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Hilary McGrady celebrates our 125th anniversary

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Hilary McGradyDirector-General, National Trust
Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust
Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

In 2020 we’re celebrating 125 years since the National Trust was founded, on 12 January 1895. As we mark this milestone anniversary, our Director-General, Hilary McGrady reflects on the last 125 years and announces our big ambitions and future commitments.

This year we celebrate 125 years of the National Trust. This is an extraordinary institution. It’s a charity I’m very proud to lead. We are marking a moment in time and reflecting on all that we, and those who came before us, have achieved.

But as we celebrate, I also want to look forward. To write the next chapter in this story of a nation’s love of nature, beauty and history. To talk about why we will be focusing on nature in the decades ahead.

Thomas Hardy wrote my all-time favourite book, The Return of the Native. It opens with a vivid description of the fictional Egdon Heath in Wessex: as a 'heathy, furzy, briary wilderness'. An 'untameable' landscape, where 'civilization is the enemy'. To this day I love no landscape more than wild untameable moorlands. I even spent my honeymoon in Northumbria walking Hadrian’s Wall - thankfully as well my husband likes the outdoors as much as I do.

Path besides the wall at Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Fort, Northumberland
Path besides the wall at Hadrian's Wall and Housesteads Fort | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Hardy saw man’s determination to shape the landscape and the march of the industrial revolution as the great threat of his time. But in truth, our land has long been subject to the hand of man. The land around Dorchester, which gave Hardy the inspiration for Egdon Heath, has been tamed by its inhabitants since the first Neolithic settlers arrived. The evidence is there in Max Gate, the home Hardy built for himself.

He and his wife bequeathed it to the National Trust in 1940. Under the grounds of Max Gate lies a Neolithic ditch called Flagstones which is engraved with prehistoric designs. People have been shaping, crafting, and changing the landscape since time began and in turn, our environment has shaped us. It is this relationship between people and place that the National Trust has sought to document, interpret and make accessible.

My belief is that civilisation need not and must not be the enemy of nature. Humans are, after all, part of the natural world. We need a healthy environment if we are to thrive. And our deep sense of connection to nature and to landscape will inspire us to care for it.

125 years of nature, beauty, history

Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley – the brilliant triumvirate who founded the National Trust – all believed in the profound effects of access to nature, to beauty and to history. They left us a challenge – to protect and care for places of historic interest and natural beauty for the benefit of the nation forever.

125 years ago, I doubt that they could have had any sense of the story that was about to unfold. Looking back now we can see that it falls into chapters, determined by the needs of the nation at a particular time.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)
Octavia Hill | © National Trust Images/John Hammond

At the start of chapter one, the focus was on securing common land and beautiful landscapes in response to industrialisation. The next chapter opened roughly at the end of the Second World War when a country house was being demolished every five days. The threat of losing such an important part of our cultural heritage preoccupied the Trust for the next three and a half decades.

The third chapter, from the 60s through to the 90s was about the threat to the coastline of over-development from industry and the growth of the seaside economy. The Trust responded with Enterprise Neptune, our fundraising campaign that means today 780 miles of our coastline are now cared for and accessible to the nation.

Having focused on places for all this time, chapter four was almost entirely given over to people, giving them more access to the places in our care through visiting, walking, swimming, learning or simply enjoying.

Welcoming six million members

In 1995, on our 100th anniversary, we had just over three million members. In 2020 I’m delighted to say we will have doubled that number as we anticipate welcoming our six millionth member. Something we are immensely proud of.

Throughout each of these chapters, the Trust has taken into its care places that in many ways define our history, both natural and cultural:

  • Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was sealed and the story of our democracy was born.
  • Lindisfarne, the birthplace of modern Christianity.
  • Isaac Newton’s home.
  • Quarry Bank Mill, a masterpiece of the industrial revolution.
  • The Beatles’ Houses that tell the story of four working class lads who changed the face of post-War Britain.
  • Glastonbury Tor and the prehistoric landscape of Stonehenge.
  • Great iconic natural heritage sites such as the Giant’s Causeway, Snowdonia and the White Cliffs of Dover.
View of Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, over the garden
View of Quarry Bank Mill, Cheshire, over the garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

This extraordinary legacy must be leveraged for everyone’s benefit. Our fortunes are bound up with our landscape, our places. And we draw inspiration from them. So in 2020, it is time for us to ask - what does the nation need from us now? What chapter will we write together?

Helping nature thrive

Today we need to rise to a new set of threats. The threat of the climate crisis and the catastrophic decline in our natural environment. These twin realities will form the background to our next chapter.

