Lecturing last weekend for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings at Tyntesfield, on the outskirts of Bristol, I had a chance to see the National Trust at its best. At this extraordinary Victorian property – one of the last great Gothic Revival country estates to survive – there is none of the stuffy, corporate approach that one sometimes associates with the Trust. Instead, you’re thrust into the heart of a major conservation project where there’s a sense that fresh and exciting discoveries are being made every day.
Remarkably, the Trust opened Tyntesfield only ten weeks after it purchased it when, following the death of Lord Wraxall, its owner, the property was saved for the nation in 2002. Commendably, there was a determination that the public should be involved in the discovery and challenges of the conservation project ahead; what a project that is.
The house is now shrouded in scaffolding while, inside, its contents are being sorted, catalogued and conserved. The essential work of re-roofing, re-wiring and re-plumbing the house and chapel is now well underway and, through specially inserted glass panels in the floors, visitors can see the old water pipes and other services running beside the new.
Refreshingly, the guides are more like family members, proud to show off a rather eccentric past. Some of the rooms are laid out as one might expect, others are a jumble of everyday and more special objects; then there are those where items are being stored or where textiles wait to be conserved. Where servants would once have stirred, cobwebbed bells hang silent; where there was splendour, mildewed wallpaper hangs limp; where the sunshine of past springs would have burnished the rich interiors, windows are boarded. All this strikes a cord, not of decay and neglect but of palpable history and, through it, we are transported to a lost age.
This interpretation does not please everyone. Apparently some visitors find it all a little disconcerting and are upset that they are not experiencing a ‘perfect’ Tyntesfield. Personally I’ll be rather sad when that day comes.