As the National Trust celebrates its 125th anniversary year, Laura Reid explores its history and development in Yorkshire and why it’s still as relevant today as it was in 1895.
The Grade I-Listed Treasurer’s House, tucked behind York Minster, was the first historic home to be given to the National Trust, complete with its large collection of fine antiques, art and furniture.
And it is here, in 1930, that the conservation charity began its presence in Yorkshire, 35 years after it was first founded. Its mission then was to care for and preserve historic sites, nature and countryside for future generations and to open up green spaces for everyone to enjoy.
And as it celebrates its 125th anniversary year, reaching the milestone this coming Sunday, Tony Earnshaw, Yorkshire’s Assistant Director of Operations for the trust, says it is as relevant as ever.
“Its founding principles are as relevant today as what they were then,” he says. “It was set up on the principles of providing and protecting green space for public benefit. That’s never been more relevant and more important than it is now. We’re increasingly conscious of the importance of accessing open space for fresh air and exercise in terms of health and wellbeing.”
When it comes to the trust’s reach, the numbers speak for themselves. Today, it cares for more than 780 miles of coastline, 250,000 hectares of land and over 500 historic houses, parks, gardens and ancient monuments including lighthouses, pubs, castles and even a gold mine.
In Yorkshire, its some 27 properties take in the UNESCO World Heritage site of Studley Royal Park and Fountains Abbey, swathes of the Dales and some of the trust’s most visited attractions such as Beningbrough Hall baroque country house and gallery in North Yorkshire and Nostell, a historic house with 300 acres of parkland on the edge of Wakefield.
“I think the places we’re responsible for provide us with an opportunity for people to come together to connect, to take time out and be inspired and I think that’s something we do really well in Yorkshire, as Yorkshire folk,” Earnshaw says.
He claims the region’s National Trust sites have a variety “unrivalled anywhere else in the country”, with coastland, moorland and woodland, as well as properties in more urbanised areas.
“It’s so important that people have access to something that’s as close as possible to where they live so it’s really important that we have places in urban areas as well as those out in the wilderness as it were. Not everyone wants to enjoy our properties in the same way so the more we have and preserve and manage, the wider range of days out people can enjoy.”
Across its “measurable” sites, the trust receives around one million visitors every year in Yorkshire, a figure believed to rise to up to four million when “immeasurable” destinations including moorland and coastline are taken into consideration. “That’s a major contribution to tourism in Yorkshire but also to the economy,” says Earnshaw, who oversees the trust’s work in the region.
“We employ 250 local people, we provide tea rooms and restaurants, shops and holiday accommodation and we put events on. All that generates wealth for the region, which is really important for the county as a whole.”
There’s a lot of local pride in the trust’s properties with the sites providing people with an opportunity to connect with nature and engage with their past. But caring for them all comes at a cost and in 2018-19, the trust spent £148 million looking after its sites up and down the country and a further £225 million running them day-to-day.
To do so, it relies on income from the fees of its more than 5.6 million members nationwide, as well as donations and legacies, and revenue from its commercial operations - and its work is carried out by a network of more than 65,000 volunteers and 9,000 year-round staff. In Yorkshire, those figures stand at an average of 2,000 and 250 respectively, whilst membership numbers in the region are just over 300,000, a rise of 15 per cent on this time last year, according to Earnshaw.
“That’s a lot of people in Yorkshire who have decided that they want to be involved in and support what we do in any way, shape or form...It’s important we’re a national organisation but it’s nothing without the sum of its parts and that is the people that work for us, visit us and support us.”
As Europe’s largest conservation charity, the trust has stopped many a historic site or open space being lost to development or decay over the past century. “If you go back to one of the earliest sites the National Trust acquired, East Riddlesden Hall near Keighley, in 1934, this hidden gem was saved from demolition,” Earnshaw offers as an example.
He gives another with the trust’s most recent acquisition - Barnsley’s Wentworth Castle Gardens in 2018. South Yorkshire’s only Grade I-Listed landscape, it had been closed for two years before it re-opened in 2019 in a partnership between the trust, Barnsley Council and Northern College.
“We thought it was a really important resource for local people and sadly missed, so we saw an opportunity to get involved and bring the site back up to a standard that local people in Barnsley can be proud of,” Earnshaw says. “I don’t know what the fate of it would have been,” he adds. “It had been vacant for two years and was gradually deteriorating.”
As the charity celebrates its 125th anniversary, it has unveiled plans to step up the battle against climate change with a series of new initiatives including planting 20 million trees in the next ten years.
In Yorkshire, Earnshaw says two environmental and sustainability schemes will be among the trust’s focus for 2020. In Malham and Upper Wharfedale in the Dales, it is working with farmers to reward them for making land more ‘nature-friendly’ by farming in a way that benefits wildlife and supports their habitats.
Meanwhile, working with partners in Calderdale, the trust is installing natural flood management interventions in the Hardcastle Crags estate to help protect homes and nurture wildlife in Todmorden, Hebden Bridge and the surrounding areas.
“It’s about adopting natural approaches to reducing the flow of water so that the potential impact downstream on communities is significantly lowered through things like natural dams and the way we manage woodlands,” Earnshaw explains. “Woodland planting is also important in terms of carbon capture.”
He says the state of the natural environment is one of the biggest changes since the National Trust launched back in the 19th century.
“I think the state of nature has declined considerably over that time. Development pressures have increased and we have more people, a much larger population, with much greater demand for leisure time. But the green spaces we are responsible for and looking after nature is as relevant now as it was then.”