Britain’s National Trust: Historic houses, gardens and natural wonders
Britain is home to many attractions, many of them rich in the region’s history. Sites and artefacts are preserved beautifully, and kept safe from future development. The British understand the value of conservation and preservation, and keep these sites open for all the public to access. This includes travellers who cross the globe to catch a glimpse of sites including spectacular cliffs, castles and gardens, as well as historical artefacts. We all owe a debt of gratitude to Britain’s National Trust. For 120 years now, and with the support of its millions of members, the organisation has fought to make Britain’s greatest assets – both natural and cultural – safe and accessible for the public. From the individual, small group history tours to large busloads of tourists, all are welcome.
Odyssey Traveller offers United Kingdom vacation packages that take in many of the incredible sites under the stewardship of Britain’s national trust. Tour England and explore the stunning Lake District on the England’s villages small group tours for mature travellers. Or track through Wales’ Brecon Beacons and its’ three summits on the Walking Rural Britain small group history tours for mature travellers. Odyssey Traveller offers trips to England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Read on for a brief history of the Britain’s National Trust.
English homes and gardens – England tours for seniors
England’s National Trust homes and gardens are outstanding. Such as Hatfield House, built in the Tudor and Jacobean style. It was in these handsome gardens that a messenger announced to Elizabeth I her ascension to the Throne. The House is set in Hatfield Forest, a near-complete Royal Hunting Forest that evokes medieval treks on horseback. It is maintained by the National Trust using traditional woodland management techniques.
Or Ascott Historic Garden, an ‘Old English’ manor of half timber. It began its life as a farmhouse thought to date from 1606. It now houses a collection of paintings, furniture and oriental porcelain and is set among extensive gardens in a mix of formal and natural plantings.
And of course, there’s the Sissinghurst Castle Garden. Inspired by British horticulturalist Gertrude Jekyll, poet Vita Sackville West and her diplomat husband Harold Nicolson bought the Castle’s gardens to life. It is said the architectural garden rooms and colourful plantings reflect the romance and intimacy of Sackville West’s poems. These impressive grounds have hosted a fascinating history: from a prison to a women’s land army to a family home. The National Trust are working to recapture the original vision that Sackville West and Nicolson held for the gardens by consulting their original designs. Each of these sites is open to the public to enjoy, and Odyssey’s English countryside tours bring them to life for senior travellers.
Welsh wilderness and history
Wales is home to Bodnant Garden, and Powis Castle set within it. These gardens were created over 150 years, with plants both native and sourced from afar. It is more appropriate to think of it as many colourful gardens in one. It has secret corners and sprawling lawns, and the backdrop of Snowdonia’s Carneddau mountains. Or there’s Conwy Castle with its picturesque suspension bridge and gardens. In the 1890s this bridge was managed by a family of 6, who manned it for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The family sold their home grown fruit and vegetables to its passers-by. Great Britain tours are given a personal touch with these vivid stories and details.
Northern Ireland’s rich past
In Ireland, visitors can experience the stately grandeur of the 18th-century mansion Castle Coole. This is a fine example of Ireland’s neo-classical architecture, and is set amongst impressive gardens. Visitors can get a glimpse of what life was like in the home of the Earls of Belmore. Or alternatively, they can explore Castlerigg Stone Circle, a ring of 38 stones that have stood for approximately 4,500 years. They are set within a ring of mountains, and were created by Neolithic farming communities. By as early as the 19th century, Castlerigg was so popular with visitors that the site began to suffer. People chipped off pieces of stone as souvenirs, prompting a movement to have it bestowed to the National Trust for protection. It was one of the earliest Ancient Scheduled Monuments designated in the UK, and is an important part of Irish history. No tour of Great Britain is complete without experiencing the stunning diversity of Northern Ireland.
What is Britain’s National Trust?
The National Trust is the largest voluntary conservation organisation in Europe. It was founded in 1835 by three people: Octavia Hill, Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter. A social reformer, a priest, and a lawyer respectively, they recognised the value of open spaces and heritage. Crucially, they believed that all people should be able to access and enjoy what Britain has to offer. These values persist within the organisation 120 years later. The Trust cares for sites in England, Northern Ireland and Wales, including nature reserves, historic houses and gardens, archaeological sites, villages and more. In fact, the Trust has in its care:
- 775 miles of coastline
- Over 248,000 hectares of land
- More than 500 historic houses, castles, ancient monuments gardens and parks and nature reserves
How it operates
Britain’s National Trust works to restore and preserve them, before opening them to the public. The majority of sites are held inalienably, meaning the only way they can be altered outside of the Trust’s wishes is with the approval of Parliament.
