Taking weeding to the extreme!

Having a head for heights is a pre-requisite for the four strong team of gardeners at St Michael’s Mount, located just off the south Cornwall coast.

As part of the work to conserve the 12th Century castle, the granite stone walls need weeding three times each year to ensure the walls are constantly kept clear.

St Michael's Mount where gardeners go to 'extreme' lengths to keep the walls weed free. Credit Steven Haywood

St Michael’s Mount where gardeners go to ‘extreme’ lengths to keep the walls weed free. Credit Steven Haywood

The only way the gardeners can carry out their work is to abseil down the 50 metre high castle walls. Continue reading

Chairman Simon Jenkins’ farewell speech at the Trust’s AGM

WELCOME to Swindon. This has been a good six years in the history of the Trust. We are in excellent shape, the money sound and the membership rising.

You know the figures: membership through 4m, visits to properties through 20m and visits to our wider estate approaching 200m. Our operating surplus has risen by a third, enabling us to spend record sums on conservation, our prime responsibility.

Acquisitions have slowed, but we have taken on Vanbrugh’s mighty Seaton Delaval, Tredegar and Dyffryn in south Wales, Lord Nuffield’s eccentric lodge outside Henley, Arts and Crafts at Stoneywell and the delightful Asalache house (575 Wandsworth Road). We have acquired the last white cliff of Dover and the exquisite Llyn Dinas under Snowdon.

As chairman I can do nothing alone. I want to pay a tribute to my board who have been committed and loyal throughout what have been years of change. I want to pay particular thanks to my deputy Charles Gurassa, who must have broken all records for length of service. And to our new Director General Helen Ghosh who will address you shortly. I also want to thank the staff. We have the best staff in the charity sector.

But there is one matter I have sort of made my own. The effort to relieve our properties of that old complaint, the dead hand of the Trust. We have sought to bring our properties more to life. Make them more welcoming. Make our visitors feel they are entering someone’s house, not someone ancestral museum. I hope have you have noticed the difference.

We have been burning ropes and teasels, don’t touch signs and plastic notice sheets. I have tried to attack the mountain of plaster food. There are fires in the grates at Stourhead, Petworth and Ightham.

There is croquet at Chastleton, billiards at Wightwick, tennis at Hidcote. You can eat windfalls at Woolsthorpe and drink sherry at Croft – or at least I could. We are more tolerant of dogs and photographers.

I was very moved to watch children writing poetry in Coleridge’s study. I watched them research their Great War ancestors at Dunham. I attended a scholarly seminar on the art history and design of Ham House. We have not neglected our academic tradition.

We plunged into controversy. Should we have restored Avebury so radically? Should we have displayed Elton John’s favourite furniture at The Vyne? 90 per cent of visitors said yes, 10 per cent resigned. Should we have opened the Big Brother House? We didn’t own it but partnered a seminar on taste in modern design.

Not everything worked. I failed to secure for the Trust a big house in central London. I failed to brew medieval beer at Lacock. I could not get schoolchildren at Southwell workhouse fed on original gruel. I failed to mess up Kipling’s study at Bateman’s. There are still too many ropes.

All this is because I believe our properties matter more than anything. Never stop the flow of ideas, pushing the boundary of aesthetics and taste. If the Trust cannot join in these debates then it will die. I am proud at how many visitors comment on the new warmth of our welcome, and sense of engagement. I want to thank our property staff and volunteers for the work they have put into this.

That has been paralleled by internal changes to the Trust. We have delegated discretion to property managers. We have concentrated our expertise in a central consultancy. We have struggled to upgrade our catering and shops, an ongoing task. These are competitive markets. It was interesting to hear someone from Derbyshire say they didn’t go to see Chatsworth itself but to see what’s on at Chatsworth.

The external role of the Trust has been more turbulent. We have a mission, handed down since Octavia Hill, to guard beautiful places for the nation for ever. Over the past six years it has never seemed more under threat.

My view is that the British have got pretty good at looking after our built heritage. Historic buildings and towns are reasonably safe nowadays. Grand houses no longer come the Trust’s way. There was a proper framework in place.

That is not true of the countryside.

I have always regarded Britain’s town and country planning legislation as a work of British political genius. The most crowded big country in Europe after Holland has guarded its boundaries between urban and rural, leaving the rural remarkably pristine.

The Trust is non-political, but we are a major landowner and one with a clear mission. We have pleaded with government to save the forests, to fight ash die-back. We are restoring peat bogs. We are re-wilding our uplands. Note how few National Trust properties flooded last winter. We pursue a vigorous renewable energy policy.

But have had to fight case after case for inappropriate wind turbines near our land. We won most emphatically where they would overlook our site at Lyveden and our land along the Bristol Channel. We are still fighting turbines on the ridge next to Hardwick and elsewhere. This will keep on being a fight.

Then in 2010 came the big one. Ministers attempted to simplify planning regulation. We were ready and eager to support this. But we were not consulted and looked on in horror, as sensible reform became what I can only describe as a developers’ ramp.

There is no beating about this bush. The National Planning Policy Framework was a cynical attempt by the builders’ lobby to circumvent 50 years of town-and-country planning. Local plans had to be drawn up virtually overnight, and could be overruled by ministers.

If they were not in place, so-called sustainable development was permitted anyway. It was even made easier in the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty. It then turned out that sustainable merely meant profitable.

The Trust in alliance with others fought this. We won concessions, notably on green belt protection and brownfield first. But the implementation of the policy has showed appalling gaps. The countryside is still exposed to a slew of off-plan development bids, with those who object mostly losing on appeal.

