Return to the National Trust

Oh, National Trust properties, how I am missing thee!  This is the first year in a long time that I haven’t been able to see the daffodils at Chirk Castle and Biddulph Grange, lambing week at Tatton Park, the bluebells along the western shore of Windermere and at Erddig, and the laburnum arch at Bodnant Garden.  Will I be able to see the rose garden at Dunham Massey this year?  I’ve known it since before it was born: I remember it being planted.  And I’m not half missing the scones!  But yesterday, for the first time in over two months, I was able to go to a National Trust property!   Nostell Priory.  It’s the only actual NT property (as opposed to stand alone car park) in the entire North of England which has reopened so far, and you can only visit the parkland, not the gardens; but it’s a start.  And it was wonderful!   It’s difficult to express the feelings of joy and freedom at being able to walk through fields for the first time in over two months, of being able to see nothing *other* than fields, of walking and walking without having to dodge cyclists, zig-zagging skateboarders and dogs which aren’t on leads, of being under wide open skies.

Coronavirus has taken a lot of things, and, for the last couple of months, that’s included something very valuable, which people in the 1930s – the leader of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass came from just a couple of miles down the road from chez moi, as I often remind people! – fought hard for us, the ordinary people of this country’s towns and cities, to have, access to open space.  Now, we can take baby steps towards having that again.  As long as we’re careful, and sensible.  My visit yesterday had to be pre-booked, with only a limited number of spaces available.

This situation is an absolute nightmare for the NT.  It is for so many organisations: Sky News ran a report on Friday about the number of museums fearing that they might have to close.  As far as the NT goes, all those awful storms we had in February and March meant that visitor numbers for the calendar year were down before lockdown even started, and then they had to close all their properties and car parks, and cancel all the bookings for their holiday lets.  There’s been talk of a £200 million loss for this year.   Caring for historic properties and the valuable items inside them is not cheap: it’s not just a case of turning off the lights and locking the doors.  Then there are the gardens, and the work that goes into them.  Some environmental projects will have to be scrapped, and NT Scotland’s even talking about having to sell off land.  A lot of people, concerned about their own finances with many businesses unable to open until lockdown restrictions are eased, have felt unable to renew their memberships.

So, hopefully, this last couple of weeks, with the easing of some restrictions, and the reopening of some car parks and some parkland, will mark the start of the way back.  It certainly needs to, for all our sakes.  It really was so good to be back!

These are very difficult times.  The term “social distancing” didn’t exist until the middle of March.  Until then, the concept of having to stay 6 ft away from other people would have sounded like something from one of those weird dystopian novels of which I can never see the attraction.  No-one’s ever had to deal with anything like this before.  And it’s all being made far more difficult by the fact that so many people are more interested in scoring political points than in the public good and trying to find workable ways to move forward.

One of the biggest issues at the moment is that of access to open space for people from urban and suburban areas.  I could cheerfully slap the people going on about how everyone should “Stay local and enjoy the countryside around them”.  Are these people actually familiar with the term “conurbation”?  What countryside around us?!  Most of them are probably the same people tut-tutting over pictures of large numbers of people in city parks.  Yes, there are a lot of people in city parks.   Where else are we all supposed to go?  A lot of people in cities and towns don’t have gardens.  Kids have been off school for over two months and are bored stiff.

Almost all National Trust properties are still closed.  English Heritage have said that they won’t be reopening any of theirs until July.  Independently-owned estates where there’s usually access to parks and gardens are closed.  I gather that there’s uncertainty regarding whether or not it’s OK to reopen pay-for-entry attractions: I don’t understand why this applies to parks and gardens (although I know there’s concern about crowding in small gardens) but not parkland, when non-members have to pay to park to go in the parkland, and members don’t pay to go into gardens, but there clearly is an issue.  I know that the managers of Blenheim Palace have said that they’d love to reopen their park and gardens, but understand that they won’t be allowed to until July.  And I suspect that a lot of places are staying shut because taking the furlough payments is bringing in more money than reopening would, certainly whilst tearooms and shops have to stay shut.

So there aren’t a lot of places to go to.  There’ve been pictures of crowds in some places, and traffic jams building up.  Obviously that’s no good.  It’s risky for anyone to be in a crowd at the moment, and it’s risky for local communities.  Some rural areas, notably South Lakeland, have had very high rates of infection, and certainly don’t need that making any worse.  But just saying “Don’t visit,” and trying to deny people from urban and suburban areas any access to any open space is no good either.  There are issues of physical and mental health.  And national parks are actually supposed to be for everyone’s benefit.  As for this bizarre thing of trying to control people by refusing to unlock public toilets, even George Orwell never thought of that one.  All that’s doing is driving people to make, ahem, alternative arrangements, and I’m sure no-one wants that happening.

This is an extremely difficult time, and I don’t know what the answers are; but we need to try to find some, and that’s not going to happen until everyone starts working together.  A lot of places are facing similar issues: there’ve been concerns about the numbers of people visiting beaches in northern France, in Catalunya, in the Netherlands, in Florida, and elsewhere.  We do need to find ways of dealing with this which are fair to everyone, and that’s not going to be easy.   But we need to try, and, with so many people either taking an “I’m all right, Jack,” attitude or prioritising political points-scoring over the general good, that’s not happening as much as it should be.  But the National Trust, with the reopening of some parkland on a ticketed basis, are trying.

I’ll be interested to hear how they found this first weekend back.  There was certainly room for more people without any issues with social distancing: the Nostell Priory estate is absolutely vast.  So are the estates at Shugborough, Hardwick Hall and Fountains Abbey, to name but three.  I very much hope that more properties will be reopening their parkland soon, and that tea rooms will soon be able to open, even if it’s only for either takeaways or outdoor seating, as well.  The term “cultural bonfire” was used on Sky News on Friday: it wasn’t actually a very good one, but the point was made.  We don’t want to lose these places.  And we need access to open space.  Thank you so much to the National Trust for letting me have today’s much-need and much-appreciated visit, and I hope that there’ll be more to come soon.

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