Frank Field MP
Your MP for Birkenhead
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Can the National Trust see things we can't?

10
Aug
On Saturday, I visited Wallington, a National Trust property in Northumberland. It was one of the homes of the Trevelyans and was given to the National Trust by Sir Charles Philip Trevelyan a Liberal, and then a Labour politician. His brother George Macaulay Trevelyan, was perhaps the greatest and certainly the most successful historian of his day.

I also visited Craigside - the house that Lord Armstrong built for himself for what was once a wonderful view over Northumberland's stunning countryside. I say was because the National Trust has allowed horrible conifers to grow so the view that Lord Armstrong saw is now literally cut off.

This is not a plea for the National Trust to cut back some of these conifers to restore the site to what it was in Lord Armstrong's day, although that would not be too bad an idea. It is rather to comment on the darkness of both houses.

Saturday in Northumberland was a proper summer so that, at times, sunlight would have lit up both houses. But both establishments appeared dressed for a funeral. In Wallington, in particular, blinds were drawn in some rooms, to keep out the natural light.

The house does not have fine pictures as do some great country houses and other establishments. But there are personal collections of considerable interest.

The best room for paintings was what is called Lady Trevelyan's Parlour. Here there are works of Edward Burne-Jones, by Turner, by John Ruskin, Lord Leighton and William Bell-Scott.

The room was so gloomy that it was impossible to see the paintings as visitors were moved through a very limited corridor with most of the room roped off on both sides. The Trust offered a plastic folder so that in the semi-darkness visitors could "see" what was on the walls. One could not properly see the pictures oneself.

When we came out into bright sunlight to have coffee, I read the guide which told me who the artists were of the pictures I couldn't see. We went back and asked for readmittance.

Here is one of the great strengths of the National Trust. Each room was well attended and the two volunteers staffing the door were only too pleased to allow us back in to see whether we could spy better what we now knew to be the paintings.

More farce was to follow. Once back in the room, I discovered from the plastic folder that one of the paintings behind the door was by Roger Fry. But the door was open and the area in front of it was roped off. Try as I may to hold on to the door, and get my head around it to get as near as I could to the Fry painting, I could not see the work, even in outline. What I could not see on the wall I went back to view in the plastic folder.

What is the National Trust up to? Anyone can understand why a room would be screened from bright sunlight. But even in an English summer that sunlight rarely lasts for the whole day on the same room.

For the first time in my life I came away with a different view about the National Trust. I watch gangs of tourists, from the UK and abroad, being taken round London with their guides holding up umbrellas yelling about moving on to the next site. It is like a military operation. The parties seem happy enough to move and tick off another building from their itinerary.

But does the National Trust realise that, if Wallington is anything to go by, visiting one of these great buildings is being changed significantly for the visitor. Is one going to be given enough light and be able to get near enough to exhibits to enjoy their splendour? Or are we moving to the foreign tourist guide party where quick squeaks from guide operators take visitors on to the next room and then the next building?
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