It’s hard to imagine England, Wales and Northern Ireland without the National Trust (Scotland has its own variation). Its acorn symbol pops up by beaches and fells, on the gates of mansions and the doors of tenements, beside footpaths, car parks and cafés. It exasperates some people and pleases many more: it means that you are about to see something very beautiful and very British – usually followed by tea and cake.
For once, it’s a woman who hogs the limelight when it comes to the trust’s foundation. 2012 was the centenary of Octavia Hill’s death and the coverage of this extraordinary activist, with her passion for saving open spaces, building decent social housing and bringing beauty into the lives of ordinary people (plus much more) rather obliterated her fellow-founders. She famously said of the trust that, “We all want quiet. We all want beauty. We all need space”.
Sir Robert Hunter, a brilliant lawyer and land rights specialist, and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, fresh from running the Lake District Defence Society, were just as important in the birth of the National Trust in 1895. As was the Duke of Westminster, who supported the embryonic organisation and hosted early planning meetings in Grosvenor House, which was sadly demolished.
Their first acquisition was the headland overlooking Barmouth Bay, in what we now call Snowdonia – a gift from a wealthy donor. This was followed by a 14th-century clergy house in Alfriston, East Sussex. As the portfolio grew over the decades, encompassing buildings and countryside, visiting a National Trust property became a familiar part of people’s holiday plans.
By the Thirties, tenant farmers on trust land were beginning to offer bed and breakfast to visitors, supplementing their incomes and giving people a chance to really get to know their part of the country. Thus the first self-catering cottages were born, albeit simply furnished, but often in glorious settings. There are now 550 of them, decorated to a standard that would astonish Hill, Hunter and Rawnsley, and 33 new ones were added in 2019 – the aim is to have a thousand cottages by 2025. They are loved by their guests, with Telegraph Travel readers voting the National Trust the best cottage operator in the 2019 reader awards.
As the décor has improved, the offerings became quirkier, with properties such as The Homewood, an extraordinary early 20th-century Modernist country villa in Surrey being added to the list. The number of bothies, huts, glamping and bunkhouses also reflect the increased variety of housing stock. The trust has a weather eye on the British tourist market, which supplies a massive 95 per cent of its visitors, leavened by a few in-the-know foreigners.
Perhaps a more surprising survivor is the working holiday, which is thriving. These unusual vacations started in 1967 with a specific project, the restoration of the Stratford-upon-Avon Canal. Now there are 150 of them, lasting anything from two to seven nights, and all aimed at various age groups; from 16- to-18-year olds heading out on their own, to vigorous young retirees who are keen to learn new skills such as specialised gardening, tree maintenance, hedge-laying and fencing.
Since the economic turmoil of 2008, holidaying at home has experienced something of a resurgence and there has been a distinct mood of nostalgia for the days when people actually did things with their hands (besides playing Angry Birds or editing selfies). National Trust holidays really came into their own, providing the perfect environment for would-be gardeners, path builders and brick-pointers.
Like many Britons, I frequently plan weekends around a National Trust place I’m keen to visit; and not just in England – the trust also have properties such as Mount Stewart in County Down, Northern Ireland, too.
I remember nights spent inside the famous garden of the Trelissick Estate – feeling as if I owned it – and hearing the formidable Bristol Channel weather while playing ping-pong inside a lighthouse at Lynton on the Exmoor coast.
I love having access to houses and gardens I would have never seen under private ownership – Stowe in Buckinghamshire, say, with its highly politicised landscaping, or the staggering gardens at Stourhead in Wiltshire. Not to mention the equally private Beatles’ houses in Liverpool, the Back-to-Backs in Birmingham, or the inside of the working cotton mill at Quarry Bank.
While I sympathise with National Trust naysayers – I’ve met locals who have seen a pay carpark introduced at their favourite beach, and visitors exasperated by the expense of food in the cafés – I can see with an ever-increasing population and millions of cars, such things are hard to avoid.
Mainly, though, I think of all the landscapes that might have been built over, and all the architecture and decorative arts that might have been bulldozed or sold, and all the knowledge we might have lost had the trust not come into being – and think that, while it may not be perfect, it’s ours. And it’s all thanks to Octavia, Robert and Hardwicke.
