Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Wakehurst Place. Outraged of Mid-Sussex fumes.

One of my favourite places to go to is Wakehurst Place. It belongs to the National Trust, just like Sheffield Park and Nymans, and till now has been one of three quite local, photogenic places where I can pop in on a whim for a scenic stroll in well-planted surroundings, and have a cup of tea and a slice of cake, use a posh loo, and very possibly buy a birthday card or two. And like the other two in this local trio, I have been paying nothing to get in, being a National Trust Life Member. Having such membership lets me take a companion in for free too. Over the years - since the 1990s in fact - it's been a place I've often visited with someone else.

But the apple-cart has now been upset.

The Trust has for decades leased Wakehurst Place to Kew. It has become Kew's Presence in Sussex. It hosts the Milennium Seed Bank, consisting of laboratories where scientific work on plants from all around the world is conducted, with a vault containing the seeds that could regenerate plant life on the planet again. That's all inside a building built for the purpose that the public can enter. And Kew's regional-themed plantings are magnificent, all over the extensive grounds that are filled with stone outcrops, lush valleys, streams, lakes, tall trees, and shrubs of all kinds. Bird life too. There is a modern and attractive café and shop complex, and the old mansion and stables have been turned into exhibition and education rooms, with a decent restaurant.

The visitor sees 'Kew' everywhere. Its works, its staff, its logo. Nowadays the 'National Trust' presence seems to be tucked-away, rather overwhelmed.

And yet Kew remains the Trust's tenant. That should allow the Trust to say 'no' to anything that might adversely affect the interests of its membership. But recently there has been a change, and it will stop me visiting the place except on rare occasions.

This short article appeared in the Summer edition of the Trust's Magazine, or more accurately the Surrey and Sussex supplement that gave news, and drew attention to forthcoming events:

To keep the work of Kew at Wakehurst afloat, car parking charges have been introduced for all - except people who are what you might call 'Kew members'. National Trust members who are not also 'Kew members' must now pay to park. This includes Life Members, people like me, who can normally park for nothing as a long-standing and prized perk of buying life membership (which is very expensive). I feel miffed at this.

It wouldn't be quite so bad if the car parking price structure were reasonable. I suppose I could bear £1 per visit, if it had to be. But no. Look at what it says on the new noticeboards:

You go through the barriers now installed - here they are - no escape, no way round once you get too close:

And then you have a quarter of an hour to get out again if you wish to avoid payment. There is very little you can do in such a short time. Go to the loo? That's about it. It's not enough time for a cup of tea and cake (so no sales income there for Kew). It's not enough time to browse through the lovely cards and gifts and plant books, and queue to pay. (So again, no sales)

Why didn't they allow free parking for half and hour? Even then, that wouldn't be enough time to get beyond the entrance area. And if one paid the minimum fee, £2, that would buy only one hour, barely enough time to reach the mansion, and quite insufficient for any kind of pleasant amble around the grounds. Clearly they want to enforce a minimum spend of £5. But you get only two hours for that. A serious visit will sting you for £10.

Ten pounds for (conceivably) 121 minutes? Are they mad? That's a Central London tariff. Perhaps literally so: what you would pay at Kew Gardens itself. But inappropriate for somewhere in the sticks.

All right, it might be assumed that the average National Trust member has a jolly good income, loadsamoney, and can easily afford to pay. Indeed, I can. But I won't pay when there are alternatives nearby (Nymans, for one). I'll be sorry to abandon Wakehurst, but I'm annoyed by this, and damned if I'm going to shell out £10 for a couple of hours. My compliance is being taken for granted. Well, they can think again.

And if the revenue raised is for keeping a National Scientific Facility going, why isn't the government chipping in a bit more?

I wonder how many will feel exactly the same? Will hoards of people feel shocked, and hurriedly do a U-turn in front of those barriers (as I did), and go somewhere else? Wakehurst is one of the Trust's (or should I say Kew's) most-visited properties. That might now change, making these charges self-defeating.

