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Is the National Trust in crisis?

Updated Thursday, 10th July 2014
Our ageing society is struggling to manage its national treasures, writes Dick Skellington

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Society Matters National trust I visited Snowshill Manor, high on its hill top in the Cotswolds, last month. The Manor is a wonderful example of how the National Trust is enriching lives, especially those like me who are now retired, and have time on their hands.
Henry VIII's sixth wife, Catherine Parr, once lived there, and the Manor is now home to a treasure trove of 22,000 objects collected by the former owner, architect and artist, Charles Wade.
Mr Wade also arranged for the production of plays in his living room often with an audience of one, the playwright J.B.Priestley, who called him 'my eccentric, but charming friend of the fantastic manor house'. Mr Wade's motto was 'let nothing perish'.
The objects include toys, penny farthings, sewing machines, model ships, Samurai armour, a magical collection of musical instruments, books, furniture from around the world, and more clocks than I have ever seen in one place. The clocks in working order ticked and tocked in the rooms, reminding visitors of time passing.
Charles did not live in the Manor House. He chose to live frugally in the Priest's House next door which confirms just how eccentric Mr Wade really was. He lived by candle light and began collecting things when he was just eight years old. Wade reflected: '‘I have not bought things because they were rare or valuable. My guiding essentials have been good design, colour and workmanship. What a joy these old things are to live with, each piece made by the hand of a craftsman, each has feeling that no machine could ever attain. Though each room of the house is filled with items of interest, each has a restful atmosphere. They are rooms to linger in – rooms one must return to – rooms where there is always something to discover – rooms which inspire a thousand fancies’.
Now it seems time is passing for the volunteers who look after Snowshill Manor. The Trust has been warned that its ageing volunteers are struggling to cope with the pressures of longer opening hours, increased visitor numbers, and guided tours.
Last year the National Trust relied on a workforce of over 70,000 volunteers - a record for the organisation, but its expansion of new properties and changing habits are stretching resources. Some National Trust properties require up to 1,000 volunteers a year to keep them running efficiently.
Visiting a National Trust property certainly reminds you of your own mortality. Most of the visitors are pensioners, and most of the volunteers very old pensioners. At Snowshill I took the motorised golf buggy up to the Manor and chatted to John the driver, a volunteer from a nearby village. He said he was not supposed to be working that day, but had come in because both the other buggy drivers were ill, one recovering from a new hip operation after a fall.
I have long admired the army of veteran volunteers who manage the vast array of visitors and tourists. Snowshill is not unusual in that there is a volunteer standing in every one of its two dozen rooms, each willing to provide help and those fascinating small details that can make a National Trust visit so memorable.
I will never forget entering a bedroom on the top floor of ancient Chastleton House, a Jacobean pile near Stow-on-the -Wold. It was February and snow lay on the ground outside. The house was freezing and a frail volunteer stood in front of a one bar electric fire, the kind my mother used to get out of storage at bath time back in the sixties.
It was bitter cold. I asked about the bed, noting its smallness. Well, it was early 16th century. The volunteer, who looked like he'd been standing there for hours, said: 'I'll tell you a story sir, not about the bed, but the bed cover. The wife of the owner started to make the quilt when she got married and promised to give it to her daughter for her wedding day. But she was childless when she started to make it. Children came, and children went, the boys survived, the girls died. She carried on making the quilt until it was finished 23 years after she started. She kept it and when she died her husband had her body laid on this bed and covered in the quilt she had taken years to make for daughters who never lived long enough to get married.'
Such a sweet anecdote about a mother's love and expectations. Every National Trust property can tell a story like that, and the volunteers who tell them enrich our lives. They make each visit rewarding, not just the home-made scones in the tea rooms. And it is because of them we go back, even to favourite places we have been to many times before.
Most of the volunteers are retired and many are in their late 70s and 80s. Standing on duty is very tiring and many are now too frail to carry on. There is a real danger that the National Trust army of volunteers will soon be overstretched. In a letter to The Times, one volunteer wrote in June: 'We have lost all our youthful stamina...some frailer guides are choosing to reduce their availability because it is becoming just too demanding', she explained.
Changes in employment law mean that more of us will be working long into our late sixties. The National Trust benefitted from a rump of early retirees leaving on final salary schemes in the 90s. The growing popularity of all year round cruises has also impacted on availability, while some think that we have become too selfish in our dotage.
The increasing number of retired folk now caring for their own children's children while they go out to work is also having a negative impact. It seems there is a looming volunteer shortfall as time and social habits and responsibilities change. There is no longer a reserve army of little old ladies. Recruitment policies need to be reframed for a new order. The Trust is considering 'micro-volunteering' where volunteers work shorter shifts alongside a job elsewhere, while the Trust is also expanding its online and administrative functions which will mean some volunteers can work from home.
The situation may not be desperate just yet. There have been growing signs in the last decade of a growth in youth volunteering, and if the economy continues to recover recessionary impacts on recruitment will be reduced. Some expect an increase in intern-style roles, rather than relying so much on retired volunteers.
I have decided to help. I have offered to volunteer for the Trust. I am hoping for a placement this summer at Ascot House near Wing in Buckinghamshire, one of my favourite Trust locations, but I would go anywhere within 25 miles of my home.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it.
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Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.


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