I was on the Clent Hills in Worcestershire on Friday morning, there to meet the local MP and secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Sajid Javid. This area of National Trust-owned woodland and common is a historic “green lung” for the people of the Birmingham. When I arrived at 9 am, it was rammed with people there to watch the eclipse; in the course of the morning we saw dog walkers, geography students on a field trip, runners and riders (bikes and horses), and lots of people just out for a stroll on a sunny morning, enjoying the amazing views across to the Black Country and beyond.
I’d invited Sajid to join us there to talk about what we have been up to on his doorstep. He met Jacko, organising some wood clearing work with a group of teenage boys who have been suspended from school in the centre of the city. They are now part of the Green Academies programme which we set up a few years ago with Birmingham Youth Service to help give disadvantaged young people a more positive future.
They learn practical skills in countryside management, alongside our rangers and volunteers, and some go on to formal qualifications and permanent jobs. Jacko is a graduate of the programme himself, now an amazingly impressive and energetic leader and role model for the boys.
National Trust aims to ‘nurse British countryside back to health’
All this, you might say, is a far cry from the stately homes, tea towels and scones which the name National Trust usually conjures up. But this kind of activity is going on at lots of National Trust properties across the country.
The 200m visits we get to our countryside each year – whether in the wild uplands, along the coast, on the local common or up on the Downs – outnumber the 20m visits to our houses and gardens by 10 to one. People from all backgrounds love and value the beauty and variety of our countryside and the green places on their doorstep.
Everyone has their own idea of what the National Trust is for. Over the 120 years of our existence, we have always responded to the needs of the moment, under our flexible statutory purpose “to promote the preservation of places of historic interest and natural beauty … for the benefit of the nation”.
Octavia Hill, Robert Hunter and Hardwick Rawnsley, our trio of founders in 1895, were passionate about providing green lungs in and around our towns and cities for the urban population.
In the mid-20th century, we responded to the destruction of the English country house, by taking on these great cultural treasures (in many cases, in lieu of death duties) and opening them to the public to enjoy.
In the 1960s we responded to the despoliation of parts of our coastline by launching our most successful campaign ever, Project Neptune, which so far has enabled us to buy 775 miles of coast for public access.
So what do we think is the greatest challenge in 2015, and how can we play our part? We think we’ve done a decent job in terms of the role we’ve played in protecting the built heritage. We need to do more to make sure that people can enjoy and understand these historic places, and feel that they are relevant to the word they live in now. We also need to make sure we protect “ordinary” places as well as grand ones.
Our Back to Backs in Birmingham, or the Beatles houses in Liverpool are places which our visitors love because they strike a chord with their own lives and family history.
But where our founders would say we have all failed – as a nation – is in protection of our countryside and wildlife: 60% of wildlife species are in decline. Much loved birds and animals we once thought common – house sparrows, hedgehogs, skylarks – are now endangered.
Intensive farming, often driven by wrong-headed subsidy regimes, has impoverished the richness of our landscapes and put at risk the essential role which the natural environment plays in providing us with productive soils, clean air and fresh water. Climate change will accelerate that decline, as habitats change irrevocably and extreme weather wreaks its havoc, not least as it did on our coastline 12 months ago.
That’s why, over the next 10 years, the National Trust will be focusing on playing its part in reversing this damage, and creating the healthy and beautiful natural environment we need. We’ll be working with the tenant farmers on our own 250,000 hectares of land, to improve the environmental outcomes while ensuring they still have a viable farm business. With other partners – RSPB, the Woodland Trust, local Wildlife Trusts and landowners – we’ll be working to create richer habitats on a landscape scale.
And we will be welcoming everyone to come and see for themselves what we are up to. You will be able to see it in action up on the Clent Hills or on National Trust land near you!