The revered British institution, the National Trust, owns over 500 properties across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as nearly 800 miles of coastline and countless nature reserves and wild landscapes. With properties ranging from magnificent stately homes to back to back houses, the National Trust has a huge range of historical and natural sites to offer visitors.
The National Trust sells annual membership, enabling members to visit its sites without any added expense beyond the annual fee. Many people, whether residents or tourists from abroad, struggle to decide if it is worth the cost.
Founded in 1884 with one small property, The National Trust now owns 800 miles of coastline, has eight UNESCO sites, 500 properties and 180 registered parks and gardens. It is the second largest landowner in the U.K, and the largest farm owner in England and Wales with 250,000 hectares and 1000 tenant farmers looking after the land.
With 5,000,000 members it has the second largest membership of any institution, second only to the National Union of Students. Although not without controversy, it is much beloved across the nation and copied across the globe. If you are considering taking out membership but are still undecided, here are the facts to give you a helping hand.
NATIONAL TRUST MEMBER BENEFITS
• Free entrance The main benefit of course is that you get free entrance to all of their many properties, reserves and landscapes. Just have your card scanned and walk in with the minimum of effort.
• Free parking This is included at all of their properties. In some you have to scan the card in a ticket machine, in others just having the sticker in your car is enough. The Trust owns some stunning coastline, and the free parking gives you unlimited access to the beaches without worrying about the cost.
• Handbook, Magazines and Newsletters The handbook is updated annually and lists every single property by region. The magazines are sent out three times a year (in compostable bags) and keep members updated on what is going on across the Trust. The newsletters are seasonal and are region focused, giving you details of what is happening in the properties near where you live. The events pages are really useful to find out what is going on and to enable you to book them early as they often sell out quickly.
• A vote at the AGM All members get the opportunity to attend and vote for committee members and to vote for resolutions at the Annual General Meeting. This can be done online or by post if you are unable to attend. AGM's take place at Heelis, their Head Office in Swindon, which is sometimes open for tours.
There's not many places where the family can run around on the immaculate lawns of a stately home - this is at Hinton Ampner in Hampshire
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF NATIONAL TRUST MEMBERSHIP?
• The estates and landscapes are perfect places for so many different types of activity. Walking, (with dogs allowed in many sites), photography, wildlife and bird spotting (many places have hides), picnics or just letting the family run free.
• All of their sites, whether properties or landscapes, are fantastic for kids, particularly pre-teens. There is so much space for them to run around in, places to explore, water to splash around in and wildlife to investigate. Many of the larger sites have playparks where kids have a great time while parents rest.
• The sites and properties often have activities and events on, many of which are entirely free. Tree climbing, trails, den building, Easter trails, mud pie making and much more. For adults there are art exhibitions, workshops and classes, garden walks and talks and more.
• There is always something to learn at one of their sites as even the smallest of landscapes will have an information board to tell you about the wildlife around you.
• Perfect for long journeys – if you are travelling a long distance, a National Trust property is a great place to stop mid journey. There’s no need for motorway service stations, as you can stretch your legs, have a picnic or something to eat at the café and use clean loos to break the journey, all in stunning scenery.
• Once you’ve paid for membership, a visit to a Trust property then feels like a ‘free’ day out. If you are holidaying for a week in the UK in counties such as Devon, Cornwall, Dorset or many others, you can do a day at a different property and not have any additional costs to your week away. In these cases, membership will easily pay for itself within the week.
• If something goes wrong on the day of your visit, such as bad weather, a toddler having a tantrum, someone feeling ill, it’s easy to just leave and know that you can go back another day without having wasted your entrance fee; you don’t feel like you have to stay to get your money's worth.
• You only need to visit three of the larger properties in a year to get your money’s worth from the annual membership. Everything else after that is a ‘bonus’.
• A lot of the sites, even the small ones, often have second hand bookshops where you can pick up a huge variety of books at bargain prices. I've yet to leave one empty handed.
WHAT ARE THE DISADVANTAGES OF NATIONAL TRUST MEMBERSHIP?
