace — once the finest set of late -17th century rooms in London — has become a multimedia show, the panelling echoing to the sound of desperate actors imitating 1690s courtiers.

At Dover Castle, English Heritage invites you to ‘meet members of King Henry II’s royal court. Come face to face with the King himself, Prince John and the court jester — Roland the Farter!’

Forgive me if I don’t laugh at Roland’s fart gags. I’m too busy weeping for the death of serious public culture.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Viking).

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Show comments
  • edithgrove

    Quite right.
    Until a couple of years ago I used to visit National Trust houses and gardens, works of art in themselves, only to finds them stuffed with third rate sculptures. The National Trust should understand it knows nothing of contemporary art and stay clear. It may know something about preservation and gardens, although sometimes you have to wonder.

  • CharleyFarleyFive

    The National Trust are a disgrace. I cancelled my subscription some years ago.

  • BenLee

    Best thing I’ve read so far today (it’s 10.00am) and I’m sure the £475 Harry Mount spends on annual membership of the London Library is a no-brainer. I probably spend more on coffee.
    But libraries are the polar opposite of the NT. They appeal most to those who use them most. It is those who rarely visit for whom it seems anathema that libraries support toddlers’ literacy and provide free access to self-led study which nowadays is mostly online.
    There is of course a public library which appeals to those who never visit – it’s whisper quiet, dimly lit, and filled with the still aroma of century-old books… And it doesn’t cost anyone a penny. So enjoy it Harry, no-one will disturb you there.

    • edithgrove

      I use libraries most days and am able to find well lit, whisper quiet and multitudes thirsting for knowledge, but in Paris not England. If I want politicisation, dumbing down and an anti-elitist attitude to knowledge I can find that too, at my local London library.

      • lucy

        I would swap any number of families having a great time at National Trust properties, enjoying the countryside , gardens and indeed the beautiful houses for you Spectator reading elitists. It is people like you that would preserve everything in a frozen moment for just your own enjoyment and the moment would be glorious and the future would be short as the houses fell into disrepair and the charity….and please dont forget that NT is A CHARITY…..fell into financial ruin like the houses and countryside it protects would and then ceased to be.
        Get some perspective…visit the places rather than talk about houses you have probably never even set foot in…there is a reason NT has gone from 2 million members to 4 Million in the last decade or so…they are bloody good at what they do !!!!!

        • edithgrove

          and how does all that apply to a comparison of public libraries in Paris and London, other than in the dumbness of your response?

  • Teacher

    Forgive the extended quotation which follows but it is from Simon Jenkins who is standing down after six years as chairman of the National Trust and was printed in today’s ‘Guardian’. It illustrates the mindset which has introduced all the dire ills which have beset the national Trust in the past few years and which the above piece by Harry Mount.outlines so clearly. Jenkins says of his dismay at his perceived public indifference to great houses:-

    “The result was a campaign to bring Trust houses to life. They have been made more welcoming. Ropes are being removed, fires lit, people allowed to sit and read, play pianos and billiards. They are encouraged to use houses as if they were guests, rather than as visitors to a hallowed museum. While this cannot apply to such showcases as Kedleston or Kingston Lacy, it can apply to most places.

    From this it was a short step to a more radical approach. What if the house stopped “talking” to the visitor at all? What if the house was an empty shell, just walls with a past and a view? Fill it with eBay furniture and a few prints. Leave visitors to their own imaginings. Let them stay all day, make themselves tea – and wash up. Let them build from there an awareness of aesthetic delight.

    This has been piloted in semi-derelict properties such as Allan Bank and Wray Castle in Cumbria, and Vaughan Williams’s Leith Hills Place in Surrey. The result is extraordinary. These are among the Trust’s most popular properties. People enjoy being allowed to own space, rather than be told what and how to appreciate it.”

    One can see here that the emphasis on the Trust’s duty to protect the houses by educating the public about them has been transferred to the desire to pander to an ignorant population’s taste for novelty based on limited experience. Instead of drawing the visitor out of himself to challenge and educate him, the Trust is debasing its property to suggest that the past was just like today – when it so plainly was not. What ‘Downton Abbey’ has done for history, transposed modern values onto past events, the National Trust is doing to its historic buildings.

