National Trust hidden gems

William Cook on the unheralded National Trust properties that keep drawing him back

Spectator writers tend to be a bit grumpy about the National Trust, but that’s only because we’re so fond of it. Like the BBC or the C of E, we moan about it because we care about it, and what we most adore is its diversity. It’s not just mansions and deer parks; the Trust owns all sorts of properties, from lighthouses to mineshafts. Here are a few of my favourite oddities — with not a stately home in sight.

Beatrix Potter Gallery, Cumbria

A century ago, Beatrix Potter bought 4,000 acres of Lakeland countryside to save it from developers, and the National Trust was born. Her old home (Hill Top, near Hawkshead) is now a museum, but her best memento is this little gallery, which displays a fine selection of her watercolours. If you thought she was too cutesy-wootsy, this place will change your mind.

The Crown, Belfast

Across the road from Belfast’s Opera House, this palatial Victorian gin palace is the perfect spot for a sophisticated pint or two; you can see why John Betjeman fought to save this kaleidoscope of stained glass and mosaic. Sink your first pint at the ornate bar, then adjourn to one of the cosy snugs.

Beatrix Potter art is on display in Cumbria (Getty)

Cerne Abbas Giant, Dorset

Locals call him the Rude Man of Cerne, on account of his erect penis (can you say erect penis in The Spectator? It seems you can). The Victorians turfed it over (the spoilsports) — but the Rude Man’s manhood has been restored to its original glory, and it’s a magnificent addition to the landscape. No one seems to know how old he is… and no one really cares.

Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire

Samuel Greg owned Quarry Bank — the biggest cotton mill in Britain — and conditions here were hellish. Young children worked long hours between the looms (the noise was deafening) and slept downstairs in austere dormitories. This dark satanic mill is perfectly preserved, and the gardens are bizarrely beautiful.

The Cerne Abbas Giant in all his glory (Getty)

Sandham Memorial Chapel, Hampshire

When Lieutenant Henry Sandham died in the first world war, his sister asked Stanley Spencer to paint a chapel in his memory. Spencer spent six years here, in the quiet village of Burghclere, producing a series of murals that chronicled his own war years in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Lamb House, Rye

I had to include this one, or my in-laws would never forgive me. They used to look after this pretty Georgian house, and lived in it, and threw an amazing millennium party here. Henry James lived and wrote several of his wordy novels in the house, too, while fans of EF Benson will know it as the home of Miss Mapp in Mapp & Lucia. Shame it never worked its literary magic on me.

2 Willow Road in Hampstead (Getty)

2 Willow Road, Hampstead

Ernö Goldfinger is the architect traditionalists love to hate (Ian Fleming even named a Bond baddie after him) and this bold modern house sums up his geometric style. Tory MP Henry Brooke complained it would be ‘disastrously out of keeping with the character of the neighbourhood’ but beside today’s monstrosities, it looks quite tame.

Back-to-Backs, Birmingham

Nobody likes the high-rise blocks that tower over Birmingham, but the back-to-back terraces they replaced were even worse. A cluster of these crowded hovels escaped the wrecker’s ball, rescued for posterity with all their old furnishings. The guide who showed me round lived here when she was a child.


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