‘We tell the story of England — 6,000 years of history. We look after it and bring it to life’: Kate Mavor of English Heritage

Kate Mavor, the chief executive of English Heritage, speaks to Country Life's John Goodall about on charity status, education and taking a broader view.

The sun is out and Dover Castle has opened its gates once again to visitors. Across the glittering sea, the coast of France is clearly visible. It’s hard to imagine a happier place to interview the chief executive of English Heritage (EH). The castle not only speaks of the importance of what the organisation cares for, but — as a working fortification from prehistory to the nuclear age — is vividly representative of the historical scope of its responsibilities.

At the heart of the castle is the pharos or lighthouse, the tallest standing Roman building in Britain. ‘I love it,’ says Kate Mavor. ‘It is an icon of continuity; it has seen everything from the Norman Conquest to the Second World War.’

For the interview, we retreat into the great keep of the castle. Its main interiors are dressed as they might have appeared in the 12th century and we settle on a bench in the throne room. Miss Mavor immediately plunges into the role of the organisation she runs. ‘We tell the story of England — 6,000 years of history. We look after it and bring it to life.’

These undertakings, she insists, are inseparable. ‘People will only preserve things if they understand them. We have to explain, therefore, why things matter. One of our purposes in this regard is to conserve things to help people understand their own history.’

Miss Mavor’s path to EH began early. ‘I have always been interested in history and was taken to historic sites when I was a child. When I had young children, I went visiting with them, in turn. The diversity of visitors and the different ways they engage with historic places is something we have to be aware of and cater for.’

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“I would like English Heritage to be seen as a model institution for the challenge of bringing history to life.”

Before joining EH six years ago, shortly after it ceased to be a Government agency and became a charity, she ran the National Trust for Scotland: ‘It was a very challenging time for that institution,’ she explains. ‘I learnt there how a charity was different from a government agency, which was invaluable for this job.’

The alterations to EH were controversial. Shorn of statutory functions (now the responsibility of Historic England), it was offered gradually diminishing Government funding over eight years as it became financially independent. Miss Mavor is keen to emphasise that this change has been both meaningful and successful. ‘Being a charity has not fundamentally changed what we do, but it allows us to do it much better,’ she says. ‘In particular, we can unlock additional funds and make ourselves the focus of public affection, to attract volunteers and bequests. These are not things a Government agency can do easily.

‘Until last year,’ she continues, ‘we were meeting all our targets to make the organisation independent of state subsidy. The pandemic hit us hard and we received £12.6 million for capital projects from the Government emergency fund. However, the commitment of staff, our 4,000 volunteers, the loyalty of our membership — and a very busy summer last year — have put us in an unexpectedly strong position. So much so that we were able to return the Government money offered for our running costs.’

Kate Mavor, Chief Executive Officer of English Heritage photograohed at Dover Castle by Daniel Gould.

One of the points of issue about the new form of EH as a charity is the degree to which it can support the hundreds of sites that can never realistically recoup the cost of their upkeep. The repair bill — termed the conservation deficit — remains stubbornly high, but Miss Mavor notes that the figure is constituted in a relatively arbitrary way. ‘What’s important is to do what we can and, at present, we are spending on average one-third more on conservation and maintenance each year than as a government body. We apply strict criteria to all our conservation work — independent of visitor numbers and revenue — questioning the overriding historical significance of individual sites, assessing their condition and also their vulnerability.

‘I want EH to be scholarly,’ she elaborates, ‘but I also want it to be loved, with more volunteers and more bequests. The properties constitute a fantastic opportunity to generate interest in the past and to encourage people to visit more and come back. Having made the connection, we want to lead people on and develop their interest. We also need to be relevant and broaden the history we tell, after all we have a very wide audience.’

She cites Portchester Castle in Portsmouth, telling the story of Caribbean prisoners of war brought there during the Napoleonic Wars. ‘We have been seeking nominations for women to celebrate in the Blue Plaques scheme — half of those erected in 2021 will be to women. At Marble Hill in Twickenham, it has been wonderful to tell the story of Henrietta Howard [Countess of Suffolk, who commissioned the house], who became deaf.’

What of the future? ‘I would like English Heritage to be seen as a model institution for the challenge of bringing history to life. I would also like to see more of the work of opening properties to the public in the hands of local people. To date, we have recruited 331 volunteers, for example, working on unstaffed sites. Last year, 27,000 people attended 59 events organised by local groups at the sites.

‘Securing the future of our properties is important as well. Membership is crucial to all this, creating a sustainable, virtuous circle of understanding, enjoyment and care. Perhaps in the future, more people will start making membership a gift to their families and friends.’