ughenden Manor, a National Trust property on the edge of Buckinghamshire, half an hour from London, is teeming with smiling visitors. Children search for hedgehogs in the grounds while their parents take photos of the art collection of former prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, who used to live here. It all seems very far removed from the institution in crisis that some have tried to portray the National Trust as over the past year.
In the garden, the Trust’s director general Hilary McGrady, 55, is admiring the flowers; she is dressed for the heatwave in a coral coloured sleeveless jumpsuit and trainers with silver glittery stars on them, a rainbow-coloured Pride lanyard round her neck. She looks a bit like an art teacher, with her silver jewellery. “It has been a strange time,” she tells me, in what feels like a colossal understatement. “At one point, when we were staring into the abyss at the start of the pandemic, I thought I could be the one who oversees the demise of the National Trust [because it was set to lose so much money].” But that was just the start of it. Not only has McGrady had to steer her organisation through the pandemic and cut 20 per cent of the Trust’s staff, she has also found herself at the centre of a culture war. The Trust has been attacked on all sides about everything from how it presents the legacy of slavery to the sugar content of the flapjacks in its cafés.
In May, there were allegations that the Trust’s chairman Tim Parker had been ousted after criticism from a splinter pressure group called the Restore Trust. They object to the “woke” way the Trust is approaching its past after a report published in September last year revealed that 93 of its 500-odd properties had links to slavery, including Winston Churchill’s Kent home, Chartwell. The timing of the report, after the Black Lives Matter protests, was seen by critics as pointed.
McGrady appears to take all this in her stride, with a healthy sense of perspective, repeating in her Northern Irish accent that her priority is the long-term health of the Trust. “I can’t pretend it is always pretty or I like it when people say nasty things about you, but I have got to think that the Trust is doing the right thing. I want to tell more history, so that it is relevant to more people. If others try to politicise that there is not an awful lot I can do.” Growing up in Lisburn, south-west of Belfast, amid sectarian violence, has influenced her approach. “I am passionate that culture should be used as a force for good and it really annoys me when others try to use it as a divisive thing.”
As for whether she is woke, she just wants to get on with her job. Parker’s departure was misreported. He had served his term, plus an extra year because of Covid and is “an absolute rock”. As for his political stance, “honestly, Tim is the least woke man ever. It is laughable that he is called woke”.
We are not trying to politicise anything. We are trying to tell more history... as for Tim Parker being woke, he is the least woke man ever
In fact, the Trust has been “late to the game” on colonial history. “Just about every cultural organisation is looking into its history. The genie is out of the bottle in terms of people wanting to understand where wealth came from.” She compares the shift in perspective to how we only started telling the stories of servants around 50 years ago, “but that is where you get your Downton Abbey stories from”.
She continues: “I have no intention of trying to cover any [of our history] up, what would be the point? One thing that possibly has changed is there may be things people find offensive and we have to be sensitive about that. Our actions speak louder than our words. If you go to any of our places I think you will see that we are not trying to politicise anything. We are trying to tell the history of this amazing place.”
There is a massive job to do, on a case-by-case basis, looking at individual properties, so could the criticism be unhelpful hysteria being stoked by a minority of Tories who think it might win votes? “That’s a pretty good analysis. People will always take a pop at the Trust because of the scale of it,” she says. “We have five-and-a-half million members so we are attractive to anybody that wants to stir a bit of debate. They get more mileage out of us than English Heritage. I’d rather lead an organisation where people are interested in what we are doing than have to drum up support.”
Her children, Wesley, 27, Kirk, 23, and Tori, 21, “keep me level”. “They cannot get their heads around why talking about history would be controversial. They understand nuance; that you can have a person that did a lot of good stuff and maybe a few things that were not so great, but that is history. It is a generational thing.”
Anyway, despite the criticism, membership is up and McGrady is proud that thanks to decisive early action and prudent financial management they are not in the financial dire straights they feared. “We always muddle through,” she says. Today at Hughenden for example, half of the kitchen staff are isolating but they have still managed to produce the scones and egg and cress sandwiches people expect from a National Trust visit.
