The Landmark Trust
The Ruin, The Pineapple and The House of Correction Even the names tell you Landmark Trust holiday homes are different. Peter Henshaw talked to the Trust's directore, Peter Pearce, to find out more.
Imagine a holiday cottage with no TV, no DVD player, and maybe not even central heating. If that prospect fills you with horror, you're unlikely to be a Landmark Trust enthusiast. But should the thought of staying in a restored mill, converted water tower or an ex-pigsty built in a classical Greco-Roman style sound intriguing and fun, then read on.
The Landmark Trust's job is to buy up and restore old buildings of character, and then let them out as holiday cottages to pay for their upkeep. And this is `character' in the real, not the estate agent, sense. The Pineapple, for example, is an 18th century summerhouse shaped, well, like a giant pineapple. When you think about it, keeping these buildings in good order by letting them out is a simple, elegant, solution, almost as elegant as some of the architecture involved. Mind you, if you prefer your architecture quirky, there's plenty of that as well.
Origins and purpose
Peter Pearce is the amiable 47-year-old land agent charged with directing all of this. His role is to oversee the properties already on the Landmark list and assess the 100-odd that come up for consideration each year. In the Trust's office (a restored garden cottage and 15th century priest's house, in the grounds of a Hampshire stately home), I ask him how it all began.
"It was set up in 1965 by Sir John Smith, who saw that many smaller historic buildings were falling through the conservation net. The larger mansions were generally being saved, but there was a whole class of buildings that was mouldering or being converted to the wrong sort of use.
"Others had been changed in a bad way, had their character destroyed. He had this groundbreaking idea of getting people to pay to stay in them on holiday, to pay for the upkeep.
"So, from the early beginnings we restored buildings of all kinds � follies, castles, keeps, gatehouses, fragments of bigger buildings � but all with some sort of particular character, history or location. We now have 178 of them: we never sell any and continue to add a few each year. There are a lot more currently undergoing restoration. For example, before too long we'll be opening Freston Tower, near Ipswich, which is a Tudor lookout tower. And we're just about to start work on Augustus Peachin's house, The Grange, in Ramsgate."
Talking to Peter, it becomes clear that the effect of the buildings on people who stay in `Landmarks' is considered almost as important as the restorations themselves.
"We see ourselves first and foremost as a building preservation charity, but with two aims. One is to preserve good buildings and give them a new life, and the other is enjoyment and education. If you stay in a Landmark you will gain an appreciation of its architecture, of why they built it the way they did, and its place in history."
Selecting on merit
Something else that characterises the Trust is the sheer variety of buildings on its list. How are they chosen? Is there a balance between size, location and age?
"No, it's purely on merit and importance, and degree of need. More than 100 are proposed in an average year, of which about five are taken up; we try to choose the buildings we can give most help to and will give the best experience to people staying in them.
"How do we hear of them? We're well known in the conservation network and many of our enthusiastic customers write in to us with suggestions, which is great, because they're tuned in to what we do. A lot of the tips come from specialists, like the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. We also have partnerships with organisations like the National Trust � we're leasing several of its buildings � and we do research ourselves to find buildings that are tucked away and neglected, but which nobody has got to grips with.
"Then we have to decide whether it suits our criteria, what it will cost to restore and whether it's the sort of place people would want to stay. Practical things like access are also important, but there's a gut feeling about it as well. I think we'd have to be quite brave to take on something in a really industrial area, as the setting is important. We would consider it, though. Some of our buildings are in what I'd call `challenging' areas, but once people have stayed there, they're often pleasantly surprised."
Secret success But despite all of this, the Landmark Trust has quite a low public profile, certainly compared with big conservation outfits like the National Trust and English Heritage. Is this deliberate?
"Well, some people say that we're a well-kept secret. It's not deliberate at all, actually. We're delighted to get the press coverage that we do, but a lot of people know about us simply through staying in Landmarks. I think, although it's not a club, people regard themselves as being members; it has that sort of character. I suppose it's a sort of exclusive club that anyone can join.
"We're not small either, there are about 25 full-time staff at head office and another 350 part-timers looking after Landmarks on the ground. And about 50,000 people stay in Landmarks each year. We're not as big as the National Trust, but I suppose you could say that we're both independent charities with close and parallel furrows."
So the Trust's strategy of renting out quirky holiday homes has been a success, but has it ever been tempted to branch out into more straightforward holiday cottages?
"No. What we do is conservation. We're looking for buildings that will, if it's not putting it too grandly, change people's lives, or have that potential. A holiday cottage is a straightforward thing to go and stay in, but we're trying to offer something beyond that. An experience of a fine building, an appreciation of why our environment and surroundings are as important as they are. We're trying to open a door, to educate and increase awareness. And judging by the feedback we get, people respond to that in a big way.