The National Trust, formed long before concern for the environment became fashionable, is one of Britain’s conservationist organisations. Founded in 1895, when people began to be aware of the spreading tide of ugliness and squalor, it today owns more than 400,000 acres, with covenants over 71,000 more, and hundreds of properties ranging from prehistoric and Roman remains to relics of the industrial revolution.
Many people think of the Trust as a government body, a misconception reinforced by woolly statements in the press of gifts to “the nation”. This is not the case, for although from time to time the Trust receives some government assistance in the form of tax benefits, grants for repairs and gifts of land and buildings, it is in no way controlled by the state. Its powers and rights are laid down by Parliament, and only Parliament can rescind any of them. In 1907 Parliament declared the Trust lands inalienable, meaning that they cannot be sold, mortgaged or compulsorily acquired without the consent of Parliament.
The National Trust fulfils what is essentially a modern need. The idea of keeping land unproductive would have seemed strange, if not crazy, to earlier generations. The idea of not draining wet lands or not ploughing up downlands, in order to preserve flora and fauna, would have made no sense at all. Improvement to obtain maximum production would have been taken for granted. Not until the end of the eighteenth century did wild scenery begin to appeal; and then only to people like Wordsworth, whose private means gave them time to stand and stare. But today, when millions of people live in overcrowded cities, divorced from the land, a romantic view of the countryside prevails. The desire to preserve and lovingly restore ancient buildings is comparatively recent; they were once knocked down quite merrily and bigger ones erected in their place. Even the Victorians, with their romantic love of the Medieval and the Renaissance, demolished ancient buildings and put up bigger imitations with all modern conveniences. The Industrial Revolution made hideous large areas of once beautiful countryside. But the mills and factories, with their rows of cheap, mean houses and tenements, still left the greater part of Britain untouched. Conditions for the agricultural workers were often grim; roses round the door could hide a squalid slum, and people escaping to the towns might refer to the country as a “green prison”. The railways spread like webs from town to town and development followed them, clustering around the new stations.
It was the car which caused the dam to burst. People could now leave the railways and the inner cities and spread out. Suburbia was born. The new suburbs were much more spacious than the old cramped urban areas which they replaced. Wider streets with trees and gardens were much more pleasant and healthy than the grim “bye-law” houses and the even grimmer “back to backs” of the industrial areas, but they did eat up the country at an alarming rate. As people could now joyride more easily into the country, the charabanc was a familiar weekend sight and well-known beauty spots came under pressure. Many of the properties acquired by the National Trust at this time were of such a nature.
The 1960s saw the launching of the highly successful Enterprise Neptune, a special fund to purchase as much of the coast as possible and save it from ruination. Until the decision during the eighteenth century that drinking or bathing in sea water was good for you. the sea was shunned as dangerous and hostile. Only those who gained a living from it. or who needed to travel abroad, went there. People lived as far away from it as possible. (Old Hastings runs up a valley protected by hills on either side; Portsmouth is sheltered by the Isle of Wight and Southampton lies at the head of an inlet miles from the sea.) The seaside resorts began in the eighteenth century, but only in a small way as the railways brought in the day tripper to the sea and popularised the seaside holiday. New resorts grew up and old ones expanded, but they were still compact. So the coastline of Britain entered the twentieth century still largely unspoilt. Again, the car was to change all that. Between the first and second World War, hundreds of miles of coast were taken for development, much of it cheap and nasty. Beautiful scenery is often agriculturally poor and this, combined with a major slump in farming, meant that land could be obtained cheaply. Isolated areas were controlled by parish or rural district councils with few powers, and even less inclination, to control development. So cheap bungalows and shacks, old railway carriages and buses were strung along the coast. Costlier developments were also largely unsuitable — suburbia stuck on top of cliffs or on downland. stark and treeless. Post war planning powers slowed down this process but did not eliminate it.
In a sane society people will travel or stay put as they wish. But today, when people have to take their leisure to fit in with the requirements of their employers, they are forced to crowd together. This brings pressure to bear on areas, with car parks and refreshment facilities and over-treading. By far the most popular and the most visited of the National Trust properties are the stately homes — huge houses and castles of a bygone era. At any time certain sections of the capitalist class command the lion’s share of the wealth produced. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British ruling classmade vast profits from the slave trade, the plunder of India, and the lead that the Industrial Revolution gave them, enabling the building and maintenance of palaces full of art treasures and paintings. They stood in huge estates with extensive gardens helped along, of course, by cheap labour. Today it is the Arabs, sitting on vast quantities of oil.
Times have changed; the British capitalist no longer dominates the world. Not that there is any need to start a fund for Distressed British Capitalists who may now have to scrape along in houses or a mere 20 or 30 rooms, standing in a hundred acres or so. with a luxury flat in town and a couple of villas on the Med. Their former houses, however, are ready-made museums and art galleries, and often themselves works of art. Some, like Woburn and Longleat, have been turned by their owners into circuses, but the Trust has restored theirs with great care and maintains them in excellent condition.
An ironical twist is the way in which the ugliness of yesterday can, with the passage of time, become the quaint and charming of today. The dark satanic mills arc now industrial museums. The canals dug by gangs of brawling navvies and the scene of serious, often fatal, accidents when speed took precedence over safety — are now green oases where only the chugging of the odd pleasure boat or barge breaks the silence. The railway with its noise and filthy black smoke is now a hobby for the enthusiast. Windmills and watermills, warehouses and old mineworkings, lime kilns and beam engines are all included in the Trust list of properties.
An unexpected enemy of the countryside is modern agriculture. The landscape that we know, the country of Constable, was the creation of the enclosures and the Agricultural Revolution. The last thirty years have seen drastic changes. Hedges have been grubbed up and small woods bulldozed to make miniature prairies. This is to make it possible to operate the huge farm machinery. Green lanes have been churned up and ugly farm buildings allowed to scar the country. Orchards of big trees, once a feature of Kent in spring, have given way to bush trees — easier and more economical, but much less picturesque. The trust has vast areas of farmland where it tries to balance farming needs of profit with preservation.
Like all such organisations, the National Trust has its controversies, and one such erupted last autumn. On 6 November an Extraordinary General Meeting was demanded by a section of the members on the subject of the Bradenham Estate. This is an 1100-acre estate in the Chilterns. near High Wycombe which at one point adjoins Ministry of Defence land. The ministry want 12 acres for an underground communications centre for the RAF, and the Trust agreed to lease this land under strict conditions. The crux of the matter was that a group of protesters, claiming that the council should have fought the matter to the bitter end, demanded the special meeting. In the event, the vote of No Confidence was heavily defeated. Whatever action had been taken, the government would have had its way. Although the land is inalienable, Parliament can override this and, with its present majority, the government can bulldoze anything it likes through Parliament. This, of course, illustrates the dilemma faced by all people who strive to mitigate the effects of class society. If capitalism really wants something then wild life, natural beauty, peace and quiet, or anything else, will take second place.