Tom Richmond: Time to bring the countryside, and spirit of National Trust, to our towns and cities

How can National Trust properties like Fountains Abbey become more accessible?
How can National Trust properties like Fountains Abbey become more accessible?
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FORMED in 1895 when it was tasked with preserving five acres of cliff top overlooking Barmouth, the National Trust has – through the decades – developed a rather stuffy image as the guardian of stately homes and antiquities.

This does the Trust a disservice. Sites and buildings of historical importance, from Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire to Winston Churchill’s rural retreat at Chartwell in Kent, have been the beneficiaries of its stewardship.

As well as 300 historic houses, it is also responsible for almost 800 miles of coastline – including a stunning stretch at Ravenscar where the breathtaking beauty of Robin Hood’s Bay has to be seen to be believed and appreciated.

Why does this matter? Hilary McGrady, the charity’s newly-appointed director-general, has challenged the National Trust to be more radical – and reach out to people living in towns and cities. “The people that need beauty the most are the ones that have least access to it,” she said before describing her childhood during Northern Ireland’s Troubles when she could not escape to the countryside because the most cherished land was privately-owned.

Ms McGrady is right. The key word is ‘national’. If the charity’s estate remains the preserve of the well-to-do, rural residents or only those who have access to a car, it’s not truly fulfilling its remit. It remains to be seen how she intends to fulfil her mission without alienating the Trust’s core supporters who might not be totally tolerant of subsidised school trips.

But why not take the Trust’s expertise direct to the inner cities? With some parks, and open spaces, overgrown wildernesses because of council cuts, and a general lack of TLC as they become dumping grounds for those too lazy to dispose of their rubbish responsibly, how about the charity setting up task forces to oversee their repair and restoration?

For, if they could demonstrate the pleasure that can be derived from carefully cultivated parks and woodland areas, the great outdoors might – in time – become more accessible and appealing to those who can’t, for whatever reason, venture further afield.