20 of the best National Trust holidays for 2020
1. Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottage, Devon
It’s exciting just getting to this cottage, via a zig-zagging ribbon of road down a precipitous Exmoor cliff – to emerge facing the sea, the birds and the weather. You can walk to the charming twin villages of Lynton and Lynmouth (not advised for anyone with vertigo). It is great for large groups with a games room and terrace.
Sleeps 10; three nights from £836
2. Priest’s House, Kent
This gabled cottage with its warm brick, mullioned windows and beams, sits on the edge of the White Garden, part of the famous Sissinghurst gardens established by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson in the Thirties and Forties. You get private access to the gardens and 450-acre estate after all the visitors have gone.
Sleeps six; three nights from £686
3. Mam Farm, Derbyshire
New for 2020, this no-nonsense farmhouse shelters in trees at the bottom of Mam Tor, with views over the Hope Valley. It’s in the gritstone area of the Dark Peak, but not far from the gentler limestones of White Peak and just a 20-minute drive from Edale, the start of the Pennine Way.
Sleeps four; three nights from £324
4. Custom House, Dorset
Pack your ginger beer and sandwiches, Brownsea Island, at the mouth of Poole Harbour, is generally accepted as the inspiration for Enid Blyton’s Kirrin Island. Take the boat from the Sandbanks Jetty (the chain ferry to Studland is now running) or visit the recently-converted Custom House. The highlight? You get an island to yourself.
Sleeps four; three nights from £320
5. Ferry Cottage, Berkshire
This half-timbered cottage is along the river bank from the infamous Spring Cottage owned by society osteopath Stephen Ward – now back in the limelight thanks to the recent mini-series The Trial of Christine Keeler. There’s a terrace by the river, access to the vast Cliveden estate and you can hire a boat or take a trip from Cliveden’s jetty.
Sleeps four; three nights from £415
6. The Tower, Norfolk
Climb up to the roof terrace of this elegant redbrick racing stand, built for the Earl of Buckinghamshire to watch “horse matches” in the 18th century, and you can survey the meadows and woods of the estate that was once home to Anne Boleyn. The symmetrical, pepperpot-towered house is a Jacobean beauty and it’s a 20-minute drive to Norfolk’s lovely beaches.
Sleeps four; three nights from £543
7. Chert, Isle of Wight
Ventnor vies with Cheltenham to be the sunniest place in Britain and where better to appreciate it than in a late-Sixties modernist house? Designed by its owners as two houses in one, it has an extraordinary number of surviving features and an annexe for two additional people.
Sleeps four; three nights from £294. Little Chert annexe sleeps two; three nights from £221
8. Cartref, Gwynedd
Cartref is one of the Trust’s many bothies, a beautifully-modernised, tiny timber house for two. It’s set near a stream in idyllic woods belonging to the nearby working farm and it’s brilliantly placed for walking Snowdonia’s hills. The only downside is that its small size means there’s no shower – you use campsite showers a short walk away.
Sleeps two; three nights from £135
9. West Lodge, Lyme Park, Cheshire
Another new property for 2020, West Lodge is an Edwardian gate lodge at the edge of Lyme Park estate – think Colin Firth’s Mr Darcy emerging from the lake in Pride and Prejudice. Yup, it’s that lake and it’s all yours after hours. The Peak District, with its walking, cycling and plentiful pubs is nearby.
Sleeps four; three nights from £454
10. Gupton Farm Surf Lodge, Pembrokeshire
This is a great group option; 10 people and two dogs can cosy down in the dazzling white cottage with bright blue trimmings, while extras can bring tents or campervans to the campsite next door. It’s a short stroll to the surf beach of Freshwater West while non-surfers can walk, swim or wildlife watch.
Sleeps 10; two nights from £402
11. Lundy Island, Devon
Here’s a chance to live the ranger’s life for a week on the rugged granite outcrop of Lundy Island, which sits in the Bristol Channel north of Hartland Point. The work is mainly fencing or dry-stone walling – a chance to learn new skills – and a bonus is the spectacular bird life, which has seen a huge increase of late.
