There's more to the National Trust than country piles, says the new head man. There's 20 Forthin Road, for a start

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The Independent Online
"I am at the tiller for the time being, but I'm just one of many," was the modest comment of Martin Drury, who took over as director general of the National Trust at the beginning of the year. "The challenge is to keep the thing on course." However, there are already indications that he will steer this venerable old craft towards her second century with some panache.

It was he who took the innovative step of acquiring the first house connected with a living person - and a pop singer at that, rather than a Duke or retired statesman. Hearing that 20 Forthin Road, Liverpool - the council house where Paul McCartney spent his teenage years - was for sale, Drury felt it was something the Trust should at least consider. "I was taken by several things," he told me. "Firstly it was really a rather good building from the last breath of a working-class housing movement - the garden suburb movement - which does great credit to this country." More importantly, he saw it as "an immediate link with the creation of music which touched millions".

This link is documented by a series of photographs taken in the house by Paul's brother Mike McCartney, showing, for example, Paul and John on the sofa with their guitars with Paul's maths exercise book open, revealing the words "I will hold your hand".

Reaction from the membership has been mixed: broadly those from the North approve, while those from the South indicate some degree of puzzlement. Drury is unrepentant: "Any organisation can so easily get turgid and backward looking. We are preoccupied with the past quite a lot, so it is good to be edging forward."

In fact, Drury regrets that the public perception of the National Trust is so closely linked to houses, although he served for 11 years as Historic Buildings Secretary and is an expert on antique furnishings. "Our country houses are very important and I'm very proud of them, but they do fuel the false impression that the Trust is very rich," he says. "In fact most of the big country houses run at a loss and the Trust's financial position is precarious. It needs more members."

There is another reason why the stately home perception displeases Drury: "It devalues the rest of our work, which is just as remarkable. We own 506,000 acres of countryside and through Enterprise Neptune, which is the single most important campaign the Trust has undertaken, we have protected 502 miles of coastline." Once land is acquired, the Trust has a unique power to declare it inalienable, which means it cannot be sold, mortgaged or compulsorily purchased without recourse to Parliament.

In the light of present conflicts over road proposals, I asked Mr Drury about relations between the Trust and the Department of Transport (DoT). "In most cases the DoT tries to avoid our inalienable land," he said, "but when threatened we are obliged by statute to defend it - and we do. That is the situation at Hindhead. The proposal to take the A3 by- pass on concrete stilts across the Devil's Punchbowl was rejected as unthinkable. The Trust insists that the road is run through a tunnel, an option it also wants to see adopted at the even more sensitive World Heritage site of Stonehenge. At Golden Cap in Dorset, where the plan was to run the A35 through some of the Trust's loveliest coastal land, the DoT listened to the Trust's arguments and reduced its proposal from a double to a single carriageway. This is still considered unacceptable and the Trust opposes it as publicly as possible."

"We are not against the car," Drury added, "but the present rate at which life is dominated by the car cannot be sustained. At the last AGM it was suggested that the number of visitors arriving by car should be reduced from 90 per cent to 60 per cent. A tall order, but a move in the right direction." When Prior Park near Bath opens this season, all visitors will have to walk or come by public transport - there are no parking facilities. The Trust has initiated other strategies; work on 12 cycle tracks to run from urban centres to Trust properties; cheaper combined public transport and entry tickets for some properties and the continuing policy of listing available public transport in the handbook to enable those who are carless to reach the properties - in theory at least.

"I want the National Trust to be appreciated by a wider sector of the population" said Drury, who is fully aware of the middle-class, middle- England image of Trust members. He pointed to three schemes - "Linking People with Places" - operating in Plymouth, Birmingham and Newcastle, which reach out to connect people from depressed inner city areas with the amenities that nearby Trust properties can offer them. In Newcastle the project has apparently been so successful that older people and single mothers have formed their own groups to organise walks, field trips and weekends.

This seems very much more in the spirit of Octavia Hill, the Trust founder whose aim was to create "outdoor sitting-rooms for the poor", rather than the stereotypical huntin' shootin' and fishin' stately home incumbent whose image the words "National Trust" conjure up for so many.

Hunting, of course, has caused the Trust some headaches over the years. What are the new director general's views on it?

"Our policy is to allow hunting - which is perfectly legal after all - where it has traditionally taken place and not to allow it where it would damage habitats or if the land has been given to us with a no-hunting condition." He is aware of the intense passion the subject provokes: "To some, mostly country people (and it is these we depend on as employees, tenants and benefactors in our work), it is an inalienable right, while to others - many of them the very people we are doing the work for - it is something utterly repugnant. It is best for us to keep out of the argument."

Martin Drury is more concerned with finding ways in which Trust properties can be shown more imaginatively. He has just launched the "Thousand Threads" project, so called because it seeks to weave a tapestry of information by means of a series of high technology "Gateways" at 30 properties. If it comes off (support of pounds 11.35 million has been sought from the Millenium Commission), virtual reality, CD-ROMS, fly-by-wire models and interactive hands-on displays will be used. This will help to deepen the appeal of the properties and improve visitor enjoyment, while an even larger audience will be tapped both here and abroad through CD-ROM and the Internet.

Up-to-the-minute stuff indeed for the staid old National Trust, demonstrating Mr Drury's belief that it is essential to move with the times. "I want to spread the social base of the membership and also get over the fact that the Trust is a charity in need, not an opulent great ship sailing confidently towards the future. I want to improve the schools education programme: children of all races are the British people of the future, and it is their National Trust." He is also keenly aware that the Trust has to earn public affection by giving people what they want. Which brings us back to the Beatles House.