If you've ever been in England, Wales or Northern Ireland and enjoyed a quiet walk along the coastline, looked out over a beautiful farmed landscape or visited a stately home or castle, you, like many millions of others, will almost certainly have benefited from the unique organisation that is the National Trust. This entry looks at the popular image of the Trust, compares it with the quite different reality, and considers the merits of becoming a member of Britain's largest charity.
At the Sharp End
The elderly lady with the tweedy skirt advances menacingly towards you, smiling purposefully. The mantra is uttered: 'Have you ever considered joining the National Trust?'. You grin ruefully, searching for an effective riposte and looking like a vaguely guilty middle-class loser. The blue-rinsed interrogatrix stands her ground and, hemmed in, you are soon attempting to keep the kids from smashing priceless stuff. It seems a tempting prospect to be able to just wave the little green membership card and waltz in, like those well-heeled types in the Range Rover who came in with you, and whose immaculate children are marching in step behind them. Don't worry - there's a happy ending. You'll find an answer and your escape route further down this entry. What's more, you'll discover some sure-fire lines to flummox these harridans. Meanwhile, consider how this bizarre and essentially English1 situation was brought about.
Standing in the hallway of a stately home, millions of hapless visitors are asked the same question every year. At least three million have succumbed and joined, making it Britain's largest charity2 – so large that many assume it to be a part of the government. A key question is 'it worth the money?'
Worth the Money?
A large proportion of National Trust members join up because members get free access to historic properties, mostly houses and castles, which others have to pay to enter. This doesn't include the benefit of the magnificent and even more extensive countryside and coastline properties, which are largely free to enter anyway, although sometimes non-members pay to park. The properties are generally worth the money charged and, as a high-brow tourist attraction, they are often among the best.
In parts of England and Wales there is, in fact, little else to do short of visiting the local McDonalds or multiplex. Without going into the details, if you visit more than about five or six historical sites in a year, you will save money. That's not a difficult target to achieve in most of the UK. You also get free or reduced price access to no end of other properties outside England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as almost everywhere in the Commonwealth has some sort of local National Trust and members get access to sites worldwide including Scotland, New Zealand, Australia and the Channel Islands. What's more, if you have a family or intend to visit as a party, the savings are even more. If you're going on any sort of big holiday and you've got an interest in historic buildings, you should consider this a wise investment.
Is it a Good Cause?
The second issue to consider is that the stately homes and gardens which headline so much of what people imagine the National Trust to be about are only a small part of the work of the charity. Long before it started managing places, the Trust's aim as a charity was to secure free access to open spaces for the multitudes. Huge areas of the national countryside are in the care of the National Trust, including much of the Lake District and the Peak District, and seemingly almost every inch of undeveloped coastline in England. The huge majority of this is entirely free to enter and use. Sometimes you have to pay to park, but often you can just walk there. What's more, it's not just about taking pretty photographs. The National Trust has the largest private force of countryside wardens in the UK, backed up by ecologists and other scientists. They do remarkable work in the field of countryside management and looking after our wildlife and endangered species. They don't tend to wear tweed, but depend on the old ladies who do!
There are a host of other things which the National Trust does which are equally worthy, yet rarely noticed or commented upon. This includes work in inner cities, education, agriculture, publications, photography, gardening and more. If you want to know more, visit the suite of websites they manage, which vary in quality, but are full of information.
Not Just Another Quango
The sheer size and power of the National Trust makes it seem a bit monolithic and archaic. It does tend to do whatever it likes, and changes its policy very slowly. However, it is supposed to look after its property indefinitely. Change is not necessarily a good thing when trying to keep things as they are. Those who recall the great National Trust hunting debate of the 1990s will nevertheless realise that the charity can change, and does. It just takes a very long time and happens in private, not as a public debate. For those used to seeing that amount of power only in the hands of politicians who respond to complaints almost too readily, the sight of such a huge proportion of our national heritage being steered steadily forwards without any democratic control or accountability can be a bit too much. There are many who knock the National Trust, and often they are right to do so. However, the inertia and old-fashioned attitudes which have been seen by many as an obstacle to success could have been the very things which inadvertently created such a successful charity.
So, what happens to the family besieged by the rimless spectacles of the National Trust recruitment lady? They pay the entry fee, of course, and slip through into the historic fun once more. A line which seems to work is 'We used to work for the National Trust.' That usually gets you a sympathetic look and you're past the guardian. Just occasionally the more jaded visitor might fall for the old 'have you got a guidebook?' routine3 anyone who's been around many of these places knows the best get-outs. Here they are; they work even better if they happen to be true.
I'm such a fan of the work of the National Trust that I want to pay in full every time. I know it would be cheaper but I admire the Trust so much that I just can’t bring myself to join.
I'm already a member but I've forgotten my card – I know that you can't let me in for free and don't want to make a fuss, so I'll just pay then leave you alone.
We're members of the English Heritage already and can't afford two memberships in one year.
We've recently been made bankrupt and so we're not allowed any more money than this every week.
Whatever you do, don't try the following line, which one punter once said in an attempt to get into a National Trust property without paying:
You've got to let me in; I'm an eminent gynaecologist!
Needless to say, he paid.