There are high costs associated with the Trust’s level of care. In 2015/16, the overall conservation project expenditure was £107.1 million. The Trust relies on the support of its members and sponsors, in addition to money made from retail and catering operations, plus funds obtained through grant-making bodies. Today, there are 4.5 million members of the National Trust, and counting. More information on their work can be found on their website, which is also an excellent resource for those interested in British history.
The birth of the National trust
The National Trust was created by the meeting of three minds.
Hill was born in 1838 to a middle class family with a strong sense of social justice. Her father supported socialist communes, so when he entered financial difficulty, he had few backers to assist him. Because of this, Hill learned of the precariousness of wealth. Her family moved from Cambridgeshire to London. It was here she took her first job in 1852 at a Ladies Guild, a craft workshop for unskilled girls and women. It it said that here, she learned to balance plebeian London life with the intellectual elite of her own society.
Hill became interested in social housing. Property was acquired for her by the radical John Ruskin. With it, she instigated a system of 5% philanthropy for its residents. This honoured her ‘no rights without responsibilities’ policy – Hill believed in helping people to help themselves. She sought to improve people’s lives through personal contact, placing a volunteer worker in each tenement to assist in repairs, provide advice, collect rent – all while upholding the independence and dignity of the residents. Hill was adamant that women be involved too, and her emphasis on the important of “ladies perspective” is part of the reason she is celebrated as a feminist.
The importance of green spaces
Hill continued to care for the lives of the inner city poor, but was convinced that increasingly popular ideas like welfare states, universal pensions, and community housing lacked the personal care and intimacy that would assist people to improve their lives. Related to this, she also wanted to ensure that all people had access to green, open spaces; especially those who didn’t have country houses of their own.
Hill fought attempts to cordon land off from the masses. She believed the poor deserve equal opportunities as the rich, but not for nothing – they need to work for them too. Her approach was to focus on the value of time, and to buy up places to preserve for the future. She met priest Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, and Robert Hunter of the Commons Preservation Society, and the three founded a National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty.
Hardwick Drummond Rawnsley
Born in 1851, Rawnsley became a priest in the Church of England. Like Hill, he had exposure to the nation’s poorest residents. He worked for the Clifton College Mission in Bristol, providing both education and recreation, which included country walks. Rawnsley believed that social issues were religious at heart. He continued his work when he was moved to the Lake District. Here, along with his wife, he founded two schools. But most memorably, he defended the Lake District from slate quarrying and rail developments in order to preserve the site for the enjoyment of all people. When he came into contact with Octavia Hill and Robert Hunter, their shared passions led to the establishment of the National Trust.
It is interesting to note that Rawnsley was also close friends with the children’s book author Beatrix Potter, whose generous financial support played a vital role in the Trust’s history.
And, Rawnsley is one of the most prolific sonnet writers in history! He wrote 30000 of them in his lifetime, and frequently submitted his work to various papers for publication.
Robert Hunter is the least known of the Trust’s three founders. Researchers believe this is because his work was behind the scenes. Therefore it is safe to say the Trust would not have been created were it not for Hunter’s tireless efforts and expertise.
Born in 1844 in Camberwell, South London, he attained his law degree by 1865. Within ten years, he became a solicitor for the Commons Preservation Society. In this role, he helped save Epping Forest from enclosure. By the time he met Octavia Hill in 1884, he was able to advise her on saving Sayes Court in Deptford. In this same year, he outlined the idea of the National Trust, which, by 1907, became law. Hunter died in 1913 and lies in an unmarked grave at St Bartholomew’s Church, Haslemere.
Key early moments in the history of the National Trust
Establishment of the Trust
In 1884, Octavia Hill was asked to preserve Southeast London’s Sayes Court garden. With the help of Rawnsley and Hunter, the Trust was officially founded in 1895.
First piece of land
Just weeks later after the establishment of the Trust, a woman named Fanny Talbot donated five acres of cliff top at Barmouth in Wales. Dinas Oleu (Citadel of Light) remains open to the public to this day, and its spectacular cliffs provide dramatic views to the many walkers who weave their way through a significant piece of history.
