Has ultra-woke National Trust been neglecting historic village beloved by Harry Potter fans? That’s what villagers in Lacock, Wiltshire, say as idyllic houses fall into disrepair
- Read more: National Trust is accused of letting historic house fall into disrepair
Lacock is an astonishingly pretty place. A perfectly preserved medieval village, complete with 14th-century church, old gaol, pubs, shops, a hotel and wonky Tudor houses galore. And by 11am on a sunny day in June, it is heaving.
Tourists are piling into the two National Trust car parks and the famous Lacock Abbey — an exquisite country house with its own Gothic cloisters — and hurrying up Cantax Hill and down Church Street in the hunt for Harry Potter’s childhood home (as featured in the blockbuster film series).
The tea rooms are teeming, the pub gardens packed. Cars are everywhere and backing up East Street.
And the locals — many from families who have lived here for centuries, long before the village was gifted to the National Trust back in 1944 — are hopping mad. Not — as you might expect — at the lack of privacy, the peering-in through kitchen windows and the endless inane questions.
‘Why is it all so old?’ ‘Where do the Potters live?’ ‘Is it all a film set?’ and ‘Why on earth did they build it so far from the airport?’
Saddest of all is the fate of Cantax House, the grand, Grade II-listed former rectory which Harry Potter fans will recognise as being where the boy wizard and Dumbledore discover Horace Slughorn
The cottage at the end of Church Street in Lacock which featured in the Harry Potter films
They’re used to all that. ‘It’s part of living here,’ says George Parker, 73, a resident for 42 years. ‘We’ve always known that. But we love it, so it’s always been worth it.’
No, they’re fed up because they believe that the National Trust, which owns pretty much every building in Lacock’s historic centre, including 88 tenanted houses and the abbey, has lost interest in the village.
‘As tenants, we really feel we’re custodians,’ says Patrick Holliday, 56. ‘We keep an eye and look after it. The trust seem more focused on other things . . .’
The complaints come amid claims that the trust has been diverted from its core role of preserving historic buildings, instead promoting woke educational programmes about the slave-owning past of previous owners and emphasising LGBT issues.
‘They don’t really feel part of this village any more,’ says Chris Doel, 73. ‘It’s very sad.’
The village has since popped up in more period dramas than Dame Emma Thompson, furnishing the backdrop to everything from Harry Potter (pictured) to the Downton Abbey movie, Cranford to Wolf Hall.
Lacock was given to the trust by descendants of the Fox Talbot family almost 80 years ago, on the understanding that the village would be protected
The complaints come amid claims that the trust has been diverted from its core role of preserving historic buildings, instead promoting woke educational programmes
Lacock was given to the trust by descendants of the Fox Talbot family almost 80 years ago, on the understanding that the village would be protected by giving preference to local families who worked in the area.
Read more: National Trust is accused of letting historic house used in Harry Potter films fall into disrepair after tenants left a year ago
It has since popped up in more period dramas than Dame Emma Thompson, furnishing the backdrop to everything from Harry Potter to the Downton Abbey movie, Cranford to Wolf Hall.
The late Princess Diana was once a regular at the Sign of the Angel inn, and Queen Camilla is a frequent visitor — she still has a house in the parish and choppers down whenever she can for a ‘bit of a breather’ and a browse in the village shop.
Right now, at least seven houses in the centre of the Wiltshire village are lying empty and tenantless and will remain so. Two, three, four-bedroom properties — windows blank, paint chipped, tiles askew.
Also shuttered, since before Covid, are the ancient tithe barn and the old gaol.
But perhaps saddest of all is the fate of Cantax House, the grand, Grade II-listed former rectory which Harry Potter fans will recognise as being where the boy wizard and Dumbledore discover Horace Slughorn hiding from Death Eaters.
‘It’s one of the half-dozen big houses in the village and, well, just look at it,’ says George Parker, the former landlord of the Sign of the Angel.
