ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 5, June 1995


Simon Denison talks to David Thackray

Meeting the man from the Trust

The National Trust is not an organisation one immediately associates with archaeology, but its 580,000 acres of land in fact contain tens of thousands of sites and monuments - including such famous names as Stonehenge, Avebury and Hadrian's Wall - not to mention vast tracts of historic landscape. It is one of the richest, perhaps the richest owner of archaeological sites in Britain; and in its centenary year, questions are now in the air about how well it looks after its vast share of our archaeological heritage.

David Thackray, the Trust's chief archaeological advisor, was also its first full-time archaeological employee - appointed more or less straight from his PhD in 1975 - which suggests that the Trust has perhaps not taken archaeology that seriously for very long. Indeed, his appointment followed a number of cases in which ancient monuments on Trust land had been ploughed out or otherwise damaged, leading to a campaign of pressure on the Trust to take its responsibilities more to heart.

And since then? In conservation, there has been steady improvement - though, as Dr Thackray admits, the importance of archaeology is still not fully accepted in all reaches of the organisation, with only something over half the National Trust's 16 regions now employing an archaeological advisor. As for research, the Trust still does very little, remaining, perhaps, as intellectually passive vis-a-vis archaeology as it has been accused of being in its management of country houses.

Persuading the Trust to improve its attitude to archaeology, David Thackray says, is a matter of slow and patient nudging; and he himself appears comfortable with such an arrangement, being very far from the sort of person to complain too loudly for a bigger share of the Trust's attention. Conventional, conservative and self-effacing, he is the very model of an English country gentleman: dressed in cords and brogues, blue polka-dot silk tie and tweed jacket, with a red spotty handkerchief folded neatly in his outside breast pocket. If he does not exactly personify the Trust, he has certainly become acculturated to it, admitting that he has not always dressed in this way. `This is the standard National Trust land-agent kit, really,' he said.

Born in 1948, and brought up in a Devon village, the son of an RAF officer turned schoolmaster, David Thackray was fed an `inspirational' diet at school of WG Hoskins (the pioneering local historian), and went on to read archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge as an exact contemporary and class-mate of Prince Charles. They have met twice since then in the course of Trust business: the first time, the Prince didn't remember him; the second time, he still didn't remember him. A third re-meeting is on its way, which could be David Thackray's cue to ditch the modest persona and go for something a bit noisier.

Along with such Trollopian pastimes as bee-keeping and church-bell ringing, David Thackray lives for `hedges and the English countryside'. Inside his office, in the Trust's surprisingly characterless regional head office in Cirencester, you'll find a fishing-rod propped up behind the door and a pair of leather-cased binoculars on a bookshelf, suggesting that the quiet enjoyment of rural pleasures is never too far out of his mind.

The principal task now facing the Trust's 20-or-so archaeologists, David Thackray says, is to complete the inventory of sites on Trust land. The fact that this was the main reason why he himself was taken on, 20 years ago, indicates the size of the task, if nothing else. So far, about two-thirds of Trust properties have been fully surveyed. Meanwhile, the developing inventory will not only inform conservation and land-management decisions, but also - he hopes - stimulate research into the Trust's gardens, buildings and landscapes. An academic conference was staged at the Society of Antiquaries last month to review past work and add impetus to the whole process.

For the Trust, as a landowner, to employ archaeologists at all is rather unusual, and much to its credit. A little more nudging from David Thackray, even the odd smart kick in the shins, and archaeology as a whole may be on to a good thing. So, more strength to David Thackray's elbow, and steel toe-caps to his brogues.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1995