Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Saving it for the Nation...

Sometimes the idea for a blog just pops out of nowhere, and other days nothing comes at all. But to-day’s came through the post, in the form of my National Trust Magazine.

This venerable institution was founded in 1895, by three Victorian philanthropists: Miss Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley. Concerned about the rapid and continued industrialisation then taking place and advent of urban sprawl, their aim was to find a way to enable the protection of threatened coastline, countryside and buildings.

It’s become such an institution that it’s often forgotten that it is still a charitable organisation, which receives no support from the Government. Just as well, then, that it has over 3.5 million members and over 50,000 volunteers. It’s also so well known for preserving Stately Homes that it is also easy to forget that it owns vast tracts of countryside and coast, from whole hillsides to spots with good views, and manages them to maximise biodiversity and wildlife.

And, despite the sometimes stuffy image (and I agree, many of the houses seem to reflect a twin-set and pearls image) it is at the forefront of modern conservation methods and increasingly considering things like its environmental impact and carbon footprint, and promoting locally grown produce from its farms. It’s also beginning to become more outward looking, in seeking to influence debates on things like urban form and conservation more widely in society.

How many places there are to visit close to you depends a lot on where you live: southern England does very well, whereas South Wales is a bit of a desert in comparison.

We do pretty well here in West London: Carlyle’s House in Chelsea is the home of the Scottish writer who counted in his social circle the likes of Dickens, Tennyson and Browning, preserved as it was in 1895. Just down the A4 is Osterley Park and House, the elegant creation of Robert Adam in 1761. Known for its perfectly preserved and spectacular interiors, the house also has a 16th stable block and an extensive park and gardens laid out in the 18th century.

Further out still is Ham House and Garden in Richmond, a large house built in the 17th century by the Duchess of Lauderdale, which has spacious and lovely gardens. At the other extreme, nestling in Westminster is the tiny Blewcoat School. Built in the 18th century for the education of the poor at the expense of a local brewer, it was still in use as a school in 1926. It’s now the Trust’s London gift shop.

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