The National Trust: What do they do and why do they exist?

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(Last updated on: 30/05/2020)

The National Trust is an important organisation for the UK tourism industry. Most people who holiday in Britain will come across National Trust properties and areas on their travels. But what does that National Trust actually do? In this article I explain what their roles and responsibilities are, give you some examples of the most popular National Trust properties and discuss some of their recent campaigns.

What is the National Trust?

The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, simply known as the National Trust, was founded in 1895. Three Victorian philanthropists, Miss Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, were concerned about the impact of uncontrolled development and industrialisation. So they set up the National Trust. This was to act as a guardian for the nation in the acquisition and protection of threatened coastline, countryside and buildings.

“The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and..the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men” – Miss Octavia Hill

The National Trust is a charity organisation, with funds raised through donations and membership. Land is generally acquired as a gift. They generally own country houses and estates. However, wild landscapes, nature reserves and historic urban properties make up some of their holdings too. The National Trust have land property across England, Wales and Northern Ireland; there is a separate Scottish National Trust.

What does the National Trust do?

The National Trust Act of 1907 stated that it was set up for promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and as regards lands for the preservation (so far as practicable) of their natural aspect features and animal and plant life.

They aim to preserve and protect the buildings, countryside and coastline of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The National Trust do this in a range of ways: through practical conservation, learning and discovery, and encouraging everyone across the country to visit and enjoy their national heritage.

The National Trust also work hard to educate people about the importance of the environment and of preserving heritage for future generations. They are able to contribute to important debates over the future of the economy, the development of people’s skills and sense of community, and the quality of the local environment in both town and country.

Since the mid 20th-century, there has been a focus on country houses and gardens. Around this time, many private owners could no longer afford to maintain these magnificent historic buildings. They were donated to the National Trust so the owner would not have to pay ‘death duties, or inheritance tax. These now make up some of the most-visited National Trust properties.

National Trust properties

The organisation owns over 500 properties and spots of land. 200 of these are country houses which are open for the public to enjoy and explore. There are over 5 million National Trust members who enjoy free entry to these properties; non-members are welcome at National Trust properties too, and an entrance fee is charged.

These are country houses, for the most part. Many of the others are associated with famous people – they are museums dedicated to someone’s past. With pictures, ceramics, textiles, furniture, books and more remaining in their own historical context, National Trust properties make for an incredible day out.

Many of the properties have large and important gardens attached to them, and the organisation also owns important gardens that are not attached to a house or property.

Which are the most-visited National Trust properties?

According to the 2018-19 annual report, these are the 10 National Trust properties that were visited the most. So you could say, these are the best ones to visit if you are planning a day out in the UK.

Giant’s Causeway

Giants Causeway, Northern Ireland

Located in Country Antrim in Northern Ireland, Giant’s Causeway is the result of an ancient volcanic eruption. It is on the coast, and offers some of the country’s best scenery. As well as being property of the National Trust, it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Giant’s Causeway is a landmark when it comes to Irish myths and legends, too. Allegedly, mythical Irish giant Finn MacCool built the causeway to travel over to Scotland and battle with another giant, Benandonner.

Clumber Park

Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire

In Worksop, near Nottinghamshire, Clumber Park has the longest lime tree avenue in Europe. The National Trust have owned the estate since the 1940s. It is a beautiful historic park and garden with 3,800 acres of land.

Attingham Park

Attingham Park, Shropshire

Located in Shropshire, this stunning country house is a Grade I listed building. There are woodlands and a deer park, a walled garden and an orchard. The estate has tea rooms, and the River Tern flows through the land which is also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Cliveden

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire

In Buckinghamshire, Cliveden is a National Trust country house and estate. Cliveden House is an Italianate mansion, and its grounds slope down to the River Thames. In the past it has been home to princes, dukes and an earl. Currently it is also used as a 5-star hotel. The building, as well as its grounds and garden, are breathtaking.

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge, Country Antrim

This rope bridge in Country Antrim links the mainland to the tiny island of Carrickarede, which means ‘rock of the casting’. It is 20 metres long, and hangs 30 metres above the rocks. Open year-round, it is a tourist attraction with incredibly scenic views. In the past the bridge was used for salmon fishing.

