Fiona Reynolds: 'In difficult times, simple pleasures are important'

An ever-expanding National Trust is playing a crucial role in people's lives, its director general, Fiona Reynolds, tells Andy McSmith

There was a day in my life when I nearly dropped everything, corralled the children into the car, and set off pell-mell up the M1 to Hardwick Hall, in Chesterfield.

It was the day when Stephen Bayley sounded a clarion warning in the pages of this newspaper about the dumbing down of the National Trust, with particular reference to the "elements of retro-kitsch fantasy" allegedly being deployed to entice more visitors to Bess of Hardwick's old home.

"There will be chewed chicken drumsticks on kitchen floors, guttering candles on mantelpieces," he warned. "You will find Bess's ripped bodice in Hardwick Hall together with the discarded cod-piece of a husband, a moment 'preserved' from an unhealthily imagined Elizabethan copulatory frenzy. There will be four-posters with linen stained as if by an incontinent Jacobean Tracey Emin."

Sounds great! A lot more fun for the kids than traipsing around old stone buildings with wooden interiors to stare in bored silence at roped-off furniture. Sadly, I now learn, it wasn't quite like that.

The National Trust will play host to more visitors over the summer holiday than any other organisation in Britain. Last year, there were a record 17 million paying visitors to its 350-plus historic houses and gardens. No one knows how many people walked for free over the 700 miles of coastline and 600,000 acres of countryside also in the Trust's care, but it is estimated that the figure could be as high as 100 million.

The National Trust, an institution as oddly British as the BBC, is evolving – but it is not yet as funky as Mr Bayley imagines. "What Stephen Bayley said was extraordinary," Fiona Reynolds, the National Trust's long-serving director general, exclaimed, with more surprise than indignation. "I've been to Hardwick Hall. I've never seen a ripped bodice there in my life, and I don't expect to see one."

The most extraordinary thing about Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE is the uproar that accompanied her appointment as director general almost 10 years ago. The Daily Mail heralded her arrival with a headline that described her as a "Tony Crony". The accompanying report conveyed the impression that a rampant New Labour feminist was on a mission to do away with the National Trust the nation knows and loves, because "Fiona Reynolds, a friend of Tony Blair, finds its interest in priceless antiques and old masters rather too elitist for her liking".

A decade on, the "priceless antiques and old masters" are still in place. All that has happened is that some smart marketing has pulled in more visitors and persuaded more of them to pay the £36.38 annual subscription to become members.

The Trust has 3.8 million members, more than any other charity; when Dame Fiona took over in 2001, there were 2.7 million. The notion that she was going to let political correctness interfere with the job of expanding the Trust's business was based on a misreading of her curriculum vitae, which included two and a half years as director of the Women's Unit in 10 Downing Street at a time when, coincidentally, she was living with her teacher husband and children in Islington, the same borough where the Blairs lived until 1997.

That was only a brief interlude in a 30-year career dedicated almost wholly to working for the voluntary sector on matters related to conservation. Her first job after she graduated from Cambridge University in 1979 was as secretary of the Council for National Parks, where she worked for seven years. At the age of 24, she was also, she reckons, the youngest person to sit on a regional committee of the National Trust. After that, she worked for the Council for the Protection of Rural England for 11 years. She dismisses as "complete nonsense" the idea that she was ever a Tony crony. "I've never been anyone's crony, except maybe a National Trust crony," she said.

She is a hard-working middle-class professional who spent her childhood in one of the great northern beauty spots, Alston, in Cumbria. She loves walking in the open air or rooting around in old buildings, and has been lucky enough to turn a hobby into a career.

Before she took over, the National Trust was already reinterpreting the remit given to it by an Act of Parliament, which specified that its job is to care for places of "historic interest or natural beauty".

The philanthropists and social reformers who founded the charity in 1895 saw their task as preserving country buildings and open spaces against the ugly encroachment of the towns. More recently, the Trust has been buying and preserving urban buildings which those founding fathers would have regarded as modern eyesores. When she arrived, the Trust was already the recent owner of an old workhouse in Nottinghamshire, and of the Liverpool council house where Paul McCartney grew up.

One of the first acquisitions on her watch was a set of back-to-back houses that had been part of the slums of Birmingham. She also supervised the National Trust's move to new headquarters in an old railway yard in Swindon, in a building constructed as a replica of a Brunel railway shed.

"What is of historic interest is a judgement," she said, when we talked in the Trust's small London office, near Buckingham Palace. "When you go to Paul McCartney's house, it captures growing up in the 1960s in a way that for lots and lots of people is a very powerful evocation of their own childhood that they don't see anywhere else. People who visit stately homes on the whole don't think, 'Oh, how that's how I was brought up'. They're more likely to empathise with Paul McCartney's home as a reminder of their own experience." It is an example, she says, of "the wider definition of heritage" under which "heritage is everything in the past, everybody's story". Another example is the pokey little back-to-back homes in Birmingham. "The Birmingham back-to-back were not streets, like those in northern cities, where the wind whistled through and carried away all the nasty bugs," she said.

"In Birmingham they had courtyard back to backs, plagued by cholera and all kinds of nasty infectious diseases. There had been a mass slum clearance, and this little courtyard right next to the Hippodrome theatre literally was the last surviving back to back. There was incredible interest in this almost architectural rarity."

The idea that the Trust should be moving away from its concentration on stately homes has evidently caught on with the wider public, because when EMI threatened to close its Abbey Road studio, Chris Evans, the DJ, floated the idea that the Trust should ride to the rescue. The immediate threat to the Beatles' old recording studio has lifted, but the idea that the National Trust could help turn it into a historic monument has not gone away.

But if the National Trust's board of trustees ever got the idea that the public do not want them to keep preserving the old homes of the aristocracy, there is their recent experience on Tyneside to put them right.

Just outside Whitley Bay stands an impressive baroque English home built almost 300 years ago, called Seaton Delaval Hall, which was the home of the Delaval family, who were granted land in that part of Northumberland by William the Conqueror, until Lord and Lady Hastings both died in 2007.

Their son, who needed money to clear death duties, offered the house to the National Trust, which did not have the money to buy and wondered whether people locally would want the hall preserved rather than being turned into a local amenity such as a golf course, so they ran a consultation. "We felt that it deserved protection but we needed to know whether other people shared our views," she said. "What was absolutely staggering was the shout back was completely universal and completely enthusiastic for us to take it on."

Delaval Hall opened for visitors on 1 May. But there has to be a question over whether the Trust will be able to pull off another acquisition of that size in the next few years. The Seaton Delaval purchase was helped by a hefty grant from the regional development agency – but all such agencies are now marked for abolition by April 2012. And several rural agencies that have worked alongside the Trust for years are also doomed, either to disappear or to suffer severe budget cuts.

Dame Fiona is not yet ready to criticise the Government for cuts, but is clearly worried. She said: "Of course it worries us because these are organisations that we have a partnership with. We're not defending them for defending them's sake, but we think the job these bodies do to look after our environment does need doing. "We are obviously concerned to make sure the right replacement structures are put in place. It's too early to tell yet, but we are very concerned that it isn't a step back."

While a financial crisis makes funding tighter, Dame Fiona believes it makes what they offer more important. "People need access to beautiful places, to fresh air, to places where they can walk in complete safety, confident that there will be a nice footpath and perhaps a cup of tea at the end of it," she asserts. "In difficult times those simple pleasures mean more than at any other time."

If last year's figures are anything to go by, some 17 million of us will dip into our pockets during the course of 2010 as a way of saying "yea" to that.

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