For years, the rolling landscape of Dinton Park has been a favourite haunt of dog walkers, runners and seekers of tranquillity. When it snows children sledge down Toboggan Hill, and during the Covid lockdowns it became a place of solace and reflection. There is a beloved view of Salisbury Cathedral’s spire, which seems to float above the trees nine miles away.
But a decision by the National Trust to lease out the Neo-Grecian Philipps House at the heart of the estate and, more importantly for lovers of the landscape, fence off a large chunk of the parkland to give the new tenant privacy has caused uproar.
Critics say that the move flies in the face of one of the charity’s central tenets: that beautiful open spaces should be available for everyone. To make matters worse, the rumour doing the rounds of Dinton village is that the grand old Wiltshire house may be taken over by an organiser of raves and parties for the rich and famous, which risks drastically changing the feel of the park.
“It’s a diabolical liberty,” said Peter Glossop as he walked his labradors Purdy and Bumble in the park. “We hear an A-lister may be on the way who doesn’t want people looking in at him. The National Trust has been too idle to keep the house in good order and now a huge public asset is being lost.”
Jemma Phipps, an artist who walks her whippets Clover and Pansy in the park, said it was a magical place. “I love the view of Salisbury Cathedral. People have gazed at it from here since the 14th century. It feels like a rare, precious landscape.”
Helen Strachan said her seven-year-old daughter Lexi loved the “welly walks” the local school organises across the estate. She joined the National Trust to support places such as Dinton Park. “For so many people it’s a peaceful, picturesque sanctuary,” she said.
The National Trust said the last tenants moved out in 2015 and since then it had explored how best to protect the house.
A spokesperson said: “Following a lengthy and thorough review, the charity has decided the best way forward is leasing the property to a third party who can care for it in a way that will assure its future, and make the financial commitment it requires to repair and restore it.
“The charity recognises how much the parkland is valued by the local community and is committed to maintaining access. However, the park boundary is close to the front of Philipps House and the charity is proposing to adjust the boundary and fence lines in the areas adjacent to the house itself to give a greater degree of privacy.”
It said the proposal was for 110 acres of park and woodland to remain open for the public and to make 31 acres available “for private use” by the tenant.
Dinton parish council has written a letter of objection saying that the proposals have left villagers feeling “distressed and upset”. It wrote that the loss of walks, benches and views was “not acceptable”, adding: “The view of the cathedral spire must be saved.”
It quoted trust founder Octavia Hill, who championed protecting open spaces, but “most importantly” backed the principle of allowing them to be open for everyone.
The South West Wiltshire MP, Andrew Murrison, accused the trust of acting “like 18th-century landed gentry intent on driving out the public to maximise value and preserve its own privacy”.
He said money-spinning properties such as Stourhead in Wiltshire should cross-subsidise less lucrative properties such as Dinton. “And if they now don’t want to manage places for the local community they should let someone else run them.”
Murrison, who led a Westminster debate on the National Trust last year, highlighted another of the charity’s properties, the birthplace of the railway pioneer George Stephenson in Northumberland, which has been closed since 2017 because of what the charity describes as “rising costs and a decline in visitor numbers”. He said that too ought to be subsidised by the money the trust was making out of larger “treasure” properties.
Murrison said next month’s annual meeting of the trust was likely to be an “explosive” affair, with the trust’s finances closely scrutinised. More than 1,700 staff were made redundant as part of its Covid “reset” programme. But its reserves have swollen to more than GBP400m.
Steve Marsh, 57, was walking his staffordshire bull terrier, Poppy, through the section of Dinton Park likely to be fenced off said he was deeply upset at the prospect of losing part of a spot he treasures. He has a bad back and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. “Walking in this place is my salvation,” he said.