What’s the point of the National Trust? Visiting the village of Dittisham on the Dart in Devon the other day, I found myself popping into see Agatha Christie’s summer home, now one of the 300-odd properties that the National Trust owns across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Now Agatha’s house, Greenway, is super; it’s a white painted, handsome Georgian job on a hill overlooking the River Dart. There’s lots of original artefacts to see, including the wooden loo seat that Christie took with her on her various archaeological expeditions. But is Greenway worth treasuring for the nation? Is it of any sincere, unique architectural merit?
Absolutely not is the unequivocal answer. Nice, yes; great views and a super garden for a barbecue – check – but is it architecturally vital? Come off it. It’s no more significant than the properties you’ll see in the window of an upmarket estate agent.
Of course, the reason the trust has colonised it, and has added a visitor centre, café, gift shop and so on, is because of Agatha Christie’s enormous worldwide celebrity. Which begs the question of quite what the National Trust’s criteria for house-takeovers are. Because I’m sure Greenway would be better off as a private house (or, if one wanted to be more egalitarian, as flats) with a blue plaque stuck on it, than as a half-baked museum to a writer who arguably will be forgotten in 100 years anyway. As much as we may love Poirot, Christie’s not exactly Dickens, is she?
And who’s next? Are we going to turn Simon Cowell’s penthouse (or whatever he lives in) into a house-museum in due course? Will the trust, which has overseas offshoots in far-flung countries, one day seek to add Dan Brown’s residence to its burgeoning empire?
This is all in sharp contrast to houses such as Chartwell, for instance – the Kent home of Sir Winston Churchill, which is also owned by the National Trust. Like Greenway, Chartwell isn’t exactly Blenheim either, but then WSC was man of the century who saved the world from a thousand years of the Third Reich. Miss Marple doesn’t quite cut it in comparison.
Given that we have a land and housing shortage in this country and a climbing population, then it really doesn’t make sense to start closing off so many premises from human habitation. Sacrilege as it might be to suggest it, but if the lavish contents of many of these houses were carted off to museums and the buildings were converted into flats, you could create plenty of homes for ordinary people – all without concreting over the green belt. Imagine that – aristocratic apartments for Britain’s hard-pressed working families.