    I have visited ten separate National Trust great houses and a couple of smaller and more rural properties this year and have heard of the rot which has set in from ‘the horse’s mouth’ as it were, from the room guides and general NT staff. In the big houses the talk is of ‘throughput’ and revenue raising. The guides (often quite elderly people donating their time for free) bemoan the traffic of visitors and the ravages of wear caused by extended numbers and opening times. They, poor things, are being asked to put in more and more hours for free – and being told they must now supply their own tea and cake. However, they complain about the damage to the buildings which they love not the indignities caused to themselves.

    Another problem is that the Trust now encourages in a wider and less respectful audience, one which wished to be entertained rather than to learn about the past and admire art, architecture and nature. As well as stories from the guides about poor visitor behaviour, i have myself witnessed children running amongst priceless artefacts, dogs in woods, yummy mummies encouraging their offspring to jump on ancient mulberries in contravention of ‘keep off’ signs, ball games in ornamental gardens and parterres and general ignorance and disrespect.

    A conversation I had two weeks ago with a National Trust business tenant illustrates what is wrong with the Trust at the moment. He said that the Trust was neglectful of its tenants and smaller buildings. ‘The rot set in,’ he said, ‘a while ago when they stopped saying “We’re a charity,” and started saying, “We’re a business, and need to make more money.” He said that while the Trust was responsible for exterior upkeep of this particular small domestic building it refused to have the windows repainted despite their beginning to rot. In the end the tenant paid for the painting to be done out of his own pocket to protect the lovely old house.

    Surely it is time that the National Trust reminded itself that it was originally designated ‘The National Trust for the Preservation of Historic Buildings and
    Natural Beauty’ and that ‘Preservation’ is inconsistent with treating ancient
    and beautiful national treasures as Disneyfied tramping grounds for trippers seeking fairground diversion? Yes, it needs to focus on revenue to preserve the buildings and open spaces, especially in this era of poor returns on capital, but not at the expense of the very buildings it was set up to conserve.

    Excuse the length of this comment but I have been a member of the National Trust since 1975 and a constant visitor to properties and I feel I have the perspective from which to comment. It is some years since I first felt alarm at the Trust’s behaviour and I am most heartened to see my own concerns expressed so aptly in print as in this article.

    • post_x_it

      I recently visited Dunster Castle in Devon where there is a lovely salon grand piano in the main hall which visitors are now encouraged to play. Throughout the 30 minutes it took me to explore the ground floor, the piano was being bashed and hacked at by two over-excited children who had clearly never been near a keyboard before. Regardless of whether this is “allowed” by the house rules, I thought it extraordinary that the parents did not consider the nuisance caused to other visitors by the insufferable noise, let alone the potential damage to the instrument.
      The old ropes, barriers and restrictions were not pretty, but they were there for a reason.

      • lailahaillallah

        Your point would be better made if you knew that Dunster is in Somerset.

        • post_x_it

          So it is. Within shouting distance of Devon, but you are correct.

    • Frank

      Excellent comment. I also feel that the National Trust has too many properties (which cause it to be over-stretched and possibly to have forgotten its core aim – to preserve outstanding buildings/scenery) because in the past it hovered up properties with very little regard as to whether they were absolutely first class. The only recent decision with which I have fully agreed was their decision to reject Roy Strong’s garden. They should embark on a forensic examination and evaluation of all their properties and get permission to sell off the less good ones (is this any more terrible than renting out properties on long leases – at least selling them returns the buildings to use as proper family homes).

  • trace9

    I had a dream of Youth & Hope
    Which put me in a Rage
    I found an anti-dote in Mount
    With sneers on every Page.

    Still, he’s usually right in this Agued Age – don’t trip over a lake, Mount!

    • post_x_it

      Very good.

  • Ngaire Lowndes

    It’s true that the National Trust has had to make radical changes to its ethos. Thanks to the grim fact that each property must be self-supporting to a very large extent, and these properties are all in constant need of expensive repairs/restoration (just look at the Maori meeting house at Clandon Park, in Surrey), each property manager must make every possible effort to make the property accessible, friendly, welcoming, and a joy to visit. All tastes, ages and ability ranges need to be catered for as much as possible. I’m a volunteer room steward at Clandon Park, and although we hope we’ve struck a good balance between preserving the atmosphere of that lovely mid-sized Palladian house and allowing the public to run riot, we can never relax and be complacent. We HAVE to keep up our visitor figures, our income, our shop sales. Without them the property would simply crumble within a decade.

