Saturday, 25 July 2015

Why I won't join the National Trust

I used to live and work in Norfolk, long ago. Revelled in the beauty of its landscape and skies, the rich glories of the dialect ('mardling'), the large numbers of neglected cottages and barns, the clean air, the extremes of winter and summer, the haunted emptiness of the roads and fields. From time to time, warplanes of terrifying size and speed would split the skies in half, creating a rolling thunderous earthquake of sound, drumming out the story of our defence, our history, our ambitions and collaborations as a nation. I loved it - but work and marriage took me back south, and now I only come back for short visits.

Of course, everything has changed. It is still glorious, a head-long romance of a place, with huge golden fields, empty roads and lanes, langorous rivers, vast aristocratic stately homes, crumbling castles and neat villages. But the dialect is less often to be found. The buses are all privatised. The villages have bypasses and the spaces all around are 'developed'.  Grumble grumble. I wish I had known I was living in history when I was here. I would have taken more careful note.

We went on Thursday to Felbrigg which although in the care of the National Trust is still full of the furniture which belongs to the house. The grounds are minimally kept - grass, a maze, gravel, empty paths, a bit of lavender round the footings. The house has a suite of rooms of the highest swank, imported from Italy etc in the 18th C, carved and gilded, pictures and frames to die for... almost unbelievable wealth. But it all dribbled down to not much in the end, with the 'Squire' who died in 1969 unmarried having run the estate himself from a charming little office in the basement, beside the Servants' Hall and the Workshop. His stable had stalls for just 4 horses that I could see.  We heard two children playing a few notes on the Bechstein piano in one of the formal rooms. The big brother said solemnly to his little sister 'This is one of those old instruments. It has a lot of old tunes in it.'

The walled garden (4 acres?), was full of volunteer gardeners dead-heading about 500 yards of pinks. The echiums were 10' tall. The pomegranate tree was full of fruit.  Substantial parts of the garden are leased out to local allotment-holders, who have to label themselves as well as their produce, it seems. The labelling is very good - short flat white sticks with black writing on them.  Every kind of herb you can think of (but no Summer Savoury that I could see).  Bantams make dust baths.  It's all pretty idyllic.

We went on to lunch at the Gunton Arms - where co-owner Stuart the chef was cooking a non-stop series of steaks etc on an open wood fire. His business partner is an art-dealer, so there is plenty of modern trinketry - Emin neons, Hirst spots, etc.  The fossilised elk-horns over the steak-barbie fireplace are already much more long-lived and better works of art.

Cromer Pier was lovely - fringed with children fishing for crabs, children eating ice-creams, children eating burgers and pop-corn, children roller-skating, children in sunglasses.  The lifeboat station at the end offers you a free visit and all the time, you can hear people chinking cash into the donation boxes.  The roll-call of rescues is fascinating, the boats and lives saved. No mention of failures.  There were times when the lifeboat saved 30 or more lives, during the war 110 one night.   The present Cromer lifeboat is called Lester and you would be very pleased indeed to see it coming to rescue you if you were in difficulties.

On the way back home, we diverted to find Baconsthorpe Castle - a marvellous open-air relic of a once-prosperous and ambitious medieval merchant family - who wangled their way through the Hundred Years War and the Wars of the Roses and finally achieved this huge and beautiful crenellated establishment complete with wool workshops and fulling mills - applying to have it fortified in the 1560s - ah, with towers and cupolas, and a moat! - but within 50 years their descendants had frittered it all away. It passed through various hands, someone lived in the gatehouse till one of the towers fell down in 1921, and now it's mostly grass and stone, and empty, like a bit of a husk, in the middle of nowhere. Run by English Heritage, as it happens. No bother at all. Good interpretation boards too.

On Friday (yesterday) the rains of god came down onto Norfolk - drenching, torrential, unremitting and so we crept across the county from one hospitable household to the second, and we are now in West Norfolk.  Today we went to the Gatehouse of Pentney Abbey, the Narborough Museum, lunch at the Bedingfield Arms, and then to Oxburgh Hall. Tonight it will be into Kings Lynn for a concert by Freddy Kempf.