But to restore nature and arrest climate change we will need to start with people. We will need to connect more people with nature if we are to inspire them to want to care for it. The Trust has always been a mutual organisation, reliant on many hands. If we are going to make any real impact on either of these two challenges, we will need to rise in greater numbers than ever before.

And the benefit is two way, while nature needs our help, connection with nature is vital to human health and wellbeing. The evidence for this is growing all the time. The Trust will soon be releasing the findings of a study that shows that two thirds of Britons today say they do not listen to birdsong or watch the clouds or follow a butterfly’s path.

A male Long-Tailed Blue butterfly on a pink flower
A male Long-Tailed Blue butterfly on a pink flower | © National Trust Images/Matthew Oates

To those who may say it is condescending to ask people to look at nature, I say that the evidence is clear that the disconnect is growing. And that is bad for our health – but it is also bad for nature. Because how connected people feel to nature, predicts how far they will go to care for it.

That is why we are going to use our 125th birthday to do some simple but powerful things. We are going to help people to reconnect with nature and provide ways to help them care for it. Whoever they are, wherever they are. For members, visitors, and, importantly, for citizens everywhere. You don’t have to be on National Trust land or be a National Trust member to enjoy or benefit from all that we do.

A year of celebrations

Throughout 2020, we have a huge list of things planned for people to do - from tree planting, river and beach cleaning, to dancing in the great outdoors.

On 29 February, we will mark the leap year by asking the nation to make a leap for nature, pledging a simple act that will make a difference to nature on their doorstep. That extra day can be a day for forming new habits for the long-term.

In the spring we will ask people to take part in a blossom watch. We will help people greet the dawn. We will open up rooftops and allow people to gather at viewpoints around the country to watch the sun rise. On the first day of spring we will launch a media campaign that will encourage us all to slow down and savour the kind of quiet, beauty and escape that only nature can provide in this busy world.

And of course, all of this will happen against a backdrop of the work we do daily, caring for our buildings and collections – which will remain core to what the Trust is about. Every week this year we will invest an average £2.5 million carrying out our vital conservation work.

For example, this year, Ickworth’s world-famous rotunda will undergo a multimillion-pound project as we repair its domed roof. In 2020, we will be opening a new viewing tower at Sutton Hoo, a site that speaks profoundly of the relationship between people, place and our understanding of how one shapes the other.

A view of the Rotunda surrounded by scaffolding at Ickworth, Suffolk, with a wide path leading to the Rotunda and neat topiary hedges running alongside the path
The Rotunda covered in scaffolding at Ickworth | © National Trust Images / Jemma Finch

In summer we will launch the National Trust in 125 treasures. This book will explore the weird, wonderful and profoundly important objects in our collections, including Cardinal Wolsey’s purse, the first English globe and a tomb model of a camel given to Agatha Christie by her husband.

Our final celebration will mark perhaps the most important asset we have and that is our people. We will tour a photographic exhibition of 125 National Trust staff, volunteers and supporters, recognising the many hundreds of thousands of people who have given their time and effort to the Trust over the years. Without them we would not have a National Trust nor places of such beauty to visit.

So 2020 will do justice to our 125th year. We will celebrate, we will connect, and we will galvanise the nation to care. But if we want this chapter to be about a long-term commitment to addressing the loss of nature and tackling climate change, we will need to go much further.

The ultimate purpose of the Trust, Europe’s largest conservation charity, is to leave behind a world that is fit for our children and grandchildren. To grow in. To play in. To thrive in. To help light a fire in them as they experience history coming to life in a place that’s special to them. To pass on the pleasure of paddling barefoot or looking up to see darkness illuminated only by stars.

This is what our forebears did for us. Now we need to step forward and leave our own legacy. So today I am making three announcements.

We'll be carbon neutral by 2030

The first is that the National Trust will achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2030. Climate change is causing a crisis. From floods to fires, nature is in peril. Not only do we have an ambition to reach net zero, we have a clear plan of how we are going to get there, in ten years. Through people and through places, many, many hands will help us.

At the heart of our plan are people like Kait. She’s been a ranger with us in the Peak District for nearly ten years. Every week, in all weathers, she takes a team of willing volunteers onto the moors to plant thousands of tiny sphagnum moss plugs. These little plugs store water, bind the bog and capture carbon, locking it underground. Their efforts mean that about 13 million tonnes of carbon safely stored underground in the Peak District. That’s a year’s worth of carbon emissions from Sheffield.

Rangers tree planting at Tughall Mill, Northumberland Coast
Rangers tree planting | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

This is what many human hands can do together. We will work with thousands more like Kait and volunteers young and old to restore our uplands and hold more carbon.

