Outdoors: It's time to restore our Trust ...

The National Trust, set up to preserve the countryside, is accused of being a body for townies.
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BEFORE CLOSE of business yesterday a package loaded with verbal dynamite was delivered to the head office of the National Trust in London. It contained eight nominations for election to the Trust's council at the next annual general meeting in November, together with supporting documents, and two resolutions deploring the Trust's recent conduct and attitude.

The missive emanated from Font - Friends of the National Trust - an organisation recently formed by Jo Collins, a barrister, and her husband Charles, a surgeon, who live at Crowcombe in Somerset. The spur that goaded them into action was the Trust's ban on stag-hunting over its land in the West Country, and its reneging on the wishes of an important donor, Sir Richard Acland, who expressly stated that he wanted hunting to continue over his land. Since then, however, anger has been fomented by numerous other aggravations, not least a general ban on falconry and the Trust's refusal to allow bonfire beacons to be lit on its properties during the demonstration preceding the countryside march through London on 1 March this year.

"Do you still trust the National Trust?" demands Font's leaflet. "If you have left the National Trust in disgust, please rejoin and let Font know." The aim of the new body is to exert pressure from the inside, and bring the Trust back on to a line of management that shows greater understanding of country issues.

In a few weeks Font has acquired 600 members. In the words of one land agent, "The main concern is that the Trust is now a townie body, run by townies, and the greatest worry is that it has started going against the wishes of donors. I'm a trustee for many estates; several people have said to me, `If I should die, for God's sake don't let my property go anywhere near the National Trust'."

One of the most outspoken critics is Robert Waley-Cohen, who, "as a gesture of anger", has removed "a significant amount of furniture, by volume and by value" from Upton Court, the country house near Banbury left to the Trust in 1948 by his wife's grandfather, Lord Bearsted. "This is a protest, to show the Trust that we're extremely displeased with their arrogant approach," he says. "We feel they've got things completely wrong ... and are not prepared to listen to reasoned argument."

Like many others who have been temporarily alienated, Waley-Cohen and his wife have long been staunch supporters of the Trust. "Fundamentally I think they do a fantastic job," he says. "But even your closest friends occasionally do something you disapprove of, and you try to steer them back in the right direction without getting punched on the nose."

Mr Waley-Cohen is by no means the only objector who has taken retaliatory action. Another is Lady Margaret Fortescue, who, with her sister, owns some valuable 18th-century china, the Pitt dinner service. It was on display in four different National Trust houses, but Lady Margaret has removed it. As she remarks with some satisfaction, "four dining-room tables are now denuded". The cause of her rage was the hunting ban, over which, she believes, the Trust "behaved monstrously".

Defenders of the Trust point out that the memoranda of wishes drawn up with donors are not, and have never been, legally binding. They admit that, at lower levels, power does sometimes go to the heads of local agents, who behave like tinpot gods; but they point out that in any organisation that employs thousands of people, there are bound to be a few weak members. They claim - rightly - that the Trust does a tremendous amount of first- class work.

Nevertheless, internal exchanges show that the Trust, if not rattled, is certainly nettled. A recent "discussion paper" from a regional director spoke of the "difficulties the Trust is having in trying to give out positive messages on countryside issues" and said that the implications of the deer-hunting ban are "having to be faced on a weekly if not daily basis. It is still evident that many of our traditional supporters feel we have abandoned the countryside under pressure of political correctness."

According to Charles Nunneley, the Trust's chairman, Font has not responded to an overture sent to them from head office three weeks ago. "We've asked them to meet us, to discuss the concerns they have other than fox-hunting, but they don't appear to be interested," he says.

He points out that, with 600,000 acres of land, 565 miles of coastline and 2.5 million members, the Trust has grown into a huge organisation. "A hundred years ago, the whole purpose was to allow the population access to the countryside, and that's exactly what we're doing today. When people say the Trust has lost touch with the countryside, all they mean is that we're doing one or two things some landowners don't like."

Mr Nunneley has no doubt that the present unrest "all stems from the bitterness caused by the stag-hunting issue". This is certainly true; but the question is, how far has the bitterness spread, and how can it be assuaged? That doughty campaigner Baroness Mallalieu reckons that "the Trust thought the hunting issue would simply go away. Well, it hasn't. It's festering, and getting worse all the time."

Perhaps the most constructive suggestion has come from Clare McLaren- Throckmorton, whose family has lived at Coughton Court, near Alcester, for more than 500 years. The house now belongs to the Trust, but she has a lease of it, and manages it on their behalf.

Although a lifelong supporter, she confesses that she was shaken when the Trust reneged on its agreement with Sir Richard Acland, and she has asked for reassurance that in future donors' wishes will be respected, before she leaves the Trust the contents of Coughton. She also hopes that "big decisions, which have a huge knock-on effect, will be taken much more carefully and after more consultation." Her suggestion is that, because times have changed, the millennium should be the occasion for the Trust to make a fundamental reassessment of its role and principles.