…I don’t want the house to be a tourist trap or preserved in aspic. I want it to have real life again.
That’s businessman Roger Gawn, quoted by Rupert Christiansen, talking about Melton Constable Hall, the Norfolk house he has been busy renovating and turning into residential units and workshops for local craftsmen.
The future of the house (where The Go-Between was filmed) is being secured without the ‘dead hand’ (Christiansen’s words) of the National Trust.
This got me thinking once more about the NT. Yes, many of their properties are tourist traps – you don’t have to venture beyond one of their enormous car parks to realise this. The feel and character of a private residence is almost totally lost once it’s open to the paying public and devotes outbuildings to selling gifts and pricey tea and cakes. But on the other hand, a room-to-room wander around a typical property uncovers fascinating nuggets of information (often courtesy of enthusiastic volunteers) about the life and times of former owners, not forgetting all manner of marvellous objects and paintings.
So it’s perhaps better to think of these houses as museums, and not dwell on their former use and purpose (often you’ll find that the furniture and ceramics didn’t originally belong to the house anyway). Consider Tate Modern: we appreciate it for what it is now, and what it contains within its generous spaces, and don’t spend our visits trying to imagine what it was like back in the days when it was a power station.
But I do think the NT, rather than throwing its considerable commercial gains around ‘saving’ houses, should recognise that many a new, private owner is in an equally good position to save the main fabric of a house and make reasonable changes to the interior, which in a house of any age will have changed many times in any case. The use to which he then puts the property could help the local economy, rather than just the bank account of a national heritage organisation with a headquarters and lots of staff in Swindon to maintain. It can still open to the public by invitation or on certain days of the year.