Farewell to the Trust

I just came back from my last meeting with my line manager to hand over my equipment and staff ID. From this afternoon I am on leave until my official leaving day in a couple of weeks. And so ends eighteen years working for the National Trust.

Yesterday, determined that I should not slip off silently, I had an amazing Zoom call, with cake, cocktails and colleagues from across the country, including one I met on my very first day working for the Trust, almost 18 years ago. It’s a lot longer than I intended to stay. My plan had been to spend a couple of years working in the Trust, then move on into the local authority museums sector. But the Trust was at the same time too welcoming and too exciting – always offering new projects requiring different philosophies, different ways of problem solving, in a collegiate atmosphere where, though we were under-resourced, we all wanted to make things work. We ended up trading anecdotes over that Zoom call, with me being the most forthcoming raconteur – it was my leaving do after all.

So, in no particular order, I thought I would share some of the happy memories I have of the National Trust. There are many things of which I am proud. Very few, if any, are things that I did alone. I celebrate here all the wonderful people I worked with to make these things happen even if, in my enthusiasm, I might sound like they were all my own work. Take for example Speckled Wood , the house in Haslemere that I built 🙂. Honestly, I can’t even say I had a hand in its building as I don’t think I made even one shingle on its roof.

Copyright: National Trust/Dave Elliot

This was ranger Dave Elliot’s vision – long term volunteer accommodation that would heat the neighbouring bunkhouse with green energy and in doing so, manage the surrounding coppiced woodlands in the traditional manner, preserving their rich biodiversity. I like to think I helped Dave get the project approved against some stiff internal opposition, and then recruit dozens of volunteers via our working holidays programme. My central colleagues were not entirely convinced the project would be a popular holiday, but they sold out very quickly.

One of the first projects I was involved in was the acquisition and opening of the Homewood, a modernist house in Esher. We predicted two difficulties – most of it was on the first floor and only accessible via a spiral staircase, and we expected far more interest, especially from the architectural professional community, than the building could accommodate in its first year. So I commissioned a virtual tour of the place, working with the lovely people from Corvidae, who were selected in competitive tender. It was not the first virtual tour the Trust – the tender process had shown me that – but the quality across the organisation was very variable. So working with the then head of access and a project manager from our IT department we went out to tender for a national single supplier for virtual tours. Corvidae won that bid too, and together we created a solution that was award winning. I remember we were genuinely surprised by that win – we had sat ourselves right in the middle of the auditorium and had a devil of the time getting to the stage to receive the presentation.

The wonderful virtual tour team, with Heather Smith, plus Steve, Annabel, James and me Copyright National Trust

That wasn’t the only award I have had a hand in. I was heavily involved in Lifting the Lid, a huge conservation project at The Vyne, near Basingstoke, which required a complete re-presentation of the place while the work was on-going. We took the opportunity to tell some its hidden stories, in particular its role in Tudor royal politics. We submitted it for the Interpret Britain awards, and won, not just for our category, but the overall Award for Excellence in Interpretation. The judges called it “an exemplar of how we would like to see interpretation develop in the future, and for other organisations to take inspiration from.” That feels good. My wife, Sue, reminded me yesterday that I won a more personal recognition in my early years too – a Regional Director’s discretionary award. No certificate or anything but and extra £150 on my payslip. I remember I spent it taking my team out for a meal and by buying a croquet mallet and balls so I could use the croquet lawns at Polesen Lacey (where the old regional office was) at lunchtimes.

Sometimes the recognition not an award, is a smile of acknowledgment that means more than any prize. One example that sticks in my mind is the opening of the house at Scotney Castle. I was involved in that in a number of ways, from what we now call Experience Design though learning planning to recruiting volunteers. When I (with the help of a central colleague called Earle, and the house team) created a plan to recruit 140 new volunteers in six weeks, I remember the manager of a neighbouring property saying we would not succeed. But we did. Her smile and nod was all the reward I needed.

Copyright: National Trust/Matthew Tyler-Jones

Down the road from Scotney is Batemans, Rudyard Kipling’s home. Working there, especially on a project “to bring Kipling’s voice back into his home” was its own reward. We had all sorts of aural offerings, a rare recording of an actual speech Kipling gave, to readings of the Jungle Book and from his letters. But one of my favourite memories was picking up folk singer of the year (multiple years) John Boden at the local station and driving him to Batemans to record a rendition of Kipling’s poem The Land, which was about Batemans, on to wax (!) to play on a cylinder-player in Kipling’s parlour. This after discovering that Kipling readings were popular recordings on wax cylinder even when we lived. So John Boden’s efforts sat alongside other, contemporary recordings that we had reproduced onto less fragile cylinders.

So many other memories come rushing as I try to draw this post to a close, all hoping to get included. The “One Ring” Exhibition at the Vyne, which was my idea and hit the news all over the world (this Maev Kennedy piece got us in hot water with the Tolkien Estate). Getting Box Hill ready for the Olympics and commissioning a Richard Long piece. Tasting wine when I sat of the Regional Management Team and were were planning that to serve at the annual members conference dinner that (back in those days) used to be hosted by reach region in turn. Standing on the roof of Petworth House, the only time I have every suffered from vertigo. Standing high in the scaffolding on the ruins at Nymans, or within Cobham Mausoleum, looking closely at things visitor would only see from far away. Walking the clifftops of the White Cliffs with the old property manager there, and learning first hand what “dogging” was (I was so innocent). Creating introductory films about places as diverse as Knole (about twice as long as I wanted it but entertaining none-the-less), Uppark and Bodiam castle. Writing a guidebook for Reigate Fort. Walking in so many parks and gardens, in so much countryside, in so many beautiful places and having to remind myself “I am getting paid to do this!”

To the people I leave behind at the Trust I leave this thought. Yes, you have lost a lot of good colleagues (not least me!) with this on-going covid-created restructure. But a lot of the amazing things we did, we did with tiny overstretched teams, maybe its a good thing – to be under resourced, maybe it will force people to cooperate even more and be even more creative. You will do even better things and have even more precious memories of what you did when I have gone. But… here is a priority list of things you need to do, some of the things I failed to do:

  • Restore the bridge at the Vyne, and the original visitor approach to the house
  • Create Dan Dare themed interpretation for the New Battery (Britain’s 1950’s rocket testing station)on the Isle of Wight
  • Turn the icehouse fire station at Petworth into an ice cream parlour that sells chilli flavoured ice cream
  • And please, please, please fix in the visitor infrastructure at Hinton Ampner!

Over, and out.

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