    Money is the one thing we cannot do without. The idea that being jolly, friendly, accessible-to-all, and keeping all information at the lowest common denominator will bring in the most income is not always welcome or correct, but that’s what we have to work with.

    • edithgrove

      Can’t you bring in BP? It worked for the Tate.

    • mikewaller

      Please, you’ll upset the grouchy prat with your uncalled for interjection of truth.

    • No Man’s Land

      An excellent comment. I too don’t like the dumbing down, but the stark truth cannot be argued with.

  • lailahaillallah

    We left the Trust because it has become so anti-dog. It is quite happy to have horses and cattle dropping masses of faeces all over its land, but because the occasional dog-owner is irresponsible and might leave 100g of DS, it bans dogs from lots of its places.

    DOI- I, like everyone else, dislike treading in DS, but find bovine and equine just as nasty.

  • you_kid

    “I was bored by libraries as a teenager. Shamefully, I was even bored by the Bodleian Library when I was at university, seeking any excuse to join pals for drinks in the King’s Arms.”

    A case well made for progressive diversity and reasoned thought. How did you get a job, bro? Welcome to Boys Club Britain.

  • Seat of Mars

    The National Trust is indeed dumbing down, like all in the heritage sector, it has to be “inclusive” which means appealing to the lowest common denominator. It also won’t have escaped them that 99% of their visitors come from the English middle classes and if they are to survive the next 40 years they need to appeal to the newcomers who will eventually become the majority in this country. The National Trust’s Sutton House in Hackney, on the frontline of our enrichment, already has this eventuality covered. A timeline there compares events in the life of the house to, I kid you not, slavery, Mary Seacole, and Diane Abbott becoming MP.

    • post_x_it

      It’s also doing a roaring trade in gay wedding ceremonies.

    • post_x_it

      This “timeline” sounds like something Rod Liddle might have come up with when very pissed.

    • Simon_in_London

      “if they are to survive the next 40 years they need to appeal to the
      newcomers who will eventually become the majority in this country”

      Gay Metropolitan chaterati are going to become the majority?(!)
      I think the reality is that the NT bureaucrats, like BBC Radio 3 bureaucrats, create what they want to see, including spurious outreach efforts. Mary Seacole and Diane Abbott are totems – they don’t seriously expect to attract many London-Afro-Caribbean visitors.

      • post_x_it

        I imagine that the display is intended as an indoctrination tool for visiting schools.

  • souptonuts

    NT tells me that I may not exercise my dogs on the beach in my own country?

  • Stephen Dobson

    I would like to point out to the author that the supposed dumbing down at Dover Castle simply shows his own ignorance. Roland the Farter (known in contemporary records as Roland le Fartere, Roulandus le Fartere or Roland le Petour) was a medieval flatulist who lived in 12th century England. He held Hemingstone manor inSuffolk and 30 acres (120,000 m2) of land in return for his services as a jester for King Henry II. Each year he was obliged to perform “Unum saltum et siffletum et unum bumbulum” (one jump, one whistle, and onefart) for the King’s court at Christmas (wikipedia).

    He also features in Horrible Histories – which I assume also represents a distasteful act of dumbing down!?

    • grammarschoolman

      As a whole, ‘Horrible Histories’ is a distasteful act of dumbing down. That, surely, is its point. What is yours?

  • Arthur Thistlewood

    Of course, the argument is well put and true but, despite going to concerts frequently and being a long-term inhabitant of Cardiff, I have never heard of any Saturday concerts in the library. What are the sources for your information on this? Is the whole article on shaky foundations? How do we KNOW?

  • Nikki Brown

    It is the same for the Church of England. It has changed so much during my lifetime I now longer feel comfortable at a service .
    It started with the terrible ASB book and the awful peace. Then the pews went. Now when I go communion it may be served here, there and everywhere. Sometimes it is at the alter! Sometimes some people go to the alter and others are shown to the side chapels. On one occasion the host was dispensed but not the wine. My young daughters find it alienating.
    This has all been done to make the church appeal, not to the regular parishioners but to others who do not want to be there. Regular attenders are not considered worthy of consideration.
    I miss the days when a church service had periods of quietness. Where we all knew what to say and where to go. We had well loved hymns and the organ played. I don’t want inter active whiteboards and electric guitars.
    Does it not say somewhere,’ be still, and know that I am God’ !