Remember 1995 and the National Trust’s centenary celebrations ?
In the SW, at Corfe Castle, after 349 years, huge blocks of the Civil War demolished 11th century Keep… were slid to one side to reopen the Inner Ward gate;
at Kingston Lacy, we excavated the gateway of Shapwick’s 4th century Roman fort (a surprise, it was thought to be 1st century) and the storage pits and ditches of the Iron Age settlement beneath.
Now the National Trust celebrates 125 years of existence and it’s appropriate to quote the Director -General in the opening page of the 2020 handbook.
‘On 12th January 1895, The National Trust was founded. Home to 100 members paying ten shillings each, the organisation looked after 4 1/2 acres of land at Dinas Oleu in North Wales. Our first President, the Duke of Westminster, told co-founder Octavia Hill
‘mark my words Miss Hill, this is going to be a very big thing’
He was right..’.. there are over 5.9 million members now and NT now cares for over 610,000 acres.
Although the South West cannot claim the first property or building to be owned by the National Trust it does have one or two milestone places.
For a while, this growing, fledgling, conservation charity was able to acquire one or two small significant buildings under threat.
The earliest of these, in the South West Region, (Alfriston Clergy House in Sussex was the first in 1896) was the timber framed and flint cellared Joiners Hall in St Ann’s Street, Salisbury (acquired in 1898). It dates from the late 16th century but the property, with its long thin back garden occupies the footprint of two of the 13th century merchants’ burgage plots of the medieval city.
Then there was stone-built Tintagel Old Post Office in Cornwall acquired in 1903, over 600 years old ‘a medieval manor house in mininature’.
In the early days, the NT had nothing to do with mansions and parklands, which is strange of course because it seems to have become best known for this kind of thing. The truth being, that the organisation did not have the finances to cope with them.
This was until 1905 when Miss Julia Woodward purchased a huge Tudor mansion and estate at Barrington Court in South Somerset for the NT.
One of the NT’s founders Canon Rawnsley visited a seriously delapidated Barrington in the 1890s and tried to persuade the organisation to take an interest. The mansion came on the market in 1904 and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) were concerned by the news that the building might be dismantled and the stone reassembled in Kent. They wanted the place to remain where it was and joined the campaign to persuade NT to acquire Barrington. The response was a request for SPAB to survey the builldings to find out how much it would cost to protect the historic fabric. The architect William Weir carried out the survey and found it basically sound.
After much deliberation, the National Trust accepted the gift from Miss Woodward in July 1907. However, it was soon realised that the amount that had been found for restoration was hopelessly inadequate, and the problem made such an impression on the National Trust Secretary Nigel Bond that even 30 years later (with the exception of Montacute House in 1931, also in South Somerset) he greeted any suggestion of preserving a large house with “We can’t possibly take it on: Remember Barrington!” (Freya Bohea, 2020, Barrington Court Conservation Management Plan,).
1907 was a key year: Octavia Hill and Hardwicke Rawnsley have already been mentioned but the third NT founder Sir Robert Hunter made his particular mark in that year. A talented solicitor and civil servant, he guided a bill through parliament which enabled the National Trust to have a unique ability. The 1907 Act allows NT properties to become inalienable, meaning that they cannot be sold, mortgaged or even compulsorily purchased by the government (without a debate in Parliament). A great asset for long term conservation …..but making land inalienable is a big, long, long term responsibility.
In 1908, holding repairs were commissioned for Barrington but to care for the building properly a wealthy tenant was required.
Colonel Lyle first saw Barrington in 1915 when his architect friend James Edwin Forbes made him aware of the property. From 1921-1925 Lyle’s money (Tate and Lyle sugar) enabled the property to be re-visioned..and 100 yrs on, their work is a significant page in the story of this amazing place encapsulated in Freya’s new conservation plan for the property.
The gardens laid out in the 20s were to the plans of Gertrude Jekyll though not all of her designs were carried out.
To the south, there is a wide lawn, the intricate paths and garden bedding illustrated by Jekyll never materialised. I carried out a geophysical survey there in 2000 and found the pattern of earlier garden features (17th century?) beneath the grass, I had watched a pipe trench across the lawn and saw the layers of archaeology over 1m deep beneath it. Traces of flagstones and footings at the deepest level may have been medieval. Pottery and bone in the layers above dated from the medieval to 18th century.
So Barrington was the first NT mansion and park and in 1909, the Neolithic long barrow known as the White Barrow at Tilshead, Salisbury Plain was the first National Trust property acquired specifically because it was an archaeological site requiring conservation protection. Today it is one unploughed island in a much ploughed landscape.
In the same year Leigh Woods was gifted to the National Trust to protect it from housing development from rapidly expanding Bristol. The Iron Age hilfort of Burgh Walls Camp was levelled at this time but Stokeleigh Camp at Leigh Woods remains a fine earthwork with amazing views out over the Avon Gorge.
The 1910 acquisition of parts of Cheddar Gorge was to protect this extraordinary landscape from the advances of carboniferous limestone quarrying. Much the same as Piggledene near Avebury where the sarsen stone deposits were being worked over and removed for building stone until 1908 when this sliver of land was purchased by National Trust.
Similar needs for conservation have created the National Trust Estate over the last 125 years…. part of the Stonehenge Estate in 1927, Chedworth Roman Villa 1924 and the Cerne Abbas Giant in 1920.
In this the centenary year of the Giant acquisition ….we will attempt to date him… so watch this space.