In the oak-panelled Great Chamber at Sutton House, beside a rare example of an original carved Tudor fireplace, a party has exploded. A drag queen dressed as Margaret Thatcher wearing red stripper heels and giant fake pearls is grinding against a young man in a leather jacket to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. As the crowd throws shapes under disco lights, Sir Ralph Sadleir, a prominent courtier of Henry VIII who built Sutton House in 1535, looks down from his gilt frame unamused.
In the gift shop of the oldest residence in Hackney, east London, beside the National Trust tea towels, jam and chintzy English biscuit tins, are posters for the Gay Liberation Front. Next to the lemon curd, two men in matching leather jackets chug prosecco and snog.
Somewhere in the Tudor drawing room where courtiers once dined, the author Alan Hollinghurst bops amid the throng. This party, themed on his Booker prize-winning book The Line of Beauty, explores the period of 1980s British history when Thatcher introduced Section 28, banning schools and local authorities from “intentionally promoting” homosexuality. It forms part of the National Trust’s Queer Stories in Britain series, marking half a century since the decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It also represents something else: the controversial new face of the National Trust.
You cannot be British and not have a soft spot for the National Trust. Spending a day being dragged around one of its properties should be part of the citizenship test — it’s as British as a Sunday roast. I hear its name and am transported to a childhood in Wales spent sitting in rainy car parks of castles.
It holds a place in the British psyche no other charity does. “For ever, for everyone” is its motto, and with it a commitment that began in 1895, later underpinned by an act of parliament, to preserve lands and buildings of beauty or historic interest for “the benefit of the nation”. With more than 300 properties and 247,000 hectares of land, it is one of the UK’s biggest landowners. Last year, it played host to an estimated 224m visitors. We love the National Trust — but we also love to be angry with it.
In recent years, rows have erupted like pimples on the trust’s beautifully preserved visage. Stirrings began in 2010 when visitors interested in English Renaissance architecture arrived at Hardwick Hall, in Derbyshire, to be greeted by staff wearing period fancy dress. Accusations of “Disneyfication” were revived in 2015, when the director-general, Dame Helen Ghosh, introduced a programme of “decluttering” houses and installing interactive exhibitions.
As I write, outrage has erupted over how cream teas are served at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. The staff there have been accused of constructing their scones incorrectly — the Cornish way is to have the cream on top of the jam; vice versa belongs over the Tamar in Devon, apparently.
For traditionalists, such transgressions are the tip of the iceberg. Far fiercer battles are afoot, reflecting the culture wars raging in society at large. Last year, trust members including Sir Ranulph Fiennes campaigned for a vote to stop National Trust land being used for trail hunting — where an artificial scent is laid and no animal is supposed to be captured or killed. This has long been viewed by animal rights campaigners as a way of circumventing the hunting ban. “These hunts are still killing foxes, hares and stags,” Fiennes said. The traditionalists won out; the trust voted against a ban last October.
The charity’s attempts to modernise are regularly met with derision by those who accuse them of “pursuing an obsessively politically correct social agenda”. The focus on LGBT issues last year saw “outraged” volunteers at Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk forced to wear rainbow lanyards or be relegated to backroom jobs. As part of a drive to introduce “queer stories” to properties, Felbrigg Hall’s last lord of the manor, Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, was “outed”, angering his family. The former squire, who was described as “intensely private”, died in 1969, aged 63, just two years after homosexuality was decriminalised. At Kingston Lacy, in Dorset, an installation featuring 51 ropes suspended from the ceiling recalls men who were hanged because of their sexuality. It was labelled “totally inappropriate” by the Tory MP Andrew Bridgen.
This year, the trust’s Woman and Power initiative is proving similarly divisive. In an article for the National Trust Magazine, Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, described being groped on a bus, infuriating some commentators who questioned whether this was “what trust members really want to read”.
Ann Widdecombe has declared “the National Trust has lost its way completely”. Sir Roy Strong believes it is beginning “to alienate its own public”. Sir Max Hastings has cancelled his membership. Even Ghosh, who has departed for a post at Balliol College, Oxford, admits “some of our more traditional visitors have felt they are not being catered for as they once felt they were”.
“I couldn’t disagree more with those sentiments,” Tim Parker, the trust’s chairman, tells me, shaking his head.
YOU CAN READ THE FULL FEATURE HERE: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-national-trust-exposed-has-it-lost-the-plot-75c0vr6nx