Dame Fiona Reynolds - Taking care of our heritage
PUBLISHED: 12:45 15 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:32 20 February 2013
An 'outdoorsy' childhood in Warwickshire gave Dame Fiona Reynolds a love of the countryside – important when you're director-general of The Nation Trust.
National Trust in Warwickshire
I want our properties to feel lively places. I want to walk round and hear laughter coming from rooms around the house and see people feeling part of the place they are visiting, not just looking around, says Lucy Reid, 34, general manager for the Tudor Coughton Court near Alcester, the 16th century Packwood House in Solihull and the medieval Baddesley Clinton.
Initiatives at Packwood include the reopening of the 18th century Kitchen Garden, which will supply vegetables and food for a new cafe. Lucy also hopes to engage local schoolchildren in looking after a section of the garden. At Baddesley they intend to make the parkland more accessible for visitors, while at Coughton they have been working with village action groups and the Parish Council on certain projects, as well as developing childrens outdoor trails, adventure packs and imaginative play areas.
When considering who our audiences are, we cant assume everyone wants the same thing so we will be thinking about how they like to get information and how much, so we can cater more specifically.
To find out more about summer activities at National Trust properties in Warwickshire visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk
The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and . . . the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs, common to all men.
I think todays generation needs beauty just as much as Octavia Hills in 1895, says Dame Fiona Reynolds, director-general of the National Trust. Octavia Hill, a founder of The National Trust, almost singlehandedly invented the heritage industry starting in 1895 when its founders and supporters raised the cash to acquire Dinas Oleu coastline in Wales. Since then vast swathes of coastline and countryside, hundreds of historic houses and gardens, scores of old industrial buildings, windmills and lighthouses have been snapped up by the Trust. Today the organisation looks after 612,000 acres of land, 700 miles of coastline, and more than 200 historic buildings. So it comes as quite a surprise that the HQ of this venerable old organisation is housed in a magnificently ugly, modern, concrete building within the maze of Swindons roundabouts.
Friendly and smiling, Dame Fiona Reynolds is brimming with a natural energy and enthusiasm. With issues of heritage prone to raise passionate debate and opposing views from many quarters, hers is not an easy task. Shes had to find ways to balance the commercial with the conservation. Move too much in one direction and youre at risk of turning stately homes into soulless tourist attractions, losing the essence of the place and its history. Too much in the other and the old piles will crumble. So how did the traditionalists in the camp welcome her approach to allowing visitors to have more access, to be more hands on?
For me, the changes Ive been introducing since Ive been here have been about making us an arms open organisation, seeing conservation as a dynamic and active process and welcoming perhaps slightly less of the stuffy National Trust atmosphere that used to be the opinion of us a look but dont touch organisation. Getting rid of the ropes is all part of getting a warmer and more vibrant atmosphere in our properties, says Dame Fiona Reynolds, musing over what she saw as her main challenge when she stepped into the post of director-general of the National Trust in 2001.
Youll always get, in the Trust, incredibly passionate people and never assume everyone will agree. But Im not looking for 100 per cent agreement. Its good to have debates and views but then we have to move forward.
Nearly ten years on, the former Rugby High School pupil is overseeing a major reorganisation and de-centralisation of power at the Trust as the decisions on how to achieve this vibrancy are handed to the managers of the individual properties. Now the likes of Hanbury Hall or Croome Park in Worcestershire can tell their own story in their own way, without having to wade through masses of red tape.
We are terrified of the Trust . . . imposing a particular way of doing things on our properties so that they all start to look the same with a National Trust veneer, Dame Fiona explains. We havent reached that point, but because the Trust has a lot of rules we started to think: do we actually need all of that and is it necessary?
This loosening of the reins has been welcomed with open arms by the managers, who will have the ability to be more creative in delivering a distinctive feel. Fiona is confident this wont result in any properties taking a step back to the look, dont touch mentality. No property is sitting there thinking they dont need to do anything, but we are saying you decide what to do, she says.
Its a huge job, which was the real challenge for me personally. The National Trust has this incredible history, which it is my job to honour but also bring it in to the 20th century. I think if I was the worrying type I would have plenty to worry about, she says, with a smile. But I am an incredibly positive person and adore what I do and think in every challenge there is an opportunity ... and Im quite resilient.