You might ask me: Lucy, why haven't you written a stiff letter to the Trust? Two reasons: I'm not naturally a writer of complaint letters; and I don't believe that it would be taken seriously. But I can show my disgust by not playing this little game. They won't now be making some money from me every few weeks, because I'll go elsewhere for my afternoon tea, shop browsing, and occasional proper cooked lunch.

And having read this, you might feel inclined to boycott Wakehurst as well, until they see sense; although I'm not actually urging anyone to. It's a lovely place to visit. But they've now priced it beyond casual use.

The situation is much like many a town or city centre. It's ruinously expensive to park. So you don't come, whatever the attractions. As simple as that. A fine way to keep town centres alive and well. Or Wakehurst Place. Or an increasing number of important and worthwhile destinations.


  1. Very sad, I remember visiting with you for a very nice lunch and garden visit and a surprisingly large shop with something for everyone. There would have been no chance fort us to have visited for less than two hours...

    Nobody is going to make a casual visit at these prices, add entrance fees for several people, lunch and an occasional purchase and you may need a defibrillator!

  2. Do things change often at Wakehurst that you wish to go often too or is it simply one of those places you just like going to see once in a while? Personally speaking I wouldn't keep going to a place I have seen once before and I most certainly wouldn't pay those prices even once! Practically everywhere we go these days involves dipping into our purses doesn't it? Whatever happened to the 'best things in life are free'? Well they probably are...LOL

    Shirley Anne x

  3. Shirley Anne, we know that you are a skinflint and not keen on holidays so would not expect you to be visiting magnificent gardens. The best gardens are those looked after by someone else... This was such a garden and well worth repeated visits especial when it is close by and you thought that you had a lifetime pass...

    1. we know that you are a skinflint'....I beg your pardon. I very much resent that remark Caroline. Where do you get that idea? I have spent a fortune on my house and on holidays in the past. Not all my money gets spent on me either, in fact very little of my money gets spent on me. There is nothing wrong in visiting gardens, in fact I have visited many but I don't do return visits. For some people revisiting is what they like doing as in Lucy's case. I just wondered if the reason for revisiting was because something new was there to be seen.
      From what Lucy is saying they need the visitors, paying visitors, in order to remain afloat. It appears the one-off subscription to the NT isn't enough to help all these sites stay open. Either the subscription must increase or be scrapped and funding derived from entry fees. It's all about supply and demand. Personally I think it would be better to scrap access fees and have the government fund what are after all NATIONAL areas of interest. Then to get value for money more of us should visit the places at least once. Problem with that though is not everyone enjoys looking at gardens do they?

      Shirley Anne x

    2. Clearly missed my sense of humour again...

      You northerners down south were supposed to be a humorous lot. I have been rescratching my memory for a post about a garden visit but just don't think you have ever done one. Gardens change daily especially at this time of year so going once if it is close by would be less than ideal.

      Deficit at this place is probably because they are factoring in a very expensive to run seed bank which just happens to be situated within the garden. Few people with membership have paid up once like Lucy and no doubt they spent it immediately but the promise of life membership is just that, life... Many of us pay for membership each year even if like me there are few places locally to visit, some years we , poor as we are, treat it as a sort of gift to keep the places open. Governments rarely take much interest with anything with National in the title! Certainly not coughing up to help.

    3. I don't write about visiting gardens Caroline because it is a long time since I visited one. I don't think calling one a skinflint constitutes humour. I may be sarcastic at times but I don't throw insults at people. There is a difference between sarcasm and humour and between humour and insult.

      Shirley Anne x

  4. Well said, Caroline, about Wakehurst being worth repeated visits - at least once in every season of the year. And now they've erected this financial barrier. Someone has let down ordinary NT members badly. Pensioners and young parents can't be expected to fork out such an extraordinary charge for what used to be free. You watch: visitor numbers will fall, and they'll need to rethink it.


