I’m a huge fan of National Trust properties, a paying member, and an enthusiastic visitor to their land and their buildings. I’m less enthusiastic about the history of some of the National Trust’s properties. Every visit I have I’m unnerved by the real untold story of the family who once lived there and sometimes live their still. Every property has a missing story; often two ghosts which only a few can glimpse. Sometimes they are hinted at in the glorious decoration. Sometimes there’s a mention of them in the ‘room cards’ which describe the property room by room. Sometimes there’s a dry reference to them in the book which accompanies the property. Often there’s no mention at all. What are the ghosts which haunt their properties? They are slavery and wildlife crime; it’s what made many of the landowners fabulously rich.
The National Trust property at Killerton has only one ghost that I can see: wildlife crime.
In the grounds of Killerton stands the Bear House; a summerhouse built in 1808 as the ‘Lady’s Cot’. Each room is lined with a different material. There are deer skins, pine cones and the bark of different trees making a natural space to get away from it all. In the inner room is a cobbled floor made with a mat of deer knuckles. Hundreds of deer were used as just another natural material to line their luxurious summerhouse.
It’s called the Bear House because it was used to cage a black bear, brought by ship from Canada by Gilbert, the 12th Baronet’s brother.
Previous owner Sir Richard Thomas Dyke Acland, 15th Baronet, who lived from 1906 to 1990, seems like a decent man. He was one of the founding members of the British Common Wealth Party with JB Priestley, had previously been a Liberal Member of Parliament and joined the Labour Party in 1945. He was one of the founders of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He advocated public land ownership and in 1944 he gave his West Country estates at Killerton in Devon and Holnicote in Somerset to the National Trust, partly out of principle and also to ensure their preservation intact. Respect to him. It’s far easier to believe in the public ownership of land when you don’t own any.
The recent millionaire-funded antics of right-wing anti-woke culture-war nonsense from an organisation called Restore Trust has brought the future of the National Trust into sharp focus. A Christian fundamentalist who has lobbied against the criminalisation of marital rape, and who is obsessed with LGBT issues, was proposed by Restore Trust for a governing council seat. Can you guess which way I voted? I hope the National Trust continue to make progress in telling the true history of its properties without being captured by global warming denying jingoistic crackpots.