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Fifty years ago, Sir John Smith, then MP for the Cities of London and Westminster, and his wife, Christine, came up with a brilliant, mad idea.
The plan was to save smaller historic buildings that the National Trust and the Ministry of Works wouldn’t bother with. Even more madly, their new institution – the Landmark Trust – expressly set out to save buildings that were “desperate, troublesome or unfashionable”. To make the whole venture even riskier, the buildings would be paid for, not by selling them off or having guided tours, but by people staying in them for a week or so, with all the mountains of admin that required.
In 1965, great country houses were being dynamited across the country, with barely a whimper of protest. And yet here was a tiny organisation bidding to save much more obscure, remote, forgotten buildings.
The extraordinary thing is that the madness worked. Fifty years on – and eight years after John Smith’s death – the Landmark Trust is thriving. There have been some tricky moments along the way, when money was thin on the ground. But now the Landmark Trust wipes its face: the rent from its 200 properties covers the substantial costs of looking after the buildings.
Because of the Smiths’ founding credo, the Trust ended up with an eclectic ragbag of the desperate, troublesome and unfashionable: a train station in Staffordshire; James Boswell’s Palladian palace in Ayrshire; Britain’s oddest house, the Pineapple, an 18th-century summerhouse, built in the shape of the fruit in Dunmore, Scotland. ….