IN 1942 the landowner and socialist MP Sir Charles Philips Trevelyan made a will leaving his Wallington estate in Northumberland to the National Trust, and thus disinherited his son of property that had been in the family since 1688. When Sir Charles died in 1958 the Trust took over the 13,500 acres, the largest estate they had ever been given, with a fine country house, 15 working farms, the model village of Cambo and numerous other houses and cottages.
One of the farms is called Newbiggin – ‘new building’. It could almost be ‘new beginning’, an exclamation of optimism and celebration of 18th century confidence in the future. Its 350 acres of productive fields are fenced, walled, drained and ditched. There’s a range of good stone buildings for housing livestock and storing crops, and a commodious house. This work is typical of the astonishing creation of productive farmland in rural Northumberland during the 18th century. Many thousands of square miles of bleak, barren, wild, unfenced heath, fen and moorland, overgrown with gorse and scraggy vegetation, was turned into some of the most fertile farmland in England. It is hard to credit the immense human effort and private capital that was poured into the land in a relatively short time.
Crucial to this improvement was a vast network of hundreds of millions of clay tiles (pipes) that were dug into trenches in every field with the backbreaking muscle and sweat of thousands of labourers. Almost all these drains still function today and if they are lost we will never have the will or capital to recreate them.
One might think the National Trust would be concerned to preserve these heroic works of land improvement. Not a bit of it. They have made the tenant of Newbiggin an offer he can’t refuse to buy out his farming tenancy (he will stay in the house). They intend to plant trees on some of the fields and ‘re-wild’ the rest. His is not the only farm they have taken in hand for this purpose. This is part of a project under the £40million ‘Green Recovery Challenge Fund’ set up by Defra and administered through their agencies Natural England, Forestry England and the Environment Agency. From this fund, the Trust have been given a grant of £3.85million under its ‘Historic Landscapes’ programme to ‘enhance nature and combat the effects of climate change’ at five of the sites they own. They intend to spend £800,000 from this grant at Wallington on fencing off rivers and streams, planting trees and hedgerows and ‘to create increased nature connectivity and enhanced environmental farming practices . . . and restore 50km of waterways along the river corridors that will enable natural processes to prevail.’ That is code for encouraging flooding.
The Trust are looking forward to 50 years of ‘working with their partners to create rich and healthy spaces for nature, and to reverse the decline in wildlife and their habitats’ and ‘to create places where people and nature can thrive together’. They intend to give more access to walkers and cyclists and are ‘excited to see the positive impact this will have on the health and wellbeing of all our visitors, as well as the local community’.
To say their proposals are hostile to farmers and farming would be a gross understatement. The Trust are simply not interested in continuing the productive farming which has given us the landscape we see today and been the mainstay of this particular estate for over two hundred years. In fact, somewhat reminiscent of the high-handed behaviour of their benefactor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, they do not seem to understand that they hold the estate on trust, as a link in a chain of ownership. That they are entrusted with a duty to preserve the work of the people who came before them, who wrested the estate and its land from the lawless wilderness that was Northumberland three centuries ago. But they are dismissive of what our forebears achieved, boasting that they have ‘worked to restore damage caused by intensive land management’ and are ‘working to save biodiversity, water quality and peat soils’ from ‘the climate crisis’ and ‘healing Wallington and its precious habitats from climate harm’. By this presumably they mean they are determined to extirpate farming from the estate.
There is no sense to any of this irresponsible vandalism. Conflating previous ‘intensive land management’ with ’climate harm’ is simply nonsensical. How exactly do they intend to ‘heal precious habitats’ from ‘climate harm’? How will abandoning productive fields to trees and wilderness affect global ‘climate change’ or ‘biodiversity’? We are not told.
Arguably it is not even in accordance with the objects of the National Trust’s charter (as wide and opaque as the words are) which charges the Trust with ‘the preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest and, as regards lands, for the preservation (as far as practicable) of their natural aspect, features and animal and plant life’.
Apart from the irreversible damage they will do to the farmland itself, the effect of the Trust’s grand scheme will be to cleanse the estate of independent farmers and replace them with a few employees of the Trust tasked with maintenance of footpaths and cycle tracks and thinning trees. Moreover, nowhere do they tell us exactly what species they are doing all this for, although they have said they intend to introduce beavers as part of their ‘healing’ habitats on the estate.
Everything is about planting trees – a million by 2030 – and letting the land run wild. Of course none of this would be possible if it were not funded by the state. There is nothing to sell from wilderness; you can’t eat trees, unspecified wildlife or beavers. But if you have nothing but disdain for the great work of our ancestors in taming and peopling the wilderness to feed the nation, you will have ‘carbon credits’ to sell to the global elite.
The effect of all this will be that farmland will revert to its earlier state, empty of people, producing nothing of practical value, apart from the fantasy of ‘promoting the health and wellbeing of all our visitors, as well as the local community’. Is this what our land is for? Maybe they should rename it Dun Farmin’.