But in more recent times, the Trust has sought to recast itself not just as a museum of the aristocracy but as a guardian of the countryside. It now owns hundreds of miles of coastline in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (Scotland has a National Trust as well) and its landholdings total about 1.5 percent of the entire country.
Berrington Hall exemplifies this more modern approach: one day we joined a party led by a docent wearing a long gray work dress, an apron, a mobcap, and a historically inaccurate but optically necessary pair of sunglasses. She conducted us not through the grand rooms of the house but to the dairy that was handsomely paneled in gray tile, the laundry with its sinks made from teak, and the other behind-the-scenes regions clustered around the courtyard where, as our guide explained, a staff of 43 had once worked to take care of six inhabitants. (One particularly savory detail of the house’s inner workings: according to 18th-century domestic wisdom, urine collected from chamber pots was used in the laundry as bleach.)
The front parts of the house were more traditionally impressive. Berrington Hall is actually a relatively modest pile, not much bigger than many a contemporary McMansion. The last occupant was Lady Vivienne Cawley, who, upon her husband’s death in 1954, gave it to the Treasury in lieu of estate taxes. (The Treasury donated it to the trust in 1957.) Lady Cawley was 80 at the time, and it was a condition of the bequest that she would be permitted to continue living there until her death. Exhibiting the fortitude of spirit that had permitted her class to rule half the globe a century earlier, Lady Cawley lived for 20 more years, and it is rumored that she insisted to the last that, after she had taken lunch every day in the formal dining room, National Trust conservators and contractors doing repairs to the house should put down their tools so that her postprandial nap might not be disturbed.
Since Lady Cawley’s passing, Berrington Hall has been restored to its former 18th-century splendor, or something approximating it, the drawing room decorated with gilt-edged pier mirrors, the dining room hung with four large paintings depicting the marine heroics of one of its early occupants in the American War of Independence, as it is known in Britain. Up a marble staircase that is spectacularly flooded with daylight through a domed, ribbed skylight are several handsomely appointed bedrooms, as well as a sitting room in the shape of an oval, its curved walls papered in the palest green. In a children’s nursery are toys from the turn of the 20th century: a rocking horse; a miniature pony carriage; a tea set laid out for a china doll.
Not long ago, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister, proposed that it would behoove the country to adopt a “statement of values” in lieu of a constitution, which it famously lacks. Inevitably, perhaps, the Times of London mischievously invited its readers to devise a national slogan or motto as a result. Among those offered were the modestly stirring (Great people. Great country. Great Britain), the humorously diffident (Britain, a terribly nice place), and the glumly disaffected (Land of yobs and morons). The winner, by popular vote, was the slogan that best captured the British resistance to outright, unironic self-definition: No motto please, we’re British.
The motto of the National Trust (For ever, for everyone) might have served as an entry in that competition had it not already been taken—suggesting, as it does, that Britain’s rich cultural heritage is no longer for the nobs alone to enjoy. For ever, for everyone, with the National Trust doing the dusting: That was the beauty of Berrington Hall. (Although even the Triumphal Arch required some upkeep—we had to clean the lawn daily of peacock droppings.) But I’ll admit that it was magical, after the gates at Berrington Hall had closed to the public, to sit on the steps of the grand house with a glass of wine in hand and gaze at Capability Brown’s manufactured arcadia and the gorgeous countryside beyond, knowing that, for a few hours of a few days at least, all this was not for everyone; it was ours alone.