Membership surge for National Trust makes it the biggest conservation group in Europe

The National Trust is enjoying such a rush in new membership that it is now the biggest conservation body in Europe, according to figures released yesterday.

As membership topped 3.3 million, the trust said its joining rate ­ which it claims is one new member every 42 seconds ­ has overtaken the country's birth rate (one baby born every 52 seconds). Membership has increased by 20 per cent in the past two years.

The figures were released as the trust prepared for its annual meeting today at Portsmouth Guildhall, and for its activities to be put under the spotlight in a fly-on-the-wall documentary series, which begins on BBC4 tomorrow.

The five-part series, which will be repeated on BBC2 next year, shows how the trust's landowning policies are being virulently opposed in some parts of the country and how internal battles have raged between modernisers and traditionalists in the trust.

It is the largest non- governmental landowner in Britain. It owns 18 per cent of the coastline and some of the country's most famous houses and monuments, including St Michael's Mount in Cornwall, Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, where the main building, set in 375 acres of parkland, is leased out and run as a five-star hotel. The trust cares for a total of 164 historic houses, 19 castles and more than 200 other historic sites including gardens, industrial monuments, churches, chapels and farms.

In recent years, the trust has been racked by disputes over its policies on hunting and restoration. There has also been a reorganisation programme by Fiona Reynolds, its director general. The modernising arm of the trust believes its purpose should be about more than simply preserving old houses, that it needs to be more proactive and educative and that it must do more to preserve modern culture. A former head of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, she arrived at the trust in 2001 and declared it "must shed its middle-class image".

According to the figures released yesterday, there were 50 million visits to the open air sites in the year to September 2003. At the end of September, the trust had logged 12.8 million visits to pay-for-entry properties, compared with 10.5 million at the same time the previous year, an increase of 22 per cent. Several properties exceeded their visitor number expectations including Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, which had 57,000 more visits than in the previous year. Bodiam Castle in East Sussex attracted an extra 30,000, Penrhyn Castle had a further 26,000 and 25,000 more visits were recorded at Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire than had been the case in the previous year.

William Proby, the chairman of the National Trust, said: "These remarkable figures are proof of the robust good health of the trust. But they also reflect the passionate, growing interest of British people in heritage and the natural environment. We are dedicated to opening up the experiences of our countryside and cultural heritage to all the communities of the UK. The public demand has never been stronger for our service."

By contrast, the documentary series shows that, in Dorset, some cars carry bumper stickers saying "Don't Trust the Trust" and there are T-shirts with the trust's oak leaf symbol turned into a swastika. Opponents include naturists who object to the trust's management of local beaches.

The film also shows an angry confrontation between the trust and a couple who claimed the trust owed them £100,000 after selling a hotel they had once leased.

Patrick Forbes, the series director, said: "My perception of the trust was that it was all rather genteel and about tea towels and blue rinses but it is much more than that. It is a huge organisation that carries real wealth and power and arouses furious passions among some people.''

The series documents the rows within the trust over the purchase and opening last year of John Lennon's former home in Liverpool, which has been turned into a replica of a suburban house of the Fifties.

Mr Forbes said: "It infuriated the traditionalists because they argued that the trust then had to buy the old homes of the other three Beatles. I think it does illustrate a dilemma for the trust because of defining where the boundaries lie.

"Do you, for instance, think about purchasing the childhood home of a footballer, like Rio Ferdinand?''

The trust is also expected to come under the spotlight next year when it takes part in a planning inquiry over plans to build a road tunnel under Stonehenge, where the trust owns the land surrounding the ancient stones, although the monument itself belongs to English Heritage.

PRESERVATION SOCIETY

¿ The National Trust was founded in 1895 by three Victorian philanthropists, Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, anxious to preserve the nation's heritage in the face of industrialisation

¿ The trust cares for more than 248,000 hectares (612,000 acres) of countryside in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, plus almost 600 miles of coastline. The National Trust for Scotland is a separate body

¿ Of more than 350 properties owned by the trust, there are 164 historic houses.

¿ The current cost of a backlog of repairs and conservation projects at its sites stands at £196m

¿ Its annual income of £303m comes solely from its members, which now total more than 3.3 million, an increase of 1.3 million since 1990.

¿ The trust has nearly 4,000 full-time staff, about the same number of seasonal staff and 38,000 volunteers.

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