Being offered a lottery ticket in the middle of your visit might seem closer to Ryanair than to the National Trust, but last Sunday when I visited a National Trust property (Melford Hall, Suffolk) I was invited by one of the charming volunteers to buy a Trust lottery ticket. Perhaps the NT is indeed moving in the direction of the relentless marketing that so disfigured Ryanair. After you have been asked to become an annual member three times by separate volunteers when entering one property, then invited to pay more via Gift Aid and told that purchase of a guidebook will aid the National Trust, you begin - certainly I began - to think that the marketing is intrusive.
Unfortunately, such an approach is today commonplace with National Trust properties. Equally, I expect at least one of the volunteers to tell me proudly when I visit any stately home owned by the Trust that the family still lives there - despite the fact that the Trust has owned this particular property for more than 50 years, which suggests the family who formerly owned the property are not just tenants. When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a very enthusiastic woman who told me immediately the classic statement, that the family still lives here. In fact, when all the visitors have gone home, the family comes out and uses these main rooms (which sounded rather creepy).
No, all of this was unsurprising. What was new was the content and the tone of the guidebook, Fortune, Fate and Family. Since it was published as recently as 2012, I expected it to follow the current style in guidebooks, for example the English Heritage guide to Thorpe Hall in Northamptonshire, you would expect an increased emphasis on social history, on individual life stories.
But in this case, the Melford guidebook has abandoned any description of the house at all. It’s not a guidebook in any accepted sense, simply a collection of life stories around various individuals involved in the house. If you already know the history, it makes sense. If you don't, you have to piece the story together from other sources.
There are guides available in the house. You can pick up for free a colour guide to each room, and to the paintings. These guides contain excellent information, none of which is found in the guidebook you pay for.
The guide begins with the smiling Hyde Parker family, who welcome us to what "has always been a family home" (they carefully don't say they no longer own it, but they look for all the world as if they do own it. Indeed, in every room of the house, there are small family photographs, placed alongside, in front of, and around the paintings and other decorations. It certainly gives the impression that they own the house.
Perhaps I am unusual, but I don't visit old houses to celebrate the aristocrats who used to live there. And I certainly don't visit houses to be given a rosy view of history from the guidebook. Here is the guidebook authors' interpretation of the Dissolution of the Monasteries:
John Reeve, the last abbot of St Edmonsbury ... came from a wealthy Long Melford family and during his tenure of office he enhanced the manor buildings considerably. He was forced to surrender the abbey and all its possessions to Henry VIII in 1539. Although granted a substantial pension, he died a broken man in 1540.
Let us remember that Melford Hall was simply the abbot's hunting lodge. His main property was up the road in Bury St Edmunds, and I don't suppose he was living in poverty in his main residence.
Here are some excerpts from the guidebook for the 20th century, where the tone becomes increasingly celebratory:
1913 saw great celebrations at Melford Hall to mark the coming-of-age of the heir, William Hyde Parker ... to many it must have seemed that a new and happy chapter was beginning. ... [After World War 2] they renovated with creativity and commitment ... Lady Hyde Parker's distinctive taste for interior design ... she applied her tastes with brilliant results, producing a sense of Scandinavian light and transparency ... In the 1980s the Hyde Parker children planted acorns from the park to replicate the lines of the original medieval avenues.
And the final paragraph deserves to be printed in full:
Everyone at Melford Hall is keen for you to see a house, not frozen in its past but one full of character and stories, which has survived centuries of strife and success, glory and grim determination.
Who wrote all this? The acknowledgements state proudly that "as the first volunteers invited to write a property book, we have drawn on the previous editions of guidebooks." So this is the new National Trust! We aren't really interested in the 17th-century needlework that is hidden in a corridor alongside the cafe and which is missed by 99% of the visitors. Instead, the important thing is that we bask in a wave of nostalgia for the families who used to own the house.
Melford Hall, like many other country estates, seemed largely unaltered by the passing years, but the wind of change was blowing ... changing social attitudes meant that country estates were often regarded as antiquated.
That "often regarded as" seems so condemning! Of course, we wouldn't see country estates as aintiquated at all! As good National Trust members, we will ignore the design, the furnishings, the architecture, and the pictures, and celebrate the continuance of the tradition. You can read it from the section headings in the guide: "Phoenix from the ashes ... Still writing the story ... Part of the village since time immemorial". That's how history should be written. The important thing is that the family still live here.