Also shuttered, since before Covid, are the ancient tithe barn and the old gaol
A seemingly cracked window on the Grade II-listed Cantax House, which is owned by the National Trust
Today, the former neatly trimmed lawns are knee-high with grass and weeds. The flowerbeds have been swallowed in an angry tangle of ivy and nettles
He’s right. Across the road, it looks a wreck. Window frames are rotting. Paint is peeling and at least one pane is broken. The exquisite Queen Anne facade looks tired and crumbly, and weeds are edging up the walls.
If anything, the famous two-acre garden is worse. It was designed by the sculptor Deborah van der Beek (whose family rented the house from the National Trust for 35 years), featured in gardening magazines and attracted horticulturists from all over for tours and cream teas.
Not any more. Today, the former neatly trimmed lawns are knee-high with grass and weeds. The flowerbeds have been swallowed in an angry tangle of ivy and nettles.
The madly brilliant topiary, which included a crisply crenellated castle, a sphinx, a giant fish and a peacock — not to mention Queen Boudica in all her busty finery — is being reclaimed by nature.
‘She’s nearly disappeared. You can still make out her chest and a bit of her head, but she’ll be gone by the end of summer,’ says George.
Yet, until last May, Cantax House was still a much-loved home. But, since the Van der Beeks moved out, the National Trust appears to have dithered and dallied and delayed about re-letting it — for reasons which are still not entirely clear.
‘They can’t abandon it,’ says Deborah. ‘It’s listed.’ But so are all the houses in Lacock’s historic centre, all owned by the National Trust.
And a worrying number of them are now empty, dark, damp and deteriorating. Of course, it’s not always easy finding the perfect tenants. Lacock is an unusual place to live, and not suited to all.
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‘People think how nice it would be to live here, but then they realise they’re living in something built in 1650 which is dark, with no damp-proof course and half a million tourists peering in your windows,’ says George.
‘The other day, I had a party of Germans who got quite cross when they asked to come in and look around and I said no, because I was busy.’
And, while the National Trust says that visitor numbers have still not bounced back to pre-Covid levels, meaning takings — and available refurbishment budgets — are down, the villagers insist it’s busier than ever, and parking is out of control (something the National Trust told me this week it is trying to tackle with the villagers.)
Repairs of all sorts — leaks, breakages, plumbing, building works — are taking longer. And that’s after having to battle with a centralised switchboard in Peterborough.
‘Peterborough! Why bloody Peterborough? We used to walk up the hill to the estate office and the workers would follow you back down and take a look,’ says another long-term resident. ‘Now it’s all outsourced.’
Back in the day, Lacock families were on peppercorn rents. Now, thanks to the Charity Commission, rents have to be commercial — £1,000 a month for a three-bedroom house, for example. While locals still have priority, for most it can be a financial struggle.
Some supplement their income by selling a few homemade or home-grown items to the tourists — which the trust doesn’t much like.
‘They get really hot and heavy,’ says Patrick Holliday. ‘My wife sells decorated horseshoes. Others sell flowers. We’ve all had letters telling us we can’t — which we mostly ignore.’
Lacock’s general manager, Sonya McMillan, speaking for the National Trust, sees it differently: ‘We want to ensure the village retains its character and charm so we don’t allow tenants to sell products from residential properties, except on a very small scale if they have surplus garden produce or similar.’
But, unfortunately, matters went further with George Hardy, who now sells homemade jams and meringues from his jolly ‘stall on the wall’ outside No 2 Church Street — a house dating to 1260.
‘They spent two years unsuccessfully trying to take me to court,’ he says, still bemused. ‘Goodness knows how much that cost them.’
Sadly, it wasn’t George’s only run-in.
‘They also banned him from throwing big dinner parties in his house,’ says Patrick Holliday.
‘It was such fun. Where else could we get 12 of 15 of us together for a jolly dinner, after he gave up the hotel?’
Everyone I speak to says things have changed in recent years.
