BED-HOPPING GOSSIP WHO SAVED A NATION; Scabrous Diarist, Outrageous Flirt, He Was the Eccentric Hero Behind the National Trust. Now a New Book Asks: Was It James Lees-Milne's Wild Promiscuity - with Women AND Men - That Persuaded So Many Aristocrats to Hand over Their Stately Homes?
Byline: by Matthew Wilson
EVEN back in the Thirties, anyone watching the scene might have guessed they were witnessing the end of an era. Shortly after lunch, the grand doors of Longleat, one of Wiltshire's most celebrated stately homes, were thrown open and two rows of liveried footmen hurried out to line up on either side of the steps leading down to the drive. After a short pause, two figures duly emerged, blinking in the sudden sunlight.
One, resplendent in his frock coat, was the old Lord Bath, one of the most courteous aristocrats of his day. The other was a handsome young man, politely pouring praise on the glories of the house and quietly pretending that this was the sort of thing that happened every day.
There would have been an awkward moment as Lord Bath waited for his guest's transport to be brought round to the front. But it already had; the rusty bicycle being held gingerly by a footman at the bottom of the steps was his guest's transport. The man from the National Trust was leaving in the same way he'd arrived - on his bike.
What James Lees-Milne, the young man on that bicycle, would always remember, however, was pausing after he had pedalled some considerable way down the long straight drive and turning for a last admiring look at the house. There, still, was Lord Bath, flanked by his two rows of footmen, waiting at the top of the steps, impeccably observing the old-world tradition of remaining in view until one's guest was out of sight.
It didn't matter that the meeting had been unsuccessful, that Lord Bath would not be donating Longleat to the Trust. That was the pattern of things, as Lees-Milne soon realised; at some grand houses he never made it past the front door, at others he was welcomed with open arms by families desperate to relieve themselves of the financial burden.
Lees-Milne - Jim to his friends and destined to become one of the most celebrated diarists of his day - had embarked on the work that more than half a century later would cause him to be described as 'the man who saved England'.
What the 28-year-old Oxford graduate was engaged on was saving England's stately homes - and one or two in Wales, too.
It was his pioneering work to persuade their aristocratic owners to donate their houses to the National Trust that helped turn it into the hugely successful institution that it is today, with more than 300 houses and 3.5 million members.
But back in the Thirties the Trust - already 40 years old but with barely 5,000 members - owned almost no grand country houses at all. That situation would slowly change, as Jim criss-crossed the country, searching for houses of sufficient architectural merit to justify the Trust acquiring them, and to begin the often tortuous process of persuading their aristocratic owners to part with them, often after centuries of family ownership.
But Jim, as charming and tactful as he was good-looking, was both persuasive and patient. One by one, some of the most important stately homes in Britain passed into the Trust's ownership, a process that accelerated significantly during World War II, as more and more owners realised the old order of things had gone for ever.
Jim, who was invalided out of the Irish Guards in 1941 after being caught in a bomb blast and developing a rare form of epilepsy, returned to the National Trust and found himself busier than ever, his work bringing him into daily contact with the rich tapestry that was England's often highly eccentric aristocracy.
Some owners received him in bed in their nightcaps, others took him to the estate pub; one particularly blimpish owner even proudly took him up to the tower to show him how he peppered the nearby lake with rifle-shots in winter to stop the locals skating on the ice. Jim took it all in his increasingly practised stride.
His success seemed hardly surprising. Born to a landed Worcestershire family and educated at Eton and Oxford at a time when both establishments were shamelessly elitist, Jim - as he flirted with elderly duchesses and politely deferred to curmudgeonly dukes - was, to outward appearances, simply mixing with his own sort of people. …