Pentney Abbey Gatehouse was bought by Howard Barton, a pilot, when (judging by the photos) it looked pretty much like Baconsthorpe Castle - just a useless mass of old flint and stone.  Anyway, it was good enough to inspire him and he's done it up with the help of English Heritage and very nice it is too, though not apparently open to the public. We were lucky to get in, due to our hosts ringing and asking if we could visit. We were given a tour - shown how a rack-and-ruin became a shining star again, complete with inner steel staircase not relying on any part of the old structure, new roof, new walls, new crenellations. It is utterly gorgeous, and now just waiting for someone to come and put the vaulting back.  It seems to have been built at the time of the Black Death, no expense spared, and maybe to have taken its income from a tollbridge across the River Nar (the main route from the Fens to the north coast of Norfolk).  The rest of the abbey has more or less disappeared. The Bartons have a small discreet caravan site there, so you can go and stay and ponder.

Narborough Museum is in the old Methodist (Wesleyan) chapel, the brainchild of David Turner who (like Howard Barton) made a rendezvous with us to open up and show us round. It is a gem, a treasure house of mammoths and ammonites, maps, a model of the village as it used to be, history of the almost-forgotten Narborough Aerodrome, and lots about the project to restore the local bone mill. This vast sprawl of industrial buildings used to pound bones into fertiliser, and imported the bones from all around - including Germany. All was well till one day a human skull was found in amongst the German bones.  This macabre find seems to tally with the life of the late Andrew Fountaine who lived across the road in Narford Hall. I met him once or twice when I lived at Red Lodge, a farm on his estate. He was keen on the Nazis and held camps, and practiced a fair amount of Seig Heils.  Slightly more in his favour is how much he loved trees - planted thousands of them, and explained to me once how you have to intersperse your young oaks with faster-growing conifers which force the hard wood to grow straight up.

Lunch was in pretty Bedingfield Arms, beside Oxburgh Church - where the nave is completely roofless and open, but the chancel in full working order, complete with many a Bedingfield monument, despite the Bedingfields having been devout Catholics all through time. One of the main attractions of Oxburgh Hall is the picturesque Moat, and of course the Priests' Hole where the Bedingfield family hid their priests in times of trouble.  The whole place is one of those wonderful/exasperating National Trust places - with a sort of sanctimonious, this-is-how-we-do-it air wherever you look. It's probably down to costs... they sell the same plants and the same knick-knacks in every NT shop (with the exception of some Norfolk glass in this one), and they have the same elderly and enthusiastic volunteer guides in each room (and some of them at Oxburgh are absolutely fantastic, thank you!), and they all seem to have a second-hand bookshop near the gate, and the same sort of smell wherever you go.

I was given a severe ticking-off at the entrance because I declined to pay EXTRA to sign their Gift Aid form...  I was told 'We make people ASK for the non-Gift Aid tickets.'  The woman was rude and bullying, and I was inclined to write and tell the NT about her, but this will do well enough.  Her appalling manners were alleviated by the two sterling guides we liked inside (the man in the dining room, and the lady in the King's Room), and also, in fact by the two charming Entrance Volunteers we once met at Rudyard Kipling's house Batemans, down south.  The main problem is that the National Trust has slid down into a corporate style and uniformity, and although we have paid to 'belong' in the past, every time I go into one of their properties, I think I will never join again and just busk it, one property at a time, even if it costs more.

The Priests' Hole is a very tight squeeze and it must have been very unpleasant to have to hide in there, but an attractive proposition if the Queen's men were after you because you still cleaved to the old religion.  As a nation, there's a lot of blether talked about 'Good Queen Bess' and the Age of the Tudors/Shakespeare etc etc., but it must have been a nightmare to live through it, much like the fundamentalism of ISIS or Al-Qaeda or any of those other belief-based civil wars.... We went at it, one way or the other, after the Black Death put paid to feudalism, for two or three hundred years all based on which form of 'Christianity' you followed. Torture, war, inquisition, terror, savage punishments, racking, being hacked to bits, hung in chains, beheadings, mutilation, flung into a pit and abandoned, burnt alive in bonfires, being hung, drawn and quartered... (could anything much be worse?)... and that was all available at any moment to any Englishman or woman or child who found themselves 'on the wrong side'.

So all this 'national trust' stuff is too sweet and sugary for my liking.  And Abbey Gatehouses too, however quaint and interesting, offer a smiling face, hiding a terrifying truth.