Her drive to make properties more alive may have involved visitors being able to play billiards on a billiards table, or perhaps just placing a few more books, newspapers and dog baskets here and there. But Fiona is quick to come to the defence of any who may suggest all this is just an attempt to prettify the properties, without respect for their original owners intentions.
Perhaps we are behaving a little more as a private owner would do and giving it more personality, but based on those people and their stories. I wouldnt think there is a risk of us doing something that would undermine the integrity of the spirit of the place. We dont introduce objects that dont have an association with the house, but try to reflect the fact many houses when they were houses were probably a lot more relaxed than they were under National Trust ownership. One of the criticisms levelled at us was that we had frozen the houses and not done what a family living there would have done. We look after everything there, but its still got a future as well as a past.
Dame Fionas own past as a successful rural campaigner and persuasive lobbyist stood her in good stead for winning people over to her way of thinking, just as she skilfully turns the conversation back to the points she wants to make during the course of our interview.
Born in Cumbria into a lively household as one of five sisters, Fionas fathers job as a metallurgist in the car industry brought the family to live near Rugby when she was very young. It was here that her love for the countryside was nurtured. Her mother taught geography at various schools around the area while the five sisters went to Rugby High School where all studied geography A level and three, including Fiona, also went on to study it at university. So it was very much a part of family life. My father was an obsessional outdoors man and we always used to be out and about walking along the canals and I loved the South Warwickshire countryside, in particular.
There was always a lot going on. Our father was a very ambitious man and encouraged us all, in a sense, to follow our dreams. I dont think he necessarily ever wanted a son but we could certainly play cricket and climb trees and all that sort of thing. It was not as much competitive between us sisters, as can do.
Fionas other great passion was music. She was often racing around the county to play in concerts as a member of the schools orchestra and the Warwickshire County Youth Orchestra and it was through this that she met her husband, Bob Merrill, with whom she has three daughters.
It was when she read geography and land economy at Cambridge University that Fionas personal interests in the countryside coalesced with the academic. The book I always remember reading was W G Hoskins The Making of the English Landscape that charts the way our landscape has been impacted on by man from very early times to today and for me is a very wonderful story of how our environment is completely tied up with the way we lead our lives and our values and interests as a nation, so perhaps it was not surprising I wanted to protect the landscape.
Fiona earned her campaigning spurs in her first job as Secretary to the Council for National Parks, where she combined her love of the countryside, sense of purpose and interest in policy, as well as natural skill at networking, moving in the late Eighties to what then was the Council for the Protection of Rural England as its director of policy, becoming its director-general in 1992. It was during her short departure from the countryside focus, as Director of the Womens Unit in the Cabinet Office seeing how policy affected women when the job at the National Trust came up.
It was the most perfect job ever as it combines my interest in history and the landscape and is also a doing organisation, which delivers these wonderful places and helps people to enjoy them.
Now living in Cirencester, where she can indulge in her great love of walking, Fiona believes an appreciation for outdoor spaces and moves to make National Trust properties more accessible and enjoyable for all is reconnecting the Trust with the visions of its Victorian philanthropist founders.
If you look at what the founders said, they never expected it to become a country house organisation, which was never their ambition. Theirs were what Octavia Hill called outdoor living rooms for the poor, outside green spaces. She talks about children having access to fresh air and running water as important as having a square meal and roof over their head. That important and radical social purpose got somehow lost when the National Trust took over all of these country houses and got caught up with the enormous obligation of looking after and maintaining them. Now we are reconnecting the 20th century experience with the more radical vision of the founders.
Many people will say if the children are going to have fun well go to Alton Towers and we want to say you can have fun at Trust properties too, and we have made them a lot friendlier for families.
Under Dame Fionas stewardship, the National Trust has increased membership numbers from 2.8 to 3.8 million and broadened its appeal to a wider audience, but there is still some way to go before reaching her mantra of inclusiveness - loyal members remain predominantly middle-aged and middle class.
There are also the properties that dont fit the National Trust mould, such as the Beatles houses in Liverpool and the Trusts foray into saving Abbey Road Studios.
Looking after heritage that isnt conventionally described as heritage is incredibly exciting and the great thing about the Trust is we do have lively arguments. On one level heritage is everything but another is its what people value and dont want to lose so why in a sense should we put a constraint around that? Anything inspirational that means something to people needs to be protected. We cant take everything on, but want to inspire people to think thank goodness there is a National Trust.