Alfriston Clergy House, in East Sussex, was the first house to be acquired by the National Trust. It was bought for £10 in 1896, a year after the Trust’s founding.
This acquisition demonstrates the awakening interest at the end of the nineteenth century in the fate of beautiful old buildings. The vicar of Alfriston had alerted Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley, one of the founders of the National Trust, to the fact that the house was ruinous and about to be demolished.
Canon Rawnsley and Octavia Hill, another of the founders, recognised the importance of the Clergy House as one of the few fourteenth-century hall houses that survived in a more or less unaltered state.
Although small, Alfriston Clergy House has a central hall that rises to the roof. The floor is made of rammed chalk sealed with sour milk, a practice local to Sussex.
Hill was tireless in her efforts to raise funds for the restoration of the house. Her passionate activism was a driving force behind the National Trust in its early years.
She was particularly keen to preserve areas of natural beauty so that they could serve as, in her words, ‘open-air sitting rooms for the poor’.
Support also came from Sir Robert Witt, the first tenant of the house, who was honorary secretary to the National Art Collections Fund. That organisation is now called the Art Fund and it is still a staunch supporter of the National Trust’s work.
I shall be away for a few days, back on 30 September.