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.