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Trusting the National Trust September 30, 1997
by Christopher Chippindale


Dustbins in front of the fire-damaged country house Uppark
contain salvaged items. (David Bradfield © The National Trust)

On January 12, 1895, a small group of far-sighted people, appalled by the way industrial development was gobbling up the English countryside, founded a society dedicated to preserving it. Known as the National Trust, it has grown into a mighty organization with more than two million members. The largest private landowner in Britain, it protects seacoasts, moors, mountains, and archaeological sites by the score, but its most celebrated possessions are country houses, the stately homes of old England.

A high point of the trust's centenary year was the reopening of Uppark, a jewel among English country houses that burned down in 1989. Determined to rebuild Uppark in its full historic glory, the trust began restoration efforts immediately after the fire. Archaeologists and conservators sorted every scrap of debris, salvaging everything down to the last drop of glass from a chandelier, sorting the pieces in a giant array of metal dustbins laid out on the lawn. The reconstruction project took six years to complete, with plasterers and wood-carvers learning the skills of past centuries. The new Uppark which visitors have seen since August 1995 is indistinguishable from the house William Talman built on the crest of the Sussex Downs between 1685 and 1690.

When a wing of Windsor Castle burned down in 1993, that same British desire to re-create what a chance calamity destroyed motivated the government to announce that Windsor would be rebuilt just as it was, at a cost of many tens of millions of pounds. But why "just as it was?" a few people asked. Some of the burned architecture was good, some was less good, but this part of Windsor, unlike Uppark, was not considered a jewel. Like most historic buildings, it had been refitted, remodeled, enlarged, and altered since its construction. The wing that burned was an accumulated accident of varied and mixed history, and its merit was accordingly varied and mixed. The Sunday Times of London invited architects to design a new building of first quality, one that would recognize the fire itself as a fact of history and be of the twentieth century rather than a pretense at being old. Over the centuries, after all, the builders and architects of royal Windsor had themselves moved with the times, pulling down the obsolete and old-fashioned, putting in its place whatever different style seemed to be fresh, good, and new. The solution at Windsor has been a compromise, largely restoration of what was lost with some new building in a Gothic style evoking the old way. The new Uppark, however, is a replicate, and sensibly there since most of the structure was from a single period.

[image] Uppark in 1994, with restoration following 1989 fire nearly completed (© The National Trust) [LARGER IMAGE]

I am myself in the history business, an archaeologist by profession. My job in a university museum makes me responsible each day for a few hundred thousand ancient objects. Yet I worry at the British instinct always to preserve. Not everyone who lived in an English stately home was a gracious aristocrat; its larger population was in the world "below stairs," where cooks, maids, and scullions provided the services that made a fine house fine. In and beyond the elegant park were the laboring families whose work supported the estate. By rejoicing so much in the pretty side of the English country house we risk endorsing the values declared in a nineteenth-century hymn: "The rich man in his castle, / The poor man at his gate; / God made them, high or lowly, / And ordered their estate." The danger is that our celebration of English heritage may see only the good and the pretty bits. The tourist industry in Britain, not a land famed for its warm sea and strong sunshine, knows that the image which brings visitors is one of fairy-tale castles, princesses, Arthurian legends, and ancient pageantry. North Americans, so often with family histories rooted in England, have special cause to see old England "as it was" in their ancestors' time, to hope that the village their forebears left for the New World is still "just as it used to be."

So successful is the British care for historic sites that their popularity with visitors is itself a major threat to preservation. The charming valleys of the Peak District, located in central England between Derby to the south, Manchester to the northwest, and Sheffield to the northeast, are often choked with cars. Winters are spent hauling stone up the mountains by helicopter to fill gullies cut in hill paths by thousands of walkers. Grassy paths through the great gardens of stately houses are trampled into mud by crowds, precious plants are snipped by visitors who take a cutting to grow at home, enchanting closes--intended to be pastoral refuges--are surrounded by parking lots.

The picturesque declining ruin is a forgotten possibility in the genre of historical monuments. Houses and halls are not left to rot in that slow decay which has its own charm. Great gardens are no longer allowed to fall into weedy melancholy. To see a good ruin nowadays you have to go to Ireland or rural France. The British prefer to restore their historic places with shiny efficiency to a better state than they have known in recent history, or perhaps ever. Conservative politician Alan Clark owns Saltwood House, one of the last stately homes in private family hands. Liking the patina of age, the threads of family continuity, and the wear that shows the house is the lived-in home of actual human beings, Clark thinks the public also prefers real houses over perfect re-creations. Clark keeps Saltwood House the truly traditional way--maintained but not spruced up and pin-smart. His family doesn't have the money it once had. There is an archaeological reminder here of the subtle relation of human lives to material objects: to preserve the house and all its contents, each item on its documented spot, is not to preserve the actual way of life.

