Letter: Stately homes have their place

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Sir: Regarding your leading article 'Hooked on stately homes' (8 October), the reason it is deplorable that the contents of Pitchford Hall had to be sold and dispersed is that it is rare for a house of that early date anywhere to retain the contents accumulated over several centuries by the different branches of one family. The individual possessions, with few exceptions, were not of great monetary worth: but as a whole they strongly illuminated the personalities of those who occupied the house, a fair number of whom had interesting lives and played their part on the canvas of English history.

There are not so many houses in Britain of which this can be said that we can afford to take a cavalier attitude about the prospect of breaking up the entity of house and its contents.

The place where the Dauphin received Joan of Arc before his coronation at Rheims is marked in the Chateau de Chinon by a stone plaque; but it is devoid of all evocation of that occasion for lack of so much as a single tapestry or footstool. Are we really to suppose that this, and a similar absence of the original furnishings in most of the chateaux on the Loire, in some mysterious way advances the progress of the French nation? Or that our own appreciation of the importance of, say, industrial training would be enhanced by a shrugging of the shoulders at the disappearance of the Elizabethan portraits at Knole?

We would do well to remember Edmund Burke's words that society is a contract between the living, the dead and the yet unborn. Our country houses and their contents, where they survive, make a lively contribution to that contract, as the visits to National Trust properties by 250,000 schoolchildren, as part of the national curriculum, testify.

On the facade of the Palais de Chaillot in Paris are these words, in letters of bronze: 'It all depends on you whether I am a tomb or a treasure house: whether I have much to say to you, or am dumb.'

I am suggesting it is in the national interest to conserve treasure houses rather than tombs, since no other country has the former in such abundance. The best and most economical way to do so is to make it easier for the private owners to continue to act as trustees for present and future generations. This has nothing to do with snobbery or forelock-touching, but everything to do with civilisation.

Yours faithfully,

ANGUS STIRLING

Director-General

The National Trust

London, SW1

8 October

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