Waddesdon Manor

Located in the Aylesbury Vale area of Buckinghamshire, Waddesdon Manor is a Neo-Renaissance style Grade I listed house. Built in the style of a French château, it was a weekend residence for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. The house is simply beautiful, and walking through it feels like stepping back in time. With art and garden sculptures, there is plenty to see at the estate.

Waddesdon Manor.

Belton House

Belton House, Lincolnshire

This is another Grade I listed country house, located in Lincolnshire. Built in the 1600s, there are formal gardens and various avenues which lead to a woodland. It is considered to be a complete example of a ‘typical English country house’. Belton House definitely gives that impression to visitors.

Fountains Abbey Estate

Fountains Abbey Estate, North Yorkshire

This is one of the biggest and most well-preserved Cistercian monasteries throughout England. The abbey, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, was founded in 1132. Various barons have been buried here. The abbey and its land are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Stourhead

Stourhead, Wiltshire

Located in Wiltshire, Stourhead is an estate at the source of the River Stour. The estate includes an 18th-century Palladian mansion, a village called Stourton, farmland, gardens and woodland. There is an artificial lake, and many themes of Greek mythology run throughout the estate.

Calke Abbey

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey is a Grade I listed country house in Derbyshire; the site was originally an Augustinian priory, and there has never actually been an abbey. There is now a Baroque mansion, which was built in the 1700s and is open to the public. Many areas have been deliberately left in the condition they were in when the National Trust received the property. This makes it a great window into the history of the estate.

Education within the National Trust

The National Trust is a great organisation for providing education. The organisation helps teach people about environmental conservation and cultural tourism, amongst other things. They offer education talks to groups and have lots of educational pamphlets, placards and exhibitions throughout their properties. They also have a fantastic reputation for accessible tourism.

Through conducting a survey in 2008, the National Trust concluded that ‘wildlife is alien to a generation of indoor children’. Half of the children surveyed were unable to tell the difference between a bee and a wasp. The survey found that just 53 percent could correctly identify an oak leaf – the national tree and a powerful symbol of England, while 29 percent failed to spot a magpie despite the numbers soaring three-fold over the past 30 years. Only 47 percent of children correctly identified a barn owl and one in three failed to recognise a Red Admiral, Britain’s best-known butterfly.

However, when it came to fictional characters, the results were practically flipped on their head. Nine out of ten children were able to correctly name the Daleks, enemies of classic TV time lord Doctor Who. A similar number were able to identify Star Wars’ Jedi Grand Master, Yoda. These results were and continue to be a cause for concern.

When asked, 67 percent of parents said that they felt they knew more about wildlife at that age than their own children do. 65 percent of these contributed this to a lack of time spent outdoors with their child or children as a family. This led to the National trust launching two campaigns in order to combat the results of the survey. These were Wild Child and Take a Fantastic Family Journey into Space.

What is the National Trust’s Wild Child campaign?

In 2008, as a result of the aforementioned survey, the National Trust launched their Wild Child campaign. It was a summer program: bat watching, den building, pond dipping, bug hunting and much more. The campaign served as a chance to get kids out and about in nature, familiarise them with the natural world. Two out of three parents surveyed said that their first happy childhood memory was linked to being in the wild. However, only one in three of the children could recall similar memories.

However, 96% of the adults and 94% of the children surveyed wanted to spend more time in nature. This is where the Wild Child campaign came in! With its family-friendly language and imagery in terms of the marketing, and unique aspects of the various nature experiences, it was a great success and enjoyed by many. The National Trust didn’t expect such a demand for it. It serves as one example of the fantastic educational experiences provided by the organisation.

What is Take a Fantastic Family Journey into Space?

This campaign served to encourage families to spend more time together in natural surroundings. The launch of the campaign saw the National Trust bring the outdoors into the city. They had a specially adapted red bus, with an outdoor garden on the top deck. This helped to inject some greenery and nature into busy, built-up areas. This served to remind families that for most, the journey to (outdoor) space is a short one.

This campaign, along with Wild Child, are just two examples of ways in which the National Trust uses its properties and land to educate and inform children. When visiting properties there are quizzes and information cards, and volunteers on hand to answer questions.

The National Trust: To conclude

As you can see, the National Trust has lots of work to do throughout the UK! They provide conservation and protection to the environment as well as British culture and heritage. There are many wonderful National Trust properties and areas around the UK and you are bound to come across some when travelling in the area, whether you are a domestic tourist or an inbound tourist.

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