This was not just a technical matter. It was a relaxation of control unprecedented in planning history. See the results of it in ostensibly unplanned sprawls round Buckingham or Ely. See warehouses and advertisement hoardings sprouting along the M1.

We have to deal with some 400 third-party applications affecting our properties every year.

My desk has been besieged by appeals for help: from Winchester to Durham, Sussex to Lancashire, from Somerset to Nottingham. Applications flooded in from landowners who couldn’t believe their luck.

I must stress that this has almost nothing to do with housing. The Trust is not against new houses. Demand for housing is primarily in cities. Figures show there to be ample space in existing settlements – over one million according to the CPRE monitor – for far more than any concept of housing need.

Nor are spaces in the so-called wrong places. A firm of London agents recently calculated enough vacant sites in London alone for 1.5m new houses, with no green belt encroachment. Using the phrase housing crisis to gobble up countryside is lobbyists’ talk.

England’s towns and villages, glories of the nation, have always grown organically, and can continue to do so. The issue is how to plan this growth and by whom? Is an isolated village really the best place for the 300-unit volume executive estate beloved of developers? Can we really not revive the adjacent town or city?

There is no doubt where we are going. If you want to see the sort of countryside now on offer, go to southern Portugal or Italy, to Sicily or the Costa Blanca, to Ireland even. These countries bitterly regret relaxing planning under political pressure in the cause of profit.

The countryside we are charged with defending tops every list of what people most value about Britain. It is up there with the royal family, the NHS and Shakespeare. It is threatened. Our job is to defend it.

Octavia Hill founded the Trust not for aristocrats or property developers. She founded it to help city people find somewhere green and open in which to refresh their lungs. The Trust, I believe, would not have been doing its duty, to its founders or the public, had we ignored this responsibility.

Friends, I am proud to leave the Trust with the financial strength, the committed staff and the robustness of purpose to keep on fighting these battles. Please keep doing so. Thank you very much.


The National Trust’s position on party politics

The National Trust is a non-political, independent charity which exists to look after some of the country’s most treasured countryside for the benefit of the nation. It does not take a party political position on planning or any other issue.

Click here to read our latest views on the current planning system.

Trust statement on reciprocal agreements

“We are aware of a very small number of cases which involve people in the UK joining an overseas conservation organisation, with which we have reciprocal visiting rights, in order to access Trust sites at a lower cost.  As a conservation charity, we rely heavily on the money we receive from our memberships and visitors to look after the beautiful properties, gardens, coastline and countryside in our care for the nation to enjoy. 

“It’s therefore deeply disappointing that some people choose to take advantage of this arrangement and effectively opt to pay no donation directly to the charity which looks after the places they enjoy visiting. The more people that do this, the less money we will have to look after these special places. 

“Reciprocal visiting arrangements were set up to ensure people who supported conservation and heritage charities in their own countries could enjoy similar places abroad for free. They provide a way we can increase the value our members get from joining the National Trust, and many enjoy using their cards in countries like New Zealand, Canada and Scotland. Currently, the benefits we gain and the supporters we attract through our reciprocal visiting arrangements far outweigh any lost revenue from the very small number of people who do decide to join overseas. 

“We believe our membership offers great value for money – a family membership costs less than £8.20 a month and provides unlimited access to hundreds of locations across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  Our members also enjoy a number of benefits that are not available to those joining from other countries, including free parking at nearly all our places, our Members’ Handbook and our magazine.  Also, over the coming 12 months they will experience further benefits with the introduction of a new supporter loyalty programme.”


National Trust response to English Heritage New Model announcement

The Government today confirmed plans, announced last year, to restructure English Heritage.

This will see the division of English Heritage into a charity looking after heritage sites and a statutory body called Historic England.

Ingrid Samuel, National Trust Historic Environment Director says:

“This is a very important moment for the future of heritage in this country. This innovative step to divide English Heritage changes the landscape, and it offers a real opportunity to support stronger heritage protection through a new Historic England.

“As a charity dedicated to looking after the nation’s natural and built heritage we need both English Heritage and Historic England to remain strong partners with the sector, having access to the resources and support they require.

“Appropriate levels of funding are crucially important to achieving this, and we welcome the Government’s commitment to financial certainty into the next financial year.

“However, careful monitoring will be necessary in future to ensure both English Heritage and Historic England have the resources they require over the long-term.

“We are pleased that the Government intends to review progress and funding for both bodies, but they must be prepared to act if required. We hope these reviews will seek the opinions of the Trust and others on how well the changes are working.

“One immediate concern is whether English Heritage will be able to build up sufficient reserves early enough to cushion them in moments of need. We have always said it is vital that Historic England is insulated from the business risks of the new charity to ensure it can remain a strong champion and effective regulator for the historic environment. This, along with a broad remit, is particularly important as local authority heritage provision continues to come under increasing pressure.

“With future spending reviews it is vital that all political parties show commitment to supporting England’s heritage.

“We look forward to working in partnership with the two new bodies to safeguard heritage.”


Beef and beer come out top at the Fine Farm Produce Awards

Two producers have risen to the top to be crowned overall food and overall drinks winner at this year’s Fine Farm Produce Awards.

Neil and Sally Grigg from Burrow Farm in Devon - overall food winner at the Fine Farm Produce Awards 2014

Neil and Sally Grigg from Burrow Farm in Devon – overall food winner at the Fine Farm Produce Awards 2014

Continue reading

New garden created by an army of volunteers opens to commemorate First World War

A new half an acre garden of reflection created by 60 volunteers over the past eight months, opens today at Sandham Memorial Chapel in Hampshire, marking the centenary of Great Britain’s intervention in the First World War. Continue reading