HXH Day 5: a passing caress
It’s been raining over the past couple of days, so the hedgerows are sagging a little, bearing the weight of the water as well as the burden of summer growth. As I walked up to the House this morning, the long grasses that felt so redolent of warmth and excess were leaning over the pathway and impossible to walk past without feeling as though they were reaching out to be touched. Not in the way that trees sometimes do, or brambles, where you feel the caress is a malevolent one, but a gentle reaching out.
The walk is a little bittersweet today. On Friday, after I got home, it was to receive the email announcing that after only two years National Trust is leaving High Cross House. This feels very sad, and a failure of someone’s imagination. Although the official reason is that there have been insufficient visitors to justify the costs of keeping the house open, there is of course much murmuring (including inside my own head) about the missing back story. Although not representing a failure on the part of National Trust it feels like a minor disaster for the Dartington Hall Trust, whose efforts to bring people on to the Estate and turn it into a visitor attraction seem thwarted and increasingly wrong-headed. I’m the first to acknowledge (having recently had to close Aune Head Arts) that maintaining the estate is a hugely costly business and that relying on external funding support is a hiding to nowhere. However, the drive to bring people seems to be at all costs, and many changes have been made that seem to sit uncomfortably with the place. The recent decision to turn the White Hart Dining Room into a metropolitan-style tapas bar seems to represent this in extremis, and just makes me no longer want to visit here at all. Of course there are lots of oldies like myself who are going to whinge about change, and I’ve long been a supporter of the current much maligned management and their constant drive to re-invent Dartington in ways that will generate more income. However, the old strapline of EAT, SLEEP, THINK seems to have been rather long left behind, with rather more of an emphasis on eating drinking and buying than on feeding the soul.
Of course it’s all very well to bemoan the lack of intellectual curiosity and stimulation: it’s relatively easy to run a place for Utopian thought and model when the pockets are very (very very) deep. Much harder when much of the endowment has gone and it’s all about income and profit centres. Nevertheless, others manage it. The recent emergence (in the past few years) of the Dame Hannah Rogers centre at the former agricultural college site at Seale Hayne seems a salutory lesson on how to create a vibrant and flourishing cultural centre utilising old buildings that were created for educational purposes. Of course, they’re not Grade One listed and not at all in the same world as the Dartington estate, but the success of what has been achieved there feels palpable.
And so the Trust must now, once again, find a new use for this glorious house. In just a few months’ time it will once again be empty and feeling abandoned. It would make a fabulous home; it would make a fabulous lots of things, if only we were living in a different age or funded by other deep pockets. This has been a house of art for the past two years, and much kudos goes to National Trust and to curator Emma Carter for making that happen: it’s been an important cultural contributor for visitors and artists alike. That will go now, and the visual arts will have no place here for the first time in more than 70 years (not forgetting the residency programme at Space in the former College of Arts’ buildings, but the focus there is primarily on performing arts).
So, much preparing for tears and the waving of hankies as National Trust begins the long journey to withdrawal, abandonment and re-invention. Conspiracy theorists would notice that ‘High Cross House’ is mis-spelled in official estate map, as if the relationship has always been a troubled one.