(Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

No place for young’uns

Why are pensioners the favoured customer of the National Trust?

Most students spend their time drinking, asleep or hunting down a boyfriend. Not me. I was obsessed with the National Trust. My bedroom wall pin-up? A map of National Trust properties. The gap year in Thailand? I was building paths in Cumbria on a National Trust working holiday.

It’s a cause I’ve championed for years. I’ve given memberships to friends as birthday presents, I’ve worked on location filming documentaries, and on many occasion a NT house has been a place of refuge — crawling back on the M40 after a 21st birthday party, a stroll beside a Capability Brown serpentine lake has been the cure for many a sore head. The brown oak leaf sign appears? My finger darts to the indicator with a Venus Fly Trap-speed reflex.

Some say the NT has even saved my life. At Edinburgh University, when we braved the icy Scottish winter without heating, it was a thick tartan National Trust rug which covered my bed. Would I have pulled through without it?

But the National Trust does nothing to encourage young keen beans like me. Rather, we are faced by a thistle on a chair.

Where are young people in the mind of the National Trust? Not on the website. Not on the marketing material.

Yes, there are images of OAPs in the spring sunshine hobbling after their grandchildren, or 30-something yummy mummies showing younglings a daffodil. There’s always sunshine, there’s always a pashmina, but never the most elusive of beings: a student.

While young people are obviously not the core membership, it is blatantly, shockingly, appallingly obvious that the Trust has no intention to welcome them to the fold.

Yet the Trust motto is “for everyone, for ever”. So why does it lump itself into the category of OAP attractions? Why are pensioners the favoured customer? How has it become “a thing that old people do”? Why is the Trust not embarrassed that they fail to play a part in young people’s lives?

As it happens, Gen-Z are ripe for membership picking.

Firstly, like the retired, students have spare time. They have weeks of time off — and that’s not counting the holidays.

I’ve spent several boozy nights in Sotheby’s dancing to ABBA

Secondly, students zig-zag the country. As they ride the wave of joining and dropping out of university, picking up temporary work and grad schemes, they are constantly on the go (since leaving school, I’ve lived in ten different houses in five different locations). And with new friends sprinkled across the country, they’ll spend hours bumbling along in a dented Polo to Yorkshire for a house party, or travelling with the football team from Southampton to Leeds in a minibus, or hitching lifts to Reading Festival.

With such extensive travel, the potential to tick off NT sites is enormous. Compare that to my parents who have lived in the same ten mile radius for the last 40 years. They have been limited to the same three NT sites for four decades. There’s only so many times one can be impressed by the same set of Chippendale chairs.

Finally, young people are fascinated by history. A quick scroll through TikTok will tell you that the appetite is insatiable. And trends for gardening, cooking, wild swimming, foraging, cabin life and wellness have exploded on Instagram. If the NT wants to increase its audience, why not appeal to a generation that will proactively market them for free?

So, what should The Trust do?

The Trust as a whole seems vague, bland, vanilla, soft, so very nice

They could look to London’s museums, whose late night events are havens for Gen-Z. The Royal Academy once recast itself as a 1640s masque, with DJs mixing baroque, hip-hop and contemporary-classical music. Wild! I’ve spent several boozy nights in Sotheby’s dancing to ABBA, and, with my sister’s encouragement, I once escaped from school to join a late-night party at London Zoo.

Don’t forget The Georgian Group, which has a thriving gang of Young Georgians who meet regularly at the pub. Even Classic FM has brought classical music to the ears of thousands of students. So it can be done.

In contrast, the last event I went to at my local NT house was a weekday watercolour class at 11am. Great if you’re a retired granny (they all were) — but a write off for anyone with a 9-5 job.

I have approached The Trust with a swathe of ideas, even volunteering to set up a young members group. I suggested targeting history students, working with university societies, organising events at NT locations with transport to and from the campus, giving a year’s free membership to history graduates, and at the very least, having a TikTok account. 

I was pleased to get a response, throw a few ideas around and contribute to a report, but any momentum soon lapsed. The will is not there: “We’d love to do that, but it’s never going to happen.” Well nothing will happen with that attitude.

The Trust has recently appointed a “Children and Young People Engagement Lead”. But these are two separate roles which cannot be addressed in one fell swoop. Will a 22-year-old really respond to a Pumpkin Trail or an Easter egg hunt?

It’s shameful that the Trust is unmoved by how out of touch it is with young people

The Trust as a whole seems vague, bland, vanilla, soft, so very nice. Comforting and wholesome, but never trendy, fun or thrilling. Director-General Hilary McGrady’s Desert Island Discs was peppered with nice phrases — “finding comfort”, “beautiful spaces”, “special relationship”. When asked about her favourite location, McGrady described it as a “peaceful, tranquil, just gorgeous place”. It’s so inoffensive that it’s enough to suffocate anyone young at heart.

The reason students don’t come to the National Trust has nothing to do with whether the historical approaches are correct or whether Churchill was a racist. The reason is because it’s one of the most stuffy organisations out there with a website which could be mistaken for a catalogue of retirement homes.

As the main player in our nation’s heritage, it’s shameful that the Trust is unmoved by how out of touch it is with young people. If it can’t adapt, how does it expect to survive?

The National Trust’s motto is “for everyone, for ever”, but this is hot air without the will to try.

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