Why you should join the National Trust
The National Trust gets a bit of a bad rap, it’s often seen as twee, old fashioned and good for little more than a GDO (Grannies’ Day Out). But the truth is that a family membership at £120 is brilliantly good value for a year of house visits, dog walks, gardens and car parking. And it's a far cheaper way to indulge in fantasies of owning a country pile than booking into a posh country hotel for the weekend. Indeed, at Bleak House we think that membership of the Trust is an essential ingredient for bring a bit more adventure into your life.
Let’s get the prejudice out of the way first. Yes, every National Trust property is populated with often officious and rules-obsessed volunteers who desperately try to engage you in conversation about the age of the tapestries when all you want to do is lose yourself in the atmosphere of a place. And yes, they still have the annoying habit of putting spiky teasels on every available flat surface in case you dare think about plonking your offensive bottom on a priceless chair. And yes, the opening times can on feel erratic, leading to countless visits that get no further than a padlocked gate.
It can sometimes be hard to remember that the National Trust was a deeply forward thinking and radical organisation when it was set up and in recent years they have fought hard to bring a little bit of this progressiveness back and it's made us love them even more. Here is why.
THEY HAVE HAD A CHANGE OF HEART ABOUT THEIR PURPOSE
As the second biggest landowner in Britain (after the Forestry Commission) and owner of many of our finest and most historical buildings, The National Trust has a huge duty of care towards our heritage, from the coastline in Cornwall to modernist houses in Hampstead. In recent years they have relaxed a lot and the attitude that the volunteers are there to protect their properties from you is starting to take a backseat to an attitude of enjoyment. The focus is now on allowing us, as visitors, to take as much pleasure in the properties as the original inhabitants.
The catering has improved drastically to the point they are now great places to go just for the tea and cake, and the organisation has become exponentially more dog-friendly than they used to be. The properties have become really brilliant places to spend some time with your family or just your dog, rather than dusty houses filled with musty antiques as they felt like on the countless visits I was forced to go on as a child.
THEY HAVE A GENUINELY BRILLIANT APP
The best apps on your phone often do one or two things really well, and nothing more. And that’s absolutely the case with the National Trust. Making use of your location it simply tells you what properties are nearby and what the deal is in terms of opening times, activities and accessibility for dogs. This is incredibly helpful when you are on a weekend away or holiday in the UK, as you can always find a bunch of places to go that are right on top of where you are.
THEY MAKE GREAT ALTERNATIVES TO SERVICE STATIONS
There are so many places and properties in the National Trust that a surprising number are only a few minutes away from motorway junctions. So rather than fighting it out for a Costa and a burger in your favourite Road Chef or Moto, duck off the motorway and into the cafe of the nearest National Trust and a little stomp around the place to stretch the legs and relieve the dog and kids. There is no fighting over the last parking space and the cake is most definitely better.
THE CAR PARKS ARE FREE, IF YOU ARE A MEMBER
A lot of National Trust places are not houses or castles at all. They are amongst the most stunning parts of our countryside and coastline, like Kynance Cove in Cornwall, Barafundle Beach in Stackpole, Pembrokeshire or the Seven Sisters in East Sussex. As a member you can truck up and park right next door without paying a penny. In fact after one long day lounging on the beach, you will probably have saved half the cost of membership in one go.
IT'S LIKE HAVING YOUR OWN GARDEN, BUT BETTER
As Londoners living in a small flat with no garden, we visit National Trust properties a lot. It is basically a way of having access to a country home and estate without have received a whopping great inheritance. The Trust has some of the finest estates and gardens in the country (special shout-out to the magnificent Powis Castle), maintained by fantastic gardeners, with more space than you could ever afford to buy for yourself and without the upkeep either.
THESE ARE THE HOMES OF YOUR HEROES
There is something thrilling about standing (remember the teasels, you can’t sit down anywhere) in the very bedrooms or studies of your all time heroes. Particularly the authors that you admire or whose books had a profound effect on you when you were young. You can visit the hill top home of Beatrix Potter and see Peter Rabbit's neckerchief, see Agatha Christie's typewriter in her study or stand in Rudyard Kipling's house and see the rendering of Mowgli done by his father. These are not just places of historical significance, they are the places many of those that we admire lived out their lives, often away from the bright lights of their fame and it makes them feel surprisingly intimate and personal.
YOU CAN LIVE YOUR FANTASY LIFE AND NO ONE WILL JUDGE YOU
Some properties and places are nowhere near close to the fantasy home or life that you would dearly like. Calke Abbey for instance, has just been left as it was when the family closed the doors, as a monument to the decline, destitution and dilapidation of the British aristocracy and you wouldn’t want to live there in a million years. But step inside Coleton Fishacre or Greenway and you can make believe, if just for an hour or so, that this is your life. A life filled with cocktail parties, sumptuous dinners, languid afternoons by the pool or rather more energetic aftenoons on the tennis court. This is you as you should have been if only you had been born to different people at a different time and with a lot more money.
This year, take a punt on the National Trust and join this wonderful organisation. Not only are you helping secure the future of these incredibly important pieces of our history, but you might just find you have the most inspiring adventure in a long time.