  5. I've just seen the latest comments on TripAdvisor made by visitors to Wakehurst. I hadn't read these before publishing my post. NT members are unanimous in feeling aggrieved, and mostly proposed staying away until there is a change of policy on the car parking charges. I suppose I should feel satisfaction in expressing a mainstream opinion, but the reports of low admissions will spell financial disaster to the place, and mean an increase in its running deficit. I don't want to see it deteriorate from lack of proper funding.

    A lady wrote officially on the parking charges, making the points that the deficit of £1.4 million had to be addressed, and that NT members - 80% of the visitors - paid nothing to get in, and there was no demonstrable link between them and revenue earned from the shop, café, restaurant, etc. So, to establish a link, it was right to make them pay for parking.

    All this sounds like accountants running the show, and weak opposition to their inflexible and unimaginative approach. Sigh.


  6. Free entry for NT members was and is a condition of the lease. Kew have known this at EVERY stage of their tenancy and at every stage of their decision-making in relation to spending, spending that has clearly been profligate. They recently spent £800,000 on the purchase of an adjacent farm! Now they want the terms of their lease changed to enable them to facilitate NT members to fund their spending.

    Why should a charity (NT) or its members support profligate spending and suicidal financial management of a failing government 'agency' (Royal Botanical Gardens - Kew)?

  7. Wakehurst Place Sussex - This property is leased to Kew to manage, in April they started to target NT members to pay to park, £10 for 2+ hours. The reasons given that Wakehurst has a deficit of £1.4 million & rising, Kew are suffering Defra grant cuts etc! For the first quarter April to 30th June, visitors are down by 54,000, the grounds, cafe, shop etc are being described as empty, season ticket sales are way off target. The car park is never more than half full although they spent £200,000 upgrading the car park, purchased Havelock Farm on the WP estate for £800,000 & have applied for planning permission to convert into a research centre. Why did Kew have to charge NT members to visit this NT property, despite their moans & continuing spending it hasn't stopped them increasing their Directors from 7 to 11 in the last year, their staffing levels have increased from 758 to 790, their salary costs are £26.1 million, plus £3.1 million pension costs as well as £1.2 million exit costs for some members of staff in the last year! Defra gave Kew a grant of £28 million last year. There is a petition against the charges which is now at 760 signatures. Many NT members are unhappy at the way visitors are being driven away -
    Wakehurst Place Sussex - These are beautiful gardens leased to Kew for management, NT members have been targeted to pay car parking charges, £10 forn2 hours. There has been a 54,000 drop in visitors for the first quarter, the grounds, cafe etc are being described as empty. Wakehurst deserves better -
    760 National Trust members have now signed the petition

  8. I feel like saying 'This correspondence must now cease -Ed.'

    Clearly a committee's judgement and reputation is on the line here, and they will not give in too quickly. All we can do is wait, and hope that a more sensible decision on car parking charges comes before the place falls into terminal decline. £1 to park is unwelcome but bearable, and would have produced - if Mike Joyce is right - at least £54,000 in the last quarter.


  9. To add a little perspective from another standpoint here...
    I too was irritated by the imposition of parking charges.
    I too am a long standing National Trust member.
    I regularly visit and almost always lunch in the Stables restaurant.
    I frequently patronise the shop.
    I regret that the parking charges have imposed an economic sanction on those less well off.
    However, there were two occasions on which I visited just prior to the imposition of parking charges. On both occasions, the car park was full and I had to drive round in circles and counted myself lucky to find a space - eventually.
    I have been visiting Wakehurst since the 1970's and such was never the case. I well recall having a picnic with my two small daughters by the pond adjacent to the original entrance in peace. No chance of that any more - until they imposed parking charges, that is.
    For my part, I am happy to pay, in the knowledge that I can visit without having to worry if I can park and picnic by the pond again, should I choose.
    Ultimately, I suspect, the bean counters will bow to economic reality if income dips significantly.
    Such is the way of the world,


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