Our plan also involves building on our decision last year to disinvest from fossil fuel companies, by reducing our own energy use further. We will do this by continuing to switch to renewable energy sources, reducing emissions from our farmed and let estate and managing our supply chain to tighter carbon targets. A combination of all of these things will enable us to reach at least net zero by 2030.

We'll plant 20 million trees in 10 years

The second action we will take is to create more woodlands. The National Trust, on behalf of the entire nation, is a significant landowner. Of the 250,000 hectares of land we own, approximately 10 per cent is woodland. We will increase that 10 per cent to 17 per cent over the next decade. That means planting and establishing 20 million trees in 10 years.

A woodland canopy with trees and sky with the sun illuminating some of the leaves and making them a variety of shades of green
Woodlands create diverse habitats for a range of species | © National Trust Images/Mark Bolton

Work is already under way at places like Northwood in the South Downs. Much of the woodland in Northwood was felled and ploughed during the two world wars, leaving fragments disconnected from each other. Thanks to the generosity of a legacy donor, who loved the South Downs all his life, we launched a project five years ago to bring back the woodland.

13,000 trees have been planted by volunteers, local schools, community groups and businesses. Collectively, they have created what is already becoming a haven for both wildlife and for people.

By 2030, we will have re-purposed 18,000 hectares of our land to woodland – an area one and a half times the size of Manchester. This will take time, lots of working with others and it will take money, we estimate between ninety to a hundred million pounds over ten years.

But we can’t do this on our own. We will work with farmers, with other partner organisations and with government. Not just to increase woodland cover but to help nature thrive everywhere.

We'll create green corridors for people and nature

And then there is one final ambition that I want to talk about today. A few months ago, I was in the centre of Sheffield. It was noisy, it was stressful - pretty much like all large cities. So I took a walk. Through the busy city park, along the river and into shaded woodlands. As I emerged into the light, a bridge connected me to open farmland. Bright green improved grass gradually gave way to the rugged moorland of the Peak District where the only sound I could hear was the curlew. In the space of less than two hours, I’d walked from busy city centre to wild open wilderness.

And while we have done so much to care for wonderful places - and of course some of them are big - it is still rare to be able to make the connection from street to mountain, from local park to National Park. And as a result a large swathe of our population simply cannot access the kind of landscape that Hardy wrote about.

This unequal access to nature needs to be tackled. Imagine if every city had the sort of green corridor Sheffield has. I want people to be able to walk and make the connection from their window box or garden to their local park. From park to farmland and then on out to wild open space beyond the city.

A far reaching view over the heather clad moors at Longshaw Estate in the Peak District, Derbyshire to hills in the distance with rocks in the foreground.
A view over the heather clad moors at Longshaw Estate in the Peak District, Derbyshire | © ©National Trust Images/Joe Cornish

Ecosystems depend on unbroken chains and on corridors. Humans also need that continuity, routes and corridors into nature. The appreciation of and access to nature should be available to everyone, for ever.

This is about both bringing nature closer to people and people closer to nature. We are now mapping where such corridors might be possible and we will work with the many, many partners out there also keen to achieve the same sort of benefits for nature and people. By 2030 I would hope to have established up to 20 of these corridors.

We are already working with the National Lottery Heritage Fund, one of our most longstanding partners, to look after parks in major cities around the UK. Next, we need to create more green routes in places where people live – so that access to nature for all becomes easy. Because nature is a treasure that we all hold in common.

As Hardy says in The Return of the Native, 'colours and beauties so far subdued were, at least, the birth right of all'. It has to be there for all of us. That is the mission of the National Trust today.

"On 12 January 1895, 125 years ago, with the help of 100 people who had each paid ten shillings, we started out. Today the National Trust has more than 500 properties and 5.8 million members. And that is a huge responsibility."

- Hilary McGrady, Director-General of the National Trust

On 12 January 1895, 125 years ago, with the help of 100 people who had each paid ten shillings, we started out. Today the National Trust has more than 500 properties and 5.8 million members. And that is a huge responsibility.

We are here to protect and care for the nature, beauty and history of these islands. For the benefit of people now and in the future. This means preserving the best of the past, but it does not mean living in the past. What is needed now is for us to think ahead.

Our ancestors left their marks on our landscape. Their chalk horses and giants, and burial mounds. Their houses, their belongings, their stories. We will leave behind acres of rich woodland and long green corridors that stretch into the heart of towns and cities for people and nature to move, enjoy and thrive in.

If, 125 years from now, my successor looks back on this time and says that, during the nature crisis, the National Trust used its assets, its influence and its place in national life to inspire the nation to act, then we will have done the right thing. This is the task we have before us and this is the legacy I want to leave.

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