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National Trust director urges visitors to 'come and enjoy the outdoors' after coronavirus pandemic

Slowly but surely, the National Trust is emerging from the Covid-19 lockdown with visitors back in its nature reserves and gardens, and a tentative reopening of a few historic houses.

From the rare and precious wetlands of Wicken Fen, to the glorious parkland around Ickworth House, and the wild heaths and sea views of Dunwich, it cares for some of East Anglia’s most stunning landscapes.

Early this year its plans for 2020 included encouraging people to connect with nature. And although all events have been cancelled, that hope survives.

Windpump at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire, in winter (29219438)
Windpump at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire, in winter (29219438)

“Our message is still very much to come and enjoy the outdoors,” says eastern regional director Paul Forecast.

“People have been cooped up in their houses for a long time, and are fed up with being restricted as to what they can do.”

Almost all the Trust’s mansions - including Ickworth House and Anglesey Abbey - can still only be seen from their grounds, which in most cases are open.

lavenham guildhall (29219064)
lavenham guildhall (29219064)

But for the first time since March, a pilot scheme is allowing visitors across the thresholds of seven historic houses including Oxburgh Hall, a 15th century moated mansion north of Thetford.

“We have been running guided tours of the buildings since July 13,” said Paul. “We have one-way routes and numbers are limited to maintain social distancing.

“National feedback has been positive. Visitors say they feel safe and are glad to be getting back into our buildings.

“It’s particularly good at Oxburgh because we’re going through a really major conservation programme, reroofing and repairing, in a £6 million scheme.”

The Rotunda with grazing sheep in the foreground at Ickworth, Suffolk. (39512431)
The Rotunda with grazing sheep in the foreground at Ickworth, Suffolk. (39512431)

But loss of income caused by the pandemic - £200 million so far - has left the Trust, longtime guardian of the nation’s heritage, facing agonising decisions.

The massive financial impact has forced it to propose £100 million of annual savings, and a possible 1,200 job losses. Eighty percent of staff have been furloughed.

Director General Hilary McGrady said: “We would not be making these savings had we not exhausted every other possibility. We need to act now to ensure we are sustainable in the future.”

Paul Forecast, Eastern Region director National Trust (39513300)
Paul Forecast, Eastern Region director National Trust (39513300)

She pledged the Trust will grow back stronger, stepping up its efforts to help the nation get the rest, recuperation and recreation it needs.

A spokesman said it was too early to predict the local implications of the announcement made last week.

Meanwhile, the gradual opening up continues, but with changes to make it safer for visitors and staff.

Lavenham Guildhall
Lavenham Guildhall

“For the first time, we have pre-booked tickets to space out when people come, and control numbers, and that’s proved really effective,” said Paul.

“We’ll obviously take guidance from the government in terms of what we can and can’t do.

“Most cafes are open. Some only have tables outside but others can also offer indoor seating. Public loos are available at all our places that are open.

“At the moment we’re opening sites that have more infrastructure and staff. Smaller ones like Melford Hall and Lavenham Guildhall aren’t open yet.

Windpump at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire, in winter (29219453)
Windpump at Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire, in winter (29219453)

“But for people who live locally there are public footpaths through Melford Hall Park with lovely views over open countryside.”

Nature reserves at Wicken Fen near Newmarket, and Dunwich Heath are magnets for lovers of countryside and wildlife. Both require booking the previous day.

“We’re trying to open as much as we can, but the guidance is constantly changing, so looking on our website is the best way to go,” said Paul.

“I believe the need for the countryside has never been greater. When we last opened properties in late March, for free, we had a huge surge in visitor numbers - more than ever before.

“People are engaging more with simple pleasures, like nature. These things have come to the fore, and I think their popularity is only going to increase.”

“I don’t think we are a long way off opening our mansion properties. The indications are really good.

“Some volunteers are back to support the work we are doing. At first we were only using staff for frontline roles because we thought that was safer. Quite a lot of volunteers are over 70, so for a long time they were not allowed to mix.”

Payment breaks and discounts are available to NT members with financial worries due to the virus crisis, but many are still paying their fees to support the charity.

To check what properties are open, rules and precautions, go online to www.nationaltrust.org.uk