‘There are a lot of ‘Nos’ these days,’ says one old boy. ‘At the tenants’ meetings, people just keep their heads down and try not to make a fuss.’
Gone now are the brilliant summer and winter parties in the garden at the abbey — big communal picnics with a bar and jazz bands — which were stopped during the pandemic and never reinstated.
Some supplement their income by selling a few homemade or home-grown items to the tourists — which the trust doesn’t much like
‘They [the National Trust] get really hot and heavy,’ says Patrick Holliday. ‘My wife sells decorated horseshoes’
Filming seems to have dried up, too. Which is a shame because, for years, this was a hotspot for camera crews
‘We used to have such fun at the Abbey, but it feels very separate now,’ says Chris Doel, who has lived in the parish all his life.
And filming seems to have dried up, too. Which is a shame because, for years, this was a hotspot for camera crews, with celebs stomping about in corsets and breeches and most of the villagers happily joining in.
‘My whole family — all six of us — were extras in the Downton Abbey film,’ says Paul.
Rumour has it that the trust was increasingly difficult to work with and Lacock’s reputation suffered. I’m told by several of ‘difficulties in the Abbey’ and producers vowing not to come back. Which is a shame, because there is still so much to love about this very special place.
The village is stunning, the community incredibly friendly and everyone loves Camilla. ‘She’s very fun, very easy, and lovely with it,’ says Chris Doel.
Thanks to the Queen’s attentive security team, crime is almost non-existent. I’m told that when two young lads thought it a clever idea to nick a car in the village, the odds were stacked against them.
‘Bruce saw them out of his window and phoned the police,’ says George. ‘It took about 30 seconds for an armed response team to turn up. They had nothing else to do!’
But as I wander around the cobbled streets and notice the empty houses, the peeling paint and the weeds — it does seem as if some joy has leached away.
Of course, many of the gripes — the horseshoes, George’s jams and meringues, the delays in repairs — are relatively small, but also cumulative. And not really in the spirit of what the Fox Talbot family had hoped for when entrusting their precious village to the National Trust.
The vacant houses, of course, are a far bigger issue. And one that locals feel needs addressing, fast.
‘We worry which will be next. But we’re talking to you because it’s worth fighting for,’ says George. Cantax House particularly hurts because, until recently, it had been so loved. It drew visitors from all over, as an attraction in its own right.
And the daft thing is that Deborah van der Beek had herself found a suitable tenant — a chap called Rufus Pollard who had money, experience, enthusiasm and exciting plans to reopen the gardens and renovate the buildings to run a B&B, cafe and yoga classes.
It looked promising. There were meetings and detailed proposals. Rufus and his wife loved the village, the school, the community and had started planning their lives here.
Deborah van der Beek (pictured) had herself found a suitable tenant — a chap called Rufus Pollard who had money, experience, enthusiasm and exciting plans to reopen the gardens – but the Trust said no
The vacant houses, of course, are a far bigger issue. And one that locals of Lacock feel needs addressing, fast (Pictured: Cantax House in Lacock)
But then the Trust put the brakes on, citing the need for surveys and lack of funds. This week, it said lived-in properties were being prioritised but emphasised its commitment to the village.
‘The history and role of the village is a fundamental part of the Lacock story and will always remain so. Involving the village community will be at the heart of our approach to developing our future plans for Lacock,’ says Sonya McMillan.
Before I leave, I head down Church Street, beyond St Cyriac’s Church for a quick look at a small grey cottage which provided the exterior for the home of Harry Potter’s parents in the films.
It is beautiful. But the garden is overgrown. The house is empty. One of the external walls needs work. Former tenants Joanna and Rufus Mountain have moved to another property. No one is mowing the grass.
I walk back alongside a young girl and her parents, from Toronto. ‘It doesn’t look like the film, Mommy. Like they all went away. It feels a bit sad.’
It really does. Let’s just hope the National Trust will finally stop fretting about wokery and rainbow lanyards and start listening.
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