[image] Artist's renderings depict how restored St. George's Hall (left) and Octagon Ante-Room (right) at Windsor Castle will appear. (Crown copyright) [image]

The National Trust, now in its second century, is being overtaken by history. One of its enterprises in the Lake District, located in northwestern England, is the Gondola, a rare steam-powered yacht from the nineteenth-century that carries passengers up and down Lake Coniston in opulently upholstered saloons. Another venture (not owned by the trust) is a heritage railroad, whose restored steam locomotives wander through the countryside to the foot of Lake Windermere. Yet turn to the trust's own historic records, and one finds its founder, Canon Rawnsley, campaigning against the "injurious encroachments" upon Lake District scenery that would occur if a steam railroad were built. Time has camouflaged the scars of the rail track. The snorting steam locomotive and hissing steam yacht have evolved from horrid modern intrusions into soothing memories of bygone days. They seem to us fitting, even "natural," and gentle to Lakeland. It is the newer intruders such as motor-cars, hang-gliders, and power-boats which seem alien today.

One hundred miles south, the trust proudly preserves the textile mills and company village at Quarry Bank, located outside the industrial city of Manchester. The trust handbook describes it as "a major Georgian cotton mill restored as a working mill restored as a working museum of the cotton industry, now running under waterpower. There are demonstrations of weaving and spinning, and galleries illustrate the mill-workers' world, textile finishing processes, the Gregs [the owners] as pioneers of the factory system and water as a source of energy." In short, it is a monument to an urban industry whose assault on the old countryside the trust's founders fought, and now rightly preserved with love and care for the history it shows us. The cotton mills that were the threatening future are now taken into a nostalgic past.

A key name in the Lakeland tourist industry is Beatrix Potter, the countrywoman whose charming children's stories of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, and Pigling Bland caught the world's imagination. Tourist managers have even talked of calling the Lake District "Beatrix Potter Land." Her fame, and that of poet William Wordsworth, who lived here, bring cars in such numbers that the highways of the whole region sometimes freeze in sprawling gridlock. But Beatrix Potter was also Mrs. William Heelis, a canny upland farmer, judge of the famous Herdwick sheep of the high fells, and generous patron of the National Trust--the only landowner she thought capable of preserving the small farms, the old way of life, and the historic landscape of the Lake District. She recognized the potential problems of tourism, and asked, "How to preserve the beauty and agricultural integrity of the Lake District so that it should refresh the minds of all who came to it, and be accessible to all; and at the same time to control tourists, parasites, who were so short-sightedly bent on destroying those very beauties and solitudes that attracted their hosts." At her death in 1943 she bequeathed 6,000 acres of Lakeland to the trust to safeguard in perpetuity. The National Trust Handbook lists its Beatrix Potter Gallery in Hawkshead ("busy: admission by timed ticket"), its Beatrix Potter farm at Hill Top ("very busy: long delays and some visitors may not gain admission at all"), and its visitors' center, Beatrix Potter's Lake District ("dramatic slide and video presentations"). Do these crowded attractions "refresh the minds of all"? Do they destroy solitudes?

It is not the National Trust's fault. I am a loyal member and a great enthusiast for its democratic basis in mass membership, for its expertise, and for its willingness to take the long view. The demands on the wild beauty and tranquillity of Lakeland are all consequences of success. The Trust is showing its good colors by buying and preserving the neglected relics of our own age, the things that will refresh others in the future. Recent acquisitions include a stretch of wild East Anglian coast, home of gaunt concrete and steel relics of Cold War military experiments, and a London house in the modernist style of the mid-twentieth century, which in this decade is out of fashion. The paradoxes and contradictions of the Trust are the consequences of history and of that affection for history we call heritage. We may kill with suffocating intensity that which we love. And there is so much to love and care for all over the world. Life would be much easier for archaeologists, and for all of us who care about history, if only there were not so much of the darn stuff around!

Christopher Chippindale is the editor of Antiquity, curator for world prehistory at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and a field archaeologist working in Aboriginal northern Australia.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America