• It can be an expensive initial outlay, although this can be offset by a monthly direct debit payment to spread the cost.
• The Trust can be said to present a slightly sanitised version of the past in its estate properties, with the way rooms are laid out presenting a rather ‘preserved in aspic’ feel to them. They do have to tread a fine line between presentation and preservation and it can't be an easy one.
• There are some ethical concerns, for example the Trust allows use of trail hunting on its lands, which many find unacceptable. It has also received a lot of flak for its promotion of revisionist history, which doesn't go down well with many of its members. See more about this here >>
WHAT IS THE COST OF NATIONAL TRUST MEMBERSHIP?
Individual £72 Young person (18-25) £36 Joint £120 Family with 2 adults (and up to 10 children) £126 Family with 1 adult and up to 10 children £78
Join the National Trust here >>
Visitors from the USA can join The Royal Oak Foundation which has a whole host of benefits in the USA as well as access to National Trust properties including parking, National Trust Scotland properties and discounts on hotels and travel packages. Alternatively buy a National Trust Touring Pass.
Visitors from other countries can either buy normal National Trust membership for a year, or buy a National Trust Touring Pass for either 7 or 14 days. These can only be bought online as they are not sold at any of the properties and provide you with an e-voucher which you use to activate your membership at a property.
They then remain active for the 7/14 days you selected and give you access to 300 properties and all of the landscapes. Prices range from £33 for one person for 7 days, to £81 for a family with unlimited children for 14 days.
Studland Beach in Dorset is owned by the National Trust has several glorious miles of golden beaches and blue sea.
ALTERNATIVES TO THE NATIONAL TRUST
Some people join National Trust Scotland or National Trust New Zealand, which are cheaper, as they are affiliates of the National Trust and membership of these organisations provides free access to National Trust sites in England. What you will not get, however, are the National Trust handbooks or newsletters. And while you may be supporting heritage sites in those regions, your membership money will not be supporting sites in England.
A lot of the revenue generated by membership to National Trust goes back into conservation and preservation. People should consider actively helping the sites they are using for a good day out. It costs millions to maintain the properties and landscapes and it's worth thinking about what would happen if there was no National Trust, which is what could happen if they didn’t have their members. Estates would be sold to the wealthy elite as private houses, land would be sold to housing developers to turn into ugly indentikit estates, the natural habitats churned up, concreted over and covered in cheap housing, roads and supermarkets. It's a horrible thought.
They actively pursue an ethical approach to everything they do, and promote fair trade, locally grown produce and eco management. National Trust properties are home to all of the 17 species of bat found in the UK, and also recently reintroduced the large blue butterfly which had been extinct since 1979, as well as reintroducing water voles to Exmoor, which is one of the fastest declining land mammals in the country.
SO IS IT WORTH IT?
I have to say that for many people I asked, it was an emphatic yes.
People use their memberships differently: some use it for a week’s holiday in England, getting days out and parking at the beach covered.
Others like to visit their local site as often as they can - the joy of the properties is the way they change over the seasons, and can be visited several times: in Spring to see the bulbs coming out, summer to see the grand display of roses and perennials, autumn to see the magnificent displays of leaves changing colours, and winter to get some fresh air and see the houses, all decorated with Christmas trees and other festive decorations.
Some I spoke to said about the advantages of stopping off on a long distance journey and not having to suffer motorway service stations.
Just three visits a year to the larger properties cover the membership, in my area alone that is Mottisfont for the roses in June, the famous autumnal display at Stourhead (so stunning that is actually has a hotline to help you time your visit for when the display is at its most magnificent) and the Christmas Lights at Kingston Lacy.
It is a good idea to have a look at the map of places and properties they own, and seeing what is available in your area or the place you will be holidaying, before making your decision. Properties do cover most areas and there are very few places that aren’t within a short drive of one of their sites.
If the worst comes to the worst and you don’t take full advantage of your membership in a year, you do at least have the satisfaction of knowing that your money has gone to a good cause, to help preserve both history and nature for future generations.
Still not convinced? Try Historic Houses instead - you can still visit stately homes, but without the politics or the generic approach to history. Read more >>