In 1896, the first building was purchased by the National Trust. Alfriston Clergy House is a medieval thatched house built around 1350.
It was completely dilapidated by 1885, and marked for demolition. Fortunately, it’s occupant, Harriet Coates, managed to defer this date. She lived on there until her death in 1888. The property then passed to Rev. F.W. Beynon, who recognised its historical and cultural value and fought for seven years for its preservation. However, he lacked the money to carry out the much needed repairs himself. He heard of the brand new ‘National Trust for Places of Historical Interest or Natural Beauty’ (just ten days old at the time!) and made contact. Octavia Hill was immediately struck by the building, entered into negotiations, and for £10 made it the first building of the National Trust. Finally, it is a beautifully preserved house and garden, open to the public, of course.
First nature reserve
In 1899, the Trust acquired its first nature reserve: Wicken Fen near Cambridgeshire. It is England’s most famous fen. The site incorporates Fen Cottage and Workshop and the Historic Windpump, as well as wetland habitats, a butterfly trail, and opportunities for walking, cycling and boating. Today as a result of the work of the National Trust, twenty-two species of dragonfly, plus the cute warbler bird, are lucky enough to call Wicken Fen home.
Kanturk Castle was given to the Trust in 1990. It stands in the market town of Kanturk in the Blackwater Valley, in North County Cork. Built in around 1601 in defence against the English, it remains unfinished to this day. It is now managed by the National Trust for Ireland, a parallel organisation with a shared commitment to preservation and universal access.
The National Trust Act
The Act was created in 1907. It was drafted by one the three cofounders, lawyer Robert Hunter. He gave it statutory corporation status, setting it up for the future, which we benefit from today.
Objects, exhibitions and conservation benefits small group history tours
Britain’s National Trust manages an incredible number of objects in addition to the aforementioned sites. They run regular exhibitions to allow the public access, and it is possible for visitors to observe conservators at work. Furthermore their website is a rich resource for history buffs, and features alphabetized locations that can be clicked on to discover the artefacts of the site. Follow this link to explore the rich collection of art and objects. Especially relevant for the curious or the historian or small group history tours the artefacts provide insight and bring history to life.
Fun facts about Britain’s National Trust
- The most popular site owned by the Trust is Finn McCool’s Crossing at Causeway Walk. Odyssey Traveller’s Ireland and Lake District tour for retirees includes this historic spot in its itinerary. Follow the link for more information on our next departure date.
- The Trust have reintroduced an extinct butterfly – the Large Blue – with the help of their volunteer rangers.
- They grow 18th century vegetables. Attingham Park’s Carriage House Cafe has prickly cucumbers and icicle radishes on the menu. It’s one of the places where visitors can sample food that comes out of the conservation of heritage gardens and orchards.
- National Trust-owned sites have provided film sets for productions including Downton Abbey and Harry Potter (the famous Hogwarts was filmed in Lacock Abbey, which you can visit on Odyssey’s England’s villages small group history tours for mature travellers)
- They own and run 61 pubs and inns. Take a tour of England, Wales or Northern Ireland to try them out for yourself.
- They protect toads: 45 volunteer toad patrollers help to save the amphibians on the North Yorkshire moors.
Tour of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The incredible work of Britain’s National Trust, and others like it, means that not only are these sites restored and preserved, but that the public may enjoy them. Furthermore the vision of its three founders continues today. Surely the number and diversity of local and international visitors surpasses even their wildest expectations!
So, Odyssey Traveller provides guided tours for senior travellers interested in visiting some of the Trust’s historic sites. See the Trust’s most popular destination, McFool’s Crossing, on the Ireland and Lake District small group walking tour for retirees. And discover Snowdonia National Park in Exploring Wales on Foot, mature travellers small group walking tours. Finally, for those interested in architecture and gardens, take a trip to England on England’s history of country houses and gardens small group tours this program on England Garden Design. Extend your understanding of the history of Britain via its most impressive attractions.
Britain’s National Trust role for successful Odyssey Traveller small group history tours
For Odyssey Travellers on our collection of small group history tours, access to Britain’s National trust, English heritage, the Royal Palaces as well as the many museums of all sizes and descriptions bring the tours to life for the participants. Finally, the work of Britain’s National trust and similar organisations in preserving history and its contribution to tourism should not be overlooked in the years to come.