Wray Castle, in the Lake District, sits atop a hill giving it commanding views of Lake Windermere. Its locations put its at the very heart of the National Trust’s history, and the man who conceived the idea of the National Trust, Hardwicke Rawnsley, was related to the one-time owners of the building.
Since 1929, the building and its grounds have been owned by the National Trust. Beneath a mulberry tree in the grounds of the castle is the above plaque, a little battered by age, which tells visitors that William Wordsworth planted the tree there. That’s quite a claim to fame for a tree, isn’t it?
On Good Friday this year, the chances of wandering lonely as a cloud around Wray Castle were slim to none. Along with hundreds of National Trust properties around the country, it was playing host to an Easter Egg hunt funded by Cadbury. The mulberry tree was one of the stops on the trail:
It’s probably fair to say that when the Wray Castle estate was handed over to the National Trust, neither those bequeathing it nor those taking it over imagined that, 88 years later, it would be an egg hunt in the gardens and along the lake’s edge which would be the main reason for visiting over Easter.
Indeed, until a few years ago, Wray Castle was a shell of a building – well-preserved, but out of action. With a plan to lease it out as a hotel – and what a hotel it could have been! – the National Trust decided to open it up for one summer. It was a huge hit.
Now, it’s three floors of fun for kids when it rains. Peter Rabbit play rooms, A Victorian tea party room, a build-a-castle-with-soft-blocks room and build-a-dry-stone-wall room which doubles up as a learn-about-our-work-while-not-aware-you’re-learning-about-our-work room, are all inside. A mainly wooden adventure playground fills the woods outside.
It couldn’t be further removed from my memories of National Trust visits with parents as a child. Maybe it’s just the places we went to, but my memories are of rooms with red ropes, do not touch signs, manicured gardens and an eternal sense of ‘are we at the gift shop yet?’ School trips to bigger National Trust properties were a bit better, but my main abiding memory of a trip to Styal in the 1990s was being shown the Manchester Ship Canal as we went over the Barton Bridge. Maybe that’s spending your teenage years in Chorley for you.
Yet at the same time, Wray Castle, and other National Trust properties, are entirely consistent with my memories, in that they are doing what they’ve always done. They are doing something important for the country … but in a way which is far more inclusive than in the past.
The National Trust’s recent years have been a story of successful diversification, maintaining their core vision and role while at the same time seeking ways to support that core mission through trying new stuff.
Belton House in Grantham, Lincolnshire, was built in the late 1600s and is an impressive building. More recently, it has grown to house a giant adventure playground. I’ve been a few times with family and, based on just watching from a bench while rocking the pram of a sleeping toddler, at least as many people parking up are there for the playground as are there for historic house.
Sure, some people grumble – I overheard a remarkably first-world rant about the introduction of an outside catering van in the grounds at Belton when I was there last, and then there’s this piece from the Spectactor – but the National Trust has shown that if you diversify you can deliver something for the greater good of the mission without damaging that mission.
There’s a lesson here for journalism.
We know what we do is important – and so do, in theory, many people. But the rise of online has resulted in fewer people being prepared to pay for it. The world has moved on – and we have to, too. I imagine someone, somewhere at the National Trust has said the same too.
Our task is to take what we do and make people care about it, and find ways of funding it. It may well be that large parts of our journalistic activity won’t ever cover its own costs, but if that is the case, then lets find ways of making it viable.
I have no doubt there are people who consider the National Trust’s diversification to be against what it stands for (indeed, I’ve heard complaints at Belton about it being ‘too busy’ because of the playground). But without that diversification, it would be fair to assume that a) the National Trust might struggle to attract a new generation of members and b) wouldn’t enjoy the income from the many casual visitors who pay to visit places like Wray and Belton.
For journalism, it is surely about paying less attention to the Tutterati out there, ready to pounce on anything they consider not to be journalism as they seek to undermine what we do or subtly point out such a thing wouldn’t have been done in their day, and more attention to attracting more people in a meaningful way.
Belton and Wray would soon stop attracting families if their playgrounds were billed as amazing but turned out to be rubbish. And for journalism, that’s the difference between a big audience for the sake of it, and a bigger audience which has a positive experience of who we are and what we do.
From the outside looking in, The National Trust’s approach can be summed up as follows:
- Work out what you’re famous for.
- Then ask: “What could we be famous for?”
- Never be afraid to experiment, but not at the expense of 1.
And it’s that approach that ensures that mulberry tree, that plaque and that castle above Windermere will be protected into the future.
As local journalism seeks to find its meaningful role in the 21st century, that three-point plan doesn’t seem a bad place to start. Protect the things we value most by working out how we can change to be be valued by many more people, in many more ways.