Sunday, April 22, 2018

Belton House

Along with about half of Lincolnshire we went to Belton House, just outside of Grantham yesterday. Since joining the National Trust at the end of February I think we've visited enough places to have more or less recouped the cost of membership, and to get an idea of how the NT are currently interested in presenting our heritage.

Choosing the first really warm weekend of the year to visit somewhere like Belton wasn't a particularly smart choice if you wanted to concentrate on the architecture and interiors because whilst Belton is big, it's not huge, and a lot of the rooms confine you to walkways which don't give you much time or space on a busy day to stop and look at the details. The extensive parkland, formal gardens, and adventure playground, along with decent cafe, toilet provision, and space for picnics made it an excellent choice if you just wanted to be out in the sun somewhere nice, especially if you have young children to entertain and a dog to walk.

Belton is a treasure house, from its beautifully proportioned, golden stoned exterior through its mostly beautifully proportioned (shoehorning some bathrooms into an old house isn't always an easy job) interiors full of some really good painting, china, and furniture, and the grounds that set it off the whole thing is a jewel. It's also a particularly good example of the tensions between the different aims of the Trust.

The first of these has to be the 'For Ever, For Everyone' mission statement, because it's not cheap to visit if your not a member (£15 something for house and grounds, £12 just for grounds per adult) and whilst membership is good value if you make a point of using it, it's also a luxury that's going to be out of reach for many. If you want it to be forever you need the money, but then it's not really for everyone.

How the priorities of those visiting Belton are juggled is more or less successful - entry to the house is timed and pre booking is recommended. There's no set route around the house so you can choose your own direction and both of these things should help avoid overcrowding or bottlenecks of people.

More problematic is the changing focus of the way the house is presented from year to year. This year the NT are focusing on women. At Belton that means 'Giving a voice to four dynamic characters' creative women who have left their mark. These are Sophia Cust (watercolours) and Florence Woolward (Florence was a botanical artist), Marian Alford (embroidery), and Nina Cust (Sculpture). There's a board that explains this - after you have left the house. Marian Alford's embroidery is exquisite, unfortunately there's no information about it in the house, nothing in the display cases, and it wasn't possible to get near a room warden to ask questions. The same for Nina Cust's work.

The dining room currently has a large instillation by Bouke de Vries called 'War and Peices' which has got lots of information to back it up, which only highlights how badly served the 4 women are. There's also a general shortage of the folders (which were falling apart anyway, and might well have been replaced over the winter) that explain what the pictures are, and because I guess nobody wants to write a new guide book every year the guide book isn't tremendously helpful. It's good on the history of the family, and some of the physical changes to the house, devotes a few pages to bits of the collection not currently on display, but says very little about the actual rooms and what's in them.


  1. I've never been to Belton and it does sound lovely, but I think you make good points. It sounds as if Belton needs to give a little more thought about how they present information, both about the permanent displays and the annual ones. It's disappointing that they haven't done this.

    Re the money, of course all these buildings and grounds are amazingly expensive to maintain, but I do think that if they kept the entrance fees quite high but dropped annual membership rates they could attract more visitors (who might not be paying for entrance every time but would be likely to spend money on coffee, ice creams etc.).

  2. It was interesting visiting just after reading about what Hilary MacGrady, the new director general, had been saying about the trust and the challenges it faces. Belton was a really good example of a lot of them, and how you balance the needs of different users. It’s very close to Grantham so has a lot of people right on the doorstep, including a lot of families that I guess are more interested in using the outdoor space than the indoor. I think for them the set up was pretty good, but from my point of view the house had been dumbed down a bit, and the way the exhibition had been handled was disappointing. Maybe that will improve.

    Regarding cost, we got membership for 2 for £108 which is pretty good value compared to paying the same to both get a train to London to see something, and there are enough places within a 50 mile radius to make it worthwhile. But we have the money to pay for membership, to get to these places, and to have tea and buns when we’re there. For a family on a tight budget I’m not sure how practical it would be, with the result that it feels like a kind of middle class playground where the fee to get in keeps out the ‘wrong’ sort and it made me just a little bit uncomfortable. Probably feeling over sensitive on the day.

  3. Well, the cost issue applies to almost any sort of entertainment. You pays your money and takes your choice. A day ticket to a National Trust property is £15 for an adult, which seems very good value compared to a day ticket to Alton Towers amusement park, or example, which is £55 for anyone over 12. My brother in law has a season ticket to a provincial football ground, where the cheapest ticket is £380 pa (or over £21 per match). Most supporters are working class. And my particular bugbear, one pair of London theatre tickets is likely to exceed the cost of annual National Trust membership!

    1. That is very true, and actually now I've bothered to look at their website you can pay in monthly instalments which makes it very reasonable indeed. So I completely retract my comments above! Even the family ticket is only £10 per month: yes it is too much for some but for most people it is feasible.

      I suppose it does then come down to attitude, as you say, what you are prepared to pay for and what you consider to be a pleasurable activity. If NT houses are a middle-class playground - and I agree I think they probably are - then I think that's a wider cultural issue than NT ticket prices. It's like a lot of things - opera, ballet, Oxbridge - for various reasons people think and perhaps are encouraged to think that it's not for them.

    2. It's not that I think they over charge - the kind of conservation and collection management the National Trust does isn't cheap, and has to be paid for somehow. It's more that Belton is the best example I've seen so far of how the tensions within their stated aims play out. As far as cost goes, membership is very reasonable if you have the money, but I'm aware that more and more people I speak to are really short, to the point that finding an extra £10 a month isn't really an option, never mind all the extras on top of that for a day out.

      Theatre tickets are a bugbear for me too, it really annoys me that they're heavily subsidised for the young and the old at the expense of people like me (middle aged and low income), why not more affordable tickets for everyone, why the assumption that people who like theatre will be able to carry on going when they age out of discounts? We can afford Stratford because of their cheaper preview nights - which are generally packed, full price tickets are more money than I have spare for a nights entertainment.

      I don't have answers to this - unless it's that everybody gets paid more - but I think it's worth thinking about, in my case until I'm clear about what it is that makes me feel a bit uncomfortable about it all.