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In Octavia we trust

Panoramic view of Levant mine. Copyright National Trust Images / David Noton
Panoramic view of Levant mine. Copyright National Trust Images / David Noton

Sunday, January 26, 2014
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"The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise, and the sight of the sky and of the things growing seem human needs, common to all men."

Octavia Hill

For one who grew to have such an idyllic vision, Octavia Hill’s start to life was relatively troubled. Her father, James, was a banker and her mother’s family owned a timber business, but problems were on the horizon for the Hill family by the time Octavia was a toddler. 
 In early 1840, two years after her birth, James Hill was bankrupt for the second time and hardship followed for the family. By the mid-1840s, Octavia’s father had fallen into depression and her parents eventually separated. Octavia and her sisters were taken with her mother, Caroline, to Finchley, where her childhood became more idyllic. Once settled there, Octavia spent many of her days outdoors climbing trees and leaping over ditches, telling her mother: ‘I wish I could have a field so large I could run in it forever.’

Octavia was to spend many years working tirelessly to protect open spaces in London and improving housing conditions for the poor. But she was well aware there was nothing concrete to leave the nation; her campaign victories could be wiped clean if the owners decided to sell the spaces she had fought for. Octavia wanted an organisation that could protect the country’s treasures under a simple motto: ‘For Ever, For Everyone’.

In 1895, together with Hardwicke Rawnsley and Robert Hunter, she established The National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Octavia encouraged donors to give money or time and the first properties acquired included a mix of landscape, heritage and history, including a headland in North Wales, a 14th Century house in East Sussex and an undrained Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire. Now, almost 120 years since the National Trust took shape, most of the population has a cared-for property within visiting distance – and Cornwall has enough to keep tourists happy for weeks.

Be it stately homes, well-kept gardens, world-class beaches or historic tin mines, the past and the beautiful are protected by the National Trust in Cornwall, much more so than in many other counties.

Octavia Hill - Copyright National TrustOctavia Hill - Copyright National Trust

Lanhydrock House is often considered the jewel in the crown of Cornwall’s National Trust properties. Sitting above the River Fowey, the property has been in the care of the trust since 1953 and a tour around it will be an eye-opening experience into the life of a privileged family of Victorian times – and even earlier.

Wealthy merchant Sir Richard Robartes acquired the estate in 1624 and set about building the house: a task that was continued by his descendants down the years. The lavish bedrooms, elegant rooms for entertaining, plain living areas for staff and magnificent kitchens give a real Upstairs Downstairs feel to the property. It’s one of the longest tours of a National Trust house and is a wonderful history lesson from an intriguing era.

For an insight into how more ordinary Cornish folk faired during the 19th Century, a trip to a mine is needed and, once again, the National Trust are happy to oblige. The pick of the bunch is the Levant Mine, known also as ‘the mine under the sea’ because of the way some of the mining tunnels were dug out in rocks beneath the Atlantic. Visitors can have a short underground tour and there’s also the chance to see the only Cornish Beam Engine still powered by steam on the original site it operated years ago. The contrast with Lanhydrock is stark when learning about conditions underground and the mining accident in 1919, when 31 miners were killed following the collapse of an engine.

Pioneering equipment was in use at the mine, and the Cornish coastline was also at the forefront of technology down at Lizard Point, the southern-most point of England. A black hut-like structure on the coastal path hardly demands a second glance, but the National Trust signs outside suggest it’s worth popping in. And once inside the small building you’ll discover that modern communications started to take shape here: is the place where Marconi made his wireless transmissions to the Isle of Wight in 1901 and just a stone’s throw from his famous Trans-Atlantic communication in the same year. Living history, once again. And you can even book a holiday in the adjoining house to where it all happened.

But Cornwall is not just about being inside and delving into the past; families want to dive into the sea as well. The National Trust now has responsibility for an astonishing 40 per cent of the county’s coastline, and included in this total are some of the world’s most stunning beaches. Be it Crantock on the northern coast or Kynance Cove down in the south, the National Trust now manages the sandy beaches and rock pools that pull in the crowds, meaning that very few people will take a holiday in Cornwall without crossing paths with an NT sign at some point. And all these properties, heritage sites and outstanding natural landscapes owe a debt to the woman who kick-started the movement.

Mark Harold is National Trust regional director in the South West and he echoes the thoughts of many. “Octavia Hill had a profound impact on this country both as a social reformer and as a co-founder of the National Trust,” he says. “She and her fellow reformers believed passionately that access to beauty, heritage and nature was a basic human need. Her biggest legacy has perhaps been the National Trust, which now has over four million members; surely exceeding even her ambitions.”

Looking back over Octavia Hill’s life and influence from our vantage point in the 21st Century, it’s easy to celebrate her achievements. But it would be wrong to think that she was not looked upon as an important national character during her lifetime. At Queen Victoria’s 1887 Golden Jubilee service at Westminster Abbey, she was one of only three women to be invited in her own right and a few years later the Duke of Westminster also praised her highly for her work in founding the National Trust. She transformed many ordinary lives with her quest for social housing and retaining open spaces: before her National Trust legacy started to take shape, Octavia was hard at work in the city of London, transforming some of the slum areas and the images that well-to-do folk had of the poor.

John Ruskin shared her vision, buying three houses in Paradise Place and letting Octavia manage them; she collected the rents herself every week, saw the buildings were well maintained and took an interest in her tenants’ lives. Her project started to snowball as she attracted other investors who would accept less of a return on their money in a bid to reduce overcrowding. By 1874, Octavia and her colleagues had control of more than 3,000 homes in the city.

But it is her National Trust legacy for which Octavia Hill is best remembered today. This wonderful organisation, relying on membership, volunteers and admissions, has something to attract everyone in the family. But Cornwall benefits more than most, be it in the heritage of mines, the history of stately homes or the fun to be had on the beach. So next time you see the NT oak leaf logo, give a smile as you remember the forward-thinking Ms Hill.

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