Saving Ashridge - how the fate of the National Trust estate could have been very different

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 March 2020

Deer in the mist on an autumn morning at Ashridge House Credit: Claire Zaffin / Alamy Stock Photo

Deer in the mist on an autumn morning at Ashridge House Credit: Claire Zaffin / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Claire Zaffin / Alamy Stock Photo

Walk the woods, hills and valleys of the Ashridge estate and the feeling is one of timelessness. It could all have been very different when it was put up for sale in the 1920s.

Aldbury village pond Credit: Robert Stainforth / Alamy Stock PhotoAldbury village pond Credit: Robert Stainforth / Alamy Stock Photo

When the 3rd Earl Brownlow died a widower and childless in March 1921, he left 58,000 acres spread across the country, including the Ashridge estate, which stradles the Herts-Beds border to the west of Harpenden. No doubt the residents of Little Gaddesden and the other Chilterns villages within the estate expected the property to pass to an heir. Instead, the earl's will directed that the house and land, which had been owned by the same family since 1604, should be sold. The possible breakup of one of the country's finest estates caused considerable disquiet and uncertainty, not least in the estate's villages, where many of the tenants either worked for or supplied goods and services to Ashridge.

At a time of little planning control, countryside around the edges of towns and cities and in rural areas was being sold for housing, facilitated by the rise in private car ownership and the spread of services like electricity. Ashridge lies close to railway stations for easy commuting to London and was clearly threatened.

The estate included extensive common land, including high chalk downland along the Chilterns scarp, over which generations of local people had exercised rights to graze their animals and collect fuel. By the 1920s that use was in decline. The estate woods contained many acres of valuable timber. Locals had enjoyed the paths and amenities of the estate on foot, but had few legal rights to go on to the land. The potential loss of access to this countryside and beauty was anticipated with considerable concern.

In May 1923 the contents of the grand house went up for sale, but it was another two years before the sale of the house itself and the estate was announced. Almost immediately there was an offer from a syndicate for the whole property - ominous news. At the same time an anonymous donor offered £20,000 (equivalent to over £1m today) to enable the National Trust to buy some of the land.

Ashridge Woods Bluebells Credit: Robert Stainforth / Alamy Stock PhotoAshridge Woods Bluebells Credit: Robert Stainforth / Alamy Stock Photo

Back in 1925, it's probable that few people knew much about the National Trust. Founded in 1895, even at its 50th anniversary in 1945 it had fewer than 10,000 members. In 2020, its 125th anniversary year, the trust is a very different organisation, with nearly six million members and 617,750 acres in its protective ownership. During this birthday year the trust has revisited the achievements of its founders and their ambitions for the fledgling organisation.

The three founders had known each other since the 1870s. They were united by a determination to save countryside and green spaces from destruction and disfigurement, and to protect public access to those places.

A trio of campaigners

Octavia Hill (1838-1912) devoted much of her life to improving living conditions and educational opportunities for poorer people in London. She saw open spaces in and around London threatened by development and campaigned to protect these 'outdoor sitting rooms for the poor'.

Robert Hunter (1844-1913), a lawyer who became Solicitor to the Post Office, worked to stop the loss of footpaths and commons in conjunction with the Commons Preservation Society (now the Open Spaces Society), the country's oldest amenity body founded in 1865. Hill and Hunter first met during an unsuccessful campaign to protect an open space near Regent's Park in 1875. Hill said at that time that a continuous 'green belt' of parkland was needed around London, the first known use of that term.

Hardwicke Rawnsley (1851-1920) was a clergyman in the Lake District who sought to protect the beautiful landscapes there and founded the Lake District Defence Society.

By the early 1890s the trio realised that land ownership was the best guarantee of protection and a new body was needed to hold land in trust for the benefit of the nation. On January 12, 1895 the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty came into being, with Hunter (knighted in 1894) and Rawnsley (now a canon) as the first chairman and secretary.

Not seeking the limelight, Octavia Hill's strength lay in recruiting donors and volunteers from her numerous friends and acquaintances, many of them women. Three years later Rawnsley was offered the bishopric of Madagascar, but was persuaded by Hill to stay in England, for the sake of the trust (and possibly to the delight of Rawnsley's wife).

The trust's early acquisitions were modest - the gift of five acres of clifftop in Wales, two acres at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire bought for £10, and the UK's first nature reserve, and Alfriston Clergy house in Sussex, another £10 purchase to rescue the building from dereliction.

In 1907 the trust's fortunes were boosted when Robert Hunter drafted the National Trust Act, giving parliamentary authority to the new body and power to declare its land inalienable, which could not be disposed of without parliamentary approval. In the same year the body bought Barrington Court in Somerset, its first country house. This proved to be such a severe financial drain that three decades passed before the trust was persuaded to embark on further country house acquisitions.

It's first public appeal, for Brandlehow Park in the Lake District in 1902, secured countryside accessible by train from Lancashire's industrial towns. The trust declared that the property 'will not be preserved for the solitary walker alone, but for the whole travelling public'. A Sheffield factory worker sent a small donation to the appeal, along with a note saying, 'All my life I have longed to see the Lakes. I shall never see them now, but I should like to help keep them for others'.

Today, the National Trust's places remain 'for everyone, forever' and it has a renewed focus on protecting and enhancing countryside and green spaces close to where people live.

As the 20th century progressed, the trust's acquisitions were often near to where the founders lived and had influence - Hill by now had a house in Kent and Hunter had settled in Surrey. In the Lake District Rawnsley was a friend of Beatrix Potter who bought land there, often with Rawnsley's advice. When she died in 1943 she left 4,000 acres to the trust.

By the outbreak of war in 1914 the trust was still relatively small, owning 6,000 acres in just over 60 properties. By then both Hill and Hunter had died, but Rawnsley continued as the trust's secretary until his death in 1920.

Even without the three founders at its helm, when the prospect of buying parts of the Ashridge estate emerged in 1925, the trust's track record of protecting treasured landscapes and open spaces was known about in the highest political circles. The prime minister himself gave his enthusiastic support to the appeal which eventually enabled the trust to buy 1,400 acres plus a further area the following year.

How that came about and the fate of the remainder of the Ashridge estate will be the subject of a future article.

Go online to or download the National Trust app to find out more about the founders of the trust, its role today as Europe's largest conservation charity and details of its properties to visit, including Ashridge and Shaw's Corner at Ayot St Lawrence near Welwyn. Writer Liz Hamilton is appointed to the National Trust Council by CPRE.

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