Seven nights in dormitory rooms in The Barn; £180 pp. Return helicopter flights £131 extra (March 6-13)
12. Easter at Dinefwr Park or Dolaucothi Gold Mine, Carmarthenshire
Not into the physical stuff? This is the one for you: stay in a rather nifty bunkhouse and help the staff at Dinefwr Park (a National Nature Reserve with eighteenth-century landscaping and a deer park) or Roman Dolaucothi Gold Mine with their Easter trails. You could be serving tea, preparing craft activities or parking cars.
Seven nights in Dinefwr Bunkhouse; £190 pp (April 8-15)
13. Victorian Gardening at Cragside, Northumberland
When the industrialist and armaments manufacturer William Armstrong built his state-of-the-art house in the Northumberland landscape, his plan included a stunning garden. This is a chance to learn from the gardening team as they prune the rhododendrons in Europe’s largest rock garden and change formal bedding schemes.
Seven nights in the Cragside Bunkhouse; £190 pp (May 16-23)
14. River restoration, Worcestershire
Even the grandest rivers suffer from a surfeit of reeds, and the elegant waterway at Croome Park – the manmade serpentine lake – is no exception Reed pulling is perfect for waterbabies and if you’ve got a wetsuit or waders, bring them. Your reward is strolling through the Capability Brown grounds after hours, with possible otter sightings.
Six nights at the Croome Campsite; £180pp (June 7-13)
15. Youth Discovery Wasdale, Lake District
This is part of the Trust’s programme is aimed specifically at 16 to 18-year olds holidaying on their own: it’s physically demanding and keeps everyone busy, working with the rangers on dry-stone walling, gate hanging and fences. Added bonuses include sleeping, kayaking and walking by Wastwater. It also operates as a Duke of Edinburgh Award residential project.
Seven nights in dormitory accommodation; £190pp (June 27-July 4)
16. Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire
The Curzon family’s home, a massive Palladian pile north west of Derby, has magnificent parkland with plenty of glorious trees that need looking after. Some need protecting with tree guards, while the really old ones need general care. New trees are also being planted. There’ll be plenty of time to learn about the park and its trees while the bunkhouse is in a quiet setting where you may see badgers, deer and bats.
Seven nights in the Calke Abbey Bunkhouse; £190pp (July 4-11)
17. Woodsman’s Weekend, West Sussex
The 1,400-acre Slindon Estate sits on the South Downs between Arundel and Chichester and needs people to make wood products such as charcoal, fencing and greenwood crafts – a great chance to learn skills from the rangers. There are also circular walks, cycling and geocaching.
Four nights in the Slindon Bunkhouse; £140pp (July 10-14)
18. Nature and Wildlife Surveying, Devon
Join the rangers on Arlington Court’s elegant Regency estate. You’ll be counting bats, butterflies and bees and planting plugs of Devil’s-bit-Scabious grown by Arlington’s gardeners to draw rare marsh fritillary butterflies.
Seven nights in the stonebuilt Arlington Bunkhouse; £190pp (July 25-August 1)
19. MTB Trails Build and Ride, Pembrokeshire
Here, you not only get to dig a new trail to add to the four miles of mountain bike routes already on the estate – you also get to test them. The focus this year is a short skills loop for new riders. Bring your own mountain bike and helmet and make time for the amazing nearby beaches.
Seven nights in the Stackpole Estate Bunkhouse; £230pp (August 1-8)
20. Family Fun in the Dales, North Yorkshire
This is one of the Trust’s small programme of working family holidays. Children of all ages will enjoy learning woodland skills such as making tree guards and protecting the footpaths, and generally care for the Upper Wharfdale landscape in the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales.
Four nights in bunkrooms in a converted barn; £120pp (August 10-13)
For the working holidays, you’ll be sleeping in a bunkhouse or a tent, so check whether bedding and work equipment (such as bikes and wetsuits) are provided. All of the above can be found at: nationaltrust.org.uk/holidays
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