In a letter to The Telegraph Helen Ghosh, the director general of the National Trust, derides suggestions that the organisation “would want to airbrush Easter”. Its website, she adds, mentions the Christian festival thousands of times. But this misses the point. The big event with which the trust is associated at this time of year and which is designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible is its Easter egg hunt. In past years, it has been called the Easter Egg Trail; this year it has been renamed the Great British Egg Hunt. It may well be true that the trust website regularly mentions Easter in other contexts; but why is it reluctant to do so with the branding of this particular event?
The trust says the sponsor, Cadbury, is responsible for the terminology; but the organisation could and should have insisted upon including Easter in the marketing literature. The fact that it didn’t lends itself to suspicions that the trust has succumbed to the notion that Christian references need to be downplayed if an event is to be considered truly “national” and open to those who practise other faiths, or none. We saw this a few years ago when some councils tried to turn Christmas into Winterval or, simply, the “holidays”.
The problem the trust faces is that it is building a reputation under Dame Helen which makes it easier to believe there was more method than misjudgment at work here. In recent years it has been more involved in managing controversy than the houses and land entrusted to its care. Last year there was a row over the way the trust bought land in the Lake District from under the noses of local farmers amid suspicions, which it denies, that it wants to spread its policy of “rewilding” agricultural land.
Moreover, questions have been raised over the way it is dumbing down the history of country houses as though it needs to apologise for the elitist nature of the culture from which these grand estates sprang. One writer recently said that “where the trust once led the world in the quality of its curatorship and presentation, it’s now in danger of becoming, internationally, a bit of a joke.” Sir Roy Strong, former director of the V&A, said the trust seemed ashamed of its solidly middle-class membership and was in thrall to “a social agenda about the evils of slavery, ethnic and class discrimination, gender equality, and the campaign against climate change”.
We hope things are not that bad. After all, the National Trust remains one of this country’s great institutions, with a membership of well over four million. Perhaps it feels, a bit like the Conservative Party under David Cameron, that it needs to modernise and jettison some of its historical and cultural baggage. That would be a great mistake. People belong to the trust, visit its houses and walk on its land because they want to be in touch with the country’s past – not disown it. And integral to our nation’s history is its Christian heritage and festivals, like Easter. Of all bodies, the National Trust should know this and celebrate it.