Christopher Stocks


Tenants of the National Trust | NT Magazine

Greenways house, DevonWhat’s the first question that comes into your mind when you visit a National Trust house? Is it ‘How do they dust that plasterwork?’ Or do you think, like me, ‘I wonder what it would be like to live here?’ Well, as it happens there are several thousand people who could tell you, because they’re tenants of the Trust. Surprisingly, perhaps, only a few of them live in the historic houses that are open to you and me: in fact the majority of the Trust’s tenants live in perfectly ordinary houses – though often in marvellous surroundings.

We’re all familiar with the Trust’s role as guardian of some of Britain’s most beautiful countryside and grandest stately homes, but what’s less well known is that as the country’s largest landowner it also owns something like 5,000 cottages and 700 farms, not to mention 40 villages or more, from the Lake District down to Cornwall. And while few of these smaller properties are open to the public, the people who live in them are among the unsung heroes of the National Trust. For without their care, and the income from their rents, many of these properties – and the communities they form part of – would face an extremely uncertain future. These days we hear, quite rightly, about the immense contribution made by the Trust’s 38,000 volunteers. But spare a thought for the thousands of tenants who support the Trust in a less visible way, and often at considerable cost to themselves. As the Trust’s Land Use Director, David Riddle, says, ‘Tenants are our partners in conservation. There is no better way to conserve a building than to keep it in the use it was intended for.’

Peter and Sally Bate live in a picture-perfect thatched cottage on the Trust’s 12,500-acre Holnicote estate. Peter is regional sales manager for a double-glazing company, driving a thousand miles a week down narrow country lanes, while Sally is a nurse at the local hospital. ‘We adore it,’ Peter says, ‘and we wouldn’t move for anything. I was brought up in a big town, so for me one of the greatest joys of living here is being able to see the stars at night.’ Peter is enthusiastic about the community spirit which brings together often widely scattered neighbours on the Holnicote estate. ‘There’s a great sense of community,’ he says. ‘It’s like having your own soap opera: there’s plenty of gossip, but people really do care for each other. And that’s something you wouldn’t have if the Trust had sold off all its cottages.’

At the rather grander end of the scale, George Cruddas lives at Hydes House, a Grade 1 listed Queen Anne house in Dinton, a few miles west of Salisbury. It stands in the grounds of Philipps House, which was given to the Trust by George’s family in 1943, with the stipulation that Hydes House should continue to be occupied by a member of the family. With its justly celebrated gardens and a lovely setting overlooking the National Trust park and lake, Hydes House sounds like an enviable place to live. And it is, but George’s tenancy also includes more than its fair share of financial responsibility – including spending a six-figure sum on improvements. ‘With some small exceptions,’ George explains, ‘the cost of all repairs, improvements and maintenance is borne by myself.’ And though the house itself isn’t open to the public, he welcomes people to his garden for a number of charities, including the National Gardens Scheme.

The question of maintenance is a complicated, and occasionally vexed one. The Trust acquired most of its farms and cottages as part and parcel of the great country estates given to it by generous donors over the years. Some of these estates were run on model lines, but others had been in long-term decline, and their estate cottages were often in need of serious attention. The Kingston Lacy estate in Dorset was a fairly typical example, as the Trust’s director for Northumbria, David Ronn, recently recalled. ‘Of the hundreds of cottages on the estate, many were in a shambolic condition, some were barely habitable and others had already fallen down. I went to the Agent’s house one Saturday morning to find that about a third of his house had fallen down in the night. Water getting into cob walls with insufficient structural support was to blame; the result could have been fatal.’

Fortunately none of the Trust’s properties are quite as life-threatening today, but keeping abreast of maintenance and repairs is a cyclopean task – especially when the Trust’s backlog of works for buildings and collections alone stands at an eye-watering £200 million. Some tenants, like Peter Bate, feel that often substantial rent increases over the last few years have not always been reflected in better standards of maintenance. ‘It might look idyllic, but our electrics have been condemned for years,’ he says, ‘and some of our windows are literally falling out. In the past that wouldn’t have mattered so much because rents were relatively low, but now most tenants pay a market rent and their expectations are understandably higher.’ Part of the problem, he thinks, is that raising money for repairs to the Trust’s thousands of smaller properties is never likely to capture the public imagination. ‘It’s just not a sexy subject – not like Tyntesfield, for example, where the Trust was able to raise millions of pounds in less than a couple of months.’ Unfortunately, as Peter acknowledges, the Trust finds itself caught between a rock and hard place: unable to fund a major overhaul of its rural properties, and yet prohibited by its charitable status from raising money on the open market.

On the other hand, when the Trust does undertake repairs, its standards are second to none, as Jim and Gilla Primrose appreciate. They live in the Priest’s House at Muchelney, at the heart of the Somerset Levels, which was painstakingly restored and modernised in the early 1990s to the tune of £200,000. It’s a fascinating house that dates back to the 14th century, grand despite its modest size, which in 1911 was saved from demolition by a public appeal whose donors included Thomas Hardy and George Bernard Shaw. It’s unusual for one of the Trust’s smaller houses in being open to the public, albeit just for two afternoons a week. ‘When we moved in just over a year ago we were actually quite excited about showing people round,’ says Jim, who was a Farm and Countryside Adviser for the Trust before setting up on his own. ‘On the whole it’s been a very positive experience, though you do find the occasional person wandering around the garden or staring through the windows. We get lots of visitors who live in similar kinds of houses, and they’re interested in comparing how the Trust looks after this one.’

The last year has been a life-changing experience to Jim and Gilla – not least because their first child was born just four weeks after moving in. They sold their own house to take up the tenancy, and now Jim runs his own business providing farmers with advice on environmental issues, doing much of the practical work (such as hedge-laying and coppicing) himself. They have also started their own smallholding. ‘So far we’ve got Red Devon cattle, Wiltshire Horn sheep and a few chickens, and we may add some geese and pigs. If we get a surplus we’re hoping to sell some eggs to visitors, and maybe our own jam.’ For Jim it’s like a dream come true. ‘Moving here gave us the opportunity to live in a house we couldn’t have possibly afforded to buy, and enabled us to reorganise our working lives.’ Thanks to people like Jim and Gilla, the Priest’s House – and thousands of houses like it – can look forward to a long life yet.