Visiting several National Trust properties recently it was clear things differ significantly today compared to twenty years ago. Then people walked through rooms following a guidebook purchased on arrival, kept away from the objects of interest by heavy red ropes and disapproving looks from room stewards.
Today the room stewards engage in conversation, where possible closer access to items of interest is available and the consequences of handling objects is explained through hands-on displays. Discretely placed teasels deter attempts to sit on furniture but the occasional seat is made available for those who need it.
However, it is the constantly changing exhibitions and add-ons that make repeat visits attractive. Hughendon Manor, for example, had a Forties weekend in progress when we visited. Various Enactment groups demonstrated weapons, fired a mortar and put on skirmishes to demonstrate aspects of warfare in World War II. A Home Guard group explained their equipment and shared moments of humour and entertainers sang and danced and encouraged people to have a go for themselves. The weather meant a Battle of Britain flight was cancelled but otherwise it made for a very full day. Worth visiting for its connection to Benjamin Disraeli and the recently discovered World War II role in map-making, there is plenty to offer background detail for writers in many areas.
Waddesdon Manor have a number of exhibitions in place at present but it was a small display of portraits of Queen Elizabeth I and some of her courtiers and portraits of Queen Elizabeth II that proved of particular interest. The text pointed out the symbolism in the paintings. Seeking out these small details meant taking a much closer look at the paintings and a greater appreciation of their execution.
Upton House near Banbury was for sale in 1927 and the eventual buyer passed the property on to the NT at his death. The sale was the central theme for 2017 and visitors were treated as potential buyers with the notable attractions of the house pointed out in the “details” provided and by the room guides. Significant alterations were made to the house following the sale and the property was extended. An interesting part of the visit was a display relating to the architect who brought these about with drawings, models, photos and sketches. Rather than look at them from the point of view of the owner this made a change and showed the stages involved in the planning and execution. There were even copies of plans of the gardens with planting plans included should one wish to try any of them at home.
This more relaxed approach is more informative and must surely draw the visitors in and encourage repeat visits. From a social history point of view there was much of interest for a writer. Background details and new lines of research often stem from visits of this kind. At other properties the domestic quarters have offered insights into the preparation and presentation of food. Recipes, napkin folding designs and menus are among the items that have proved of interest. Often it is the ephemera of life that offers the detail that brings a story or article to life.