She is sticking to the aims she had when she became director general in 2018 which include, “making us a truly accessible organisation, which takes in everything from practical access to feeling that an organisation is relevant to you and you are welcome there — we had taken our eyes off that being important a bit. Take today, we are at Disraeli’s house but as the years go on people say, ‘Who is that?’” McGrady is “passionate” that ticket costs remain low. Membership is £6 a month, “less than two cups of coffee” and the vast majority of the land is free to walk on.
One way they are trying to broaden their reach is through a new book about items in its collection, 125 Treasures, which was supposed to be published last year to celebrate the Trust’s 125th anniversary. It includes the first atlas, which is at Petworth, and a Monet painting from Chartwell. “I’d like to do more books to celebrate our collections. Every object has been chosen because it is both historically significant and important today.”
Social media is another tool. McGrady laughs when I ask about a National Trust TikTok but says it is not beyond the realms of possibility and most staff are better at social media than her. Contrary to public perception, most Trust staff are in their early thirties (the volunteers are older, McGrady has just come from meeting two women who worked for Churchill and volunteer at Chartwell). McGrady wants to encourage more of a range of people to work at the Trust. “Gender is not a problem, the last three director generals have been women, but we have to address the race and ethnicity of our staff, it is not where it needs to be. We have plans to change that through recruitment, the language we use, to how we get people to progress through the organisation and into leadership roles. I am determined to make a difference to that.”
McGrady’s first Trust experience was walking on its land in Ireland and she becomes animated talking about the work they are doing to restore nature. “Covid highlighted the importance of equal access to green space and the restoring nature projects have been a great success.” Last week a beaver was born on the Trust’s Holnicote Estate on Exmoor for the first time in 400 years. McGrady was “rather pleased that Rashford [after footballer Marcus] was chosen as his name. It felt appropriate after [the Euros]”. But she reminds me that this is about more than “everyone loving a furry animal — it is one step in part of a project to re-landscape that part of the world”. The Trust works independently from Government, which McGrady is “massively proud of — I protect our independence with my life” but it is important that their goals are aligned: “if landscape policy isn’t working, our interventions aren’t going to make a difference”.
Most of the new land the Trust acquires is on the basis that it will conserve it, although at the moment a few smaller organisations are asking if they would be interested in taking over because the impact of Covid means they are not able to sustain themselves. But in general, “we see ourselves as a last resort, we don’t have a pro-active acquisition policy.”
Their holiday business is expanding as more people stay in the UK for their holidays because of Covid restrictions. This was another sticking point for Restore, who were outraged that people were having stag and hen dos in ancient halls. McGrady shrugs at this. “Eh, I’m open to what people do in our houses as long as they are respectful.”
McGrady “never thought” she would be a director general. “My parents were working class, my father was a builder, doing roofs and working ridiculously hard every minute of every day and my mother did a million different jobs to get a bit of income. She was feisty, up to something all the time. My sister always tells me that she was to be a nurse, my brother was to be an engineer and I was to be a hairdresser. But that didn’t work out as planned.”
After school, she “followed my heart rather than my head” and went to study art at Ulster University. Most people who could were leaving Ireland then because of the Troubles but she stayed close to home because her parents were unwell. She specialised in graphic design “because I thought it would get me a job but I was really bad at it. The only good thing was I met my husband while studying it”. Frank, who is Catholic, unlike McGrady’s Methodist family, is still a graphic designer and she says that he pays close attention to all the signs in every Trust property they visit.
She joined the Trust in 2006 as regional director for Northern Ireland. This marks her out from her predecessors, Dames Fiona Reynolds and Helen Ghosh, who were civil service mandarins without any previous experience of the Trust, whereas McGrady has in- depth knowledge of its machinations.
When she isn’t working, she runs — she is training for the Great North Run, “which in my case might be more like the Great North Walk” — and is “obsessed” with her three wildlife CCTV cameras at her house in County Antrim, saying excitedly “we have otters and a kingfisher”.
She is reading James Rebanks’s English Pastoral — “while he and the Trust don’t always agree, we are both trying to achieve the same outcomes in restoring nature”. “I mostly read biographies and books about wildlife,” she says, with a realisation. “I sound like my job is my life.” She smiles. “It kind of is.”