How the 125-year-old National Trust fulfils 21st-century needs for a beautiful Britain

Caring for places of history and natural beauty is a necessity which spans the ages. Hillary McGrady tells Kate Green how the National Trust continues to do this today.

‘This is an organisation people turn to in times of trouble,’ says Hilary McGrady of the 125-year-old National Trust’s steadiness in periods of political turmoil and financial stalemate. ‘Our numbers tend to go up. Brexit may be slowing everything down, but ours is the sort of brand that identifies what is good about Britain.’

Mrs McGrady gave the ‘brand’ something of a reboot herself when she became director-general two years ago. ‘The previous three directors had all been English and Oxbridge-educated. I didn’t really fit the bill, but I felt I’d kick myself if I didn’t have a go,’ she says in a gentle Northern Irish accent, which becomes noticeably stronger when she’s fired up about something.

Her background was graphic design and marketing, but then she became the Trust’s regional director for Northern Ireland.

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

‘I never thought I’d be director – it wasn’t an ambition. I had my dream job in Northern Ireland and I was involved in a big project on the Giant’s Causeway, but then Wales [the regional directorship] became vacant and, once you’ve tried something new and bigger, it’s impossible to go back.’

Recommended videos for you

Northern Ireland is still the family home, however (she has a tiny flat in England for work) and she is ‘devastated’ by the febrile politics of her home country. ‘The history is that one generation always fights with another and the next generation forgets how bad it was,’ she says sorrowfully.

‘Growing up, I and people I know had all sorts of experiences that others can know nothing about. The whole Brexit debate has cracked it all open again. People think it’s just a border, but it’s so much more than that.’

‘We identify what is good about Britain’

The Trust’s stance on Brexit is neutral, but, as for any landowner, the implications loom large. ‘We want to ensure environmental protection will be as good as now or better and that funding will continue. Farming is going to be significantly affected by Brexit and we have a lot of farmers, many of them on marginal land.

‘When the Environment and Agriculture Bills were launched, there were elements that weren’t as strong as we would have liked. There’s no point having an environmental watchdog that doesn’t hold people to account, for example. It’s absolutely essential.’

She adds: ‘We’re not going to be shy about the fact that intensive farming has had a detrimental effect [on Nature], but we are campaigning for farmers to be rewarded for providing public goods. We are very clear with our new farming tenants that that’s the way we’re going, but I’m not unrealistic about the challenges they face and we’re helping them with diversification.’

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

Mrs McGrady agrees, however, that the term ‘rewilding’, which can annoy farmers, has become too emotive. ‘The essence of it is giving Nature a chance and that’s where I do part company with some in the farming community, but I agree that it’s ridiculous to suggest we can do it everywhere. And not many farmers can afford to do it.

It’s the wildlife corridors that are import-ant; I think there’s a growing realisation that the [Sir John] Lawton principle [of joining Nature up] is what we should be doing: patches aren’t working.’

She cites the Trust’s work at Holnicote in Somerset, where the natural flow of the river is being restored – ‘This is a good example of wilding; I mean, we aren’t introducing wild boar!’ (although beavers are coming) – and Ennerdale, where a stewardship system works to preserve the landscape: ‘That’s the sweet spot; Nature can thrive, but you can still farm.’

Mrs McGrady answers the criticisms of those who suggest the body has become Nature-obsessed at the expense of saving houses, pointing out: ‘The Trust has always responded to what the nation wants us to look after – the coast, abandoned country houses – and if you ask what is in crisis now, it’s Nature.

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

Hilary McGrady at Osterley House

‘What is also in crisis is access to the environment. Loneliness and mental health are the issues of today and I’d like to play more on the idea of the things people turn to in crisis – [Trust founder] Octavia Hill’s view that there is a public need for Nature and beauty. We are deliberately putting emphasis on the landscape, but houses are very much at the heart of what we do and I’ll never let that go. Access to beautiful buildings and their artwork and landscapes is just as valid. When we have to make a decision, my north star is always to ask “why are we doing this?” The Trust’s purpose is to care for places of history and natural beauty and I will always default to that.’

A £3 million project at Knole Park in Kent has recently been completed, restoration at Seaton Delavel in Northumberland is continuing and work is due to start at 17th-century Dyrham Park near Bristol. ‘Little by little, we’re working on the big houses, which need new electrics and plumbing. At the same time, we’re reinterpreting some of them, trying to tell more stories, highlighting different owners and social geography.’

‘Our purpose is to care for places of history and natural beauty and I will always default to that’

Although the houses are the economic driver, she points out that visitors are equally as drawn by the landscapes. Mrs McGrady, who admits to ‘not being very pleasant to be with if I haven’t been outside’, feels strongly that this has to be made easier and talks about ‘extending the fingers of national parks into cities’.

‘There needs to be not only ease of transport, but also psychological ease, the idea that the countryside isn’t scary or difficult. When I was first director, I said I wanted people from Birming-ham to come to the Lake District and was taken to task for being condescending, but of course that’s not what I meant.

‘Fiona Reynolds [former director] called her vision for the Trust “arms open”. I want to go a step further. There are still people for whom we have no relevance. I want to break through that image.’

The National Trust is the UK’s largest countryside charity and a major landowner with 500-plus properties, 1,000 square miles of land and some five million members. Find out more at

The class of 1897: It isn’t just Country Life celebrating a 120th birthday this year

From the wireless to asprin, Kate Green discovers others observing this milestone.