Bob Weighton: September 2015
When mention is made nowadays of the National Trust, most of us think of stately homes which have been rescued from dilapidation and decay and restored as centres of historic and cultural interest for succeeding generations.
That, however, was not the concern of Octavia Hill, one of the three original founders in 1895. She was one of those redoubtable women of the 19th century who refused to conform to the non-political and domestic role prescribed for them by Victorian society. (Others which spring to mind include Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Gaskell, the author, who died in Holybourne.)
Octavia was concerned about the houses of the poor, especially those in the mean streets of London, far from Mayfair and Kensington. The families who lived there, like those in the new manufacturing towns of Lancashire and the Midlands, had no gardens, tree-lined avenues or parks. They lived in terraced houses built around paved courtyards, which served as both playgrounds for children and space for washing lines. The houses had no bathrooms and the water supply was often a well with a pump or a single tap for the little community. Nowhere was there a blade of grass, a flower bed or a tree.
When I went to work on Tyneside in the 1930's, many of the men I worked with lived in housing which was little better. Packed in around the shipyards and the engine works, they had at least a kitchen with hot and cold taps, electric light, a tin bath hanging on a nail outside the back door and a private toilet in a shed in the back yard.
Octavia was a disciple of John Ruskin, one of the leading figures in the Arts and Crafts movement of the day, but it was the total separation from Nature of the poor, as well as the wretchedness of their housing, which aroused her campaigning spirit.
We can be sentimental about being close to nature and at the same time, we can be indifferent to its welfare. What I like about the TV programme 'Countryfile' is that whilst it delights us with vistas of mountain and glen, cornfield and window-box, flower show and chestnut tree, it leaves us in no doubt of our need of nature to survive and also of nature's need for our care and protection. We share this planet together.
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