In his latest bestseller, The Road to Little Dribbling, American-turned-British travel writer Bill Bryson has a lot to say about The National Trust, much of it grumpy. While he loves the idea of a British charity charged with preserving places of historic interest or natural beauty, he whinges about the number of tearooms, gift shoppes, plant shoppes, paid carparks, and other ways of taking visitors’ money.
Harrumphing makes entertaining reading and sells books, and to be honest I have always had a small core of anti-NT bitterness in my heart after the organisation pulled/burnt down the house where I spent my childhood holidays. OK, so some people thought it was a ugly green fire hazard in the middle of some of the most beautiful scenery in Wales. But I loved it passionately.
Still, at 53, and after spending 10 days in the UK and visiting two fabulous National Trust properties, I reckon I am finally ready to forgive the organisation. I also reckon Bill Bryson is just being a tight bastard. You have to admit it - the National Trust is quite wonderful. And far from a rip-off.
For a start, once you’ve paid your £64 (NZ$115) annual membership fee, you get to visit more than 500 “properties” (300 houses, 250,000 acres of countryside and 775 miles of coastline) for free, and as many times as you like within the year. Pay another £7 and you can also take up to 10 children or grandchildren under 18, if you happen to find that many in your car. That would seem to me to be pretty good value for money.
New Zealanders get it even cheaper, because Heritage NZ (annual membership $64, or £35) has a reciprocal arrangement with the National Trust. Maybe Bill Bryson should look at this loophole for his 2018 subscription. There might even be a better deal with the Conservation Co-operation Corporation of Kazakhstan that he could check out.
And Bill, no one’s forcing you to have to have a cup of tea, buy a rose bush, or (mostly) even pay for parking. I spent a grand total of $0 during my two days out.
The National Trust’s slogan is “for ever, for everyone” and as we wandered around Hinton Ampner (Hampshire), and later Sissinghurst (Kent) there seemed to be far more visitors than I remembered, and a big range of ages. I was expecting retired baby boomers and tourists, but there were heaps of local families too. One young mum sitting on a bench in the garden sharing morning tea with twin babies and a toddler, said she came at least once a week - a chance to get out of the house.
The statistics confirm the National Trust is growing apace. Membership hit two million in 1990, the year we moved to New Zealand, and was three million by 2003. It reached four million in 2011 and is now approaching five. That means almost one in 12 people in Britain are members. The properties have more than 20 million visitors a year, and 62,000 volunteers, my mother among them.
Actually sorry, cancel all that about phenomenal growth. Earlier this month, Britain’s conservative newspaper The Telegraph reported a “membership crisis” at the National Trust. Shock horror! What could have brought about this sorry state of affairs? It seems that as part of its Pride and Prejudice celebrations around the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the NT made a film “outing” a long-dead squire who left his home to the organisation. A “membership boycott” ensued, according to The Telegraph. Apparently 240 members (surely not 240!) cancelled their subscription and 10 volunteers refused to wear their gay pride badges.
I suspect they were all Telegraph readers.