A FRIEND of mine who has lived abroad for many years was asked what typified the best of Britain.

His immediate reply which at first surprised me was the National Trust, an organisation many people take for granted.

Apparently no other country has anything like it in size or scope. It is a powerful institution that rarely shows its full force. The trust was formed in Sussex way back in 1896 when a high-minded trio of social reformers bought the Clergy |House at Alfriston for just £10.

For its first 50 years the trust remained small and in 1945 at the end of the Second World War it had only 8,000 members. The current figure is more than five million.

That figure constantly surprises me because joining the trust is not cheap. I can think of only two organisations to match it; the AA and the RSPB. The trust had a battle on its hands after the war. Stately homes were disappearing at the alarming rate of one a week as the aristocracy which owned them gradually gave up the ghost.

James Lees-Milne, the toff who guided the trust over which homes were worth saving, told many a tale of landed gentry who were hopelessly unable to care for their properties. Scores of homes were lost at a time when their survival did not matter much to the Government which was concerned with setting up the welfare state and dealing with desperate poverty.

The trust undoubtedly lost a number through its rigid insistence that each building it acquired should have enough cash to be self sufficient.

In doing so it ensured that the best homes were retained and that the trust did not go bust through repairs and renovation. At the same time it became more than a custodian of ancient property. It took on a much wider role.

The establishment of Enterprise Neptune in the 1960s led to the trust becoming the largest landlord of Britain’s magnificent coastline. It also acquired vast tracts of other land in areas such as the South Downs and could be dogged in their defence as housing and industry threatened them.

Occasionally the trust threatened to use its unique power of declaring land it owned as inalienable which meant that an Act of Parliament would be needed to wrest it away.

I so admired the trust’s stance over Southwick Hill in 1982 when it was threatened by the Brighton bypass that I became a life member. This also proved to be one of the best bargains I ever bought. In recent years the trust has broadened its scope to buy a number of modest homes in cities such as London and Liverpool to show visitors how ordinary people lived.

It has also staged debates over many tricky subjects such as whether to allow fox hunting or nude bathing on its land. Here in Sussex we are lucky to have many of the trust’s greatest buildings such as Petworth House.

The trust owns several grand gardens like Nymans and Sheffield Park while Wakehurst Place near Ardingly is its most visited site.

It possesses Bateman’s, the home for half his life of Rudyard Kipling and you can almost see him there. It owns land at the Devil’s Dyke beauty spot close to Brighton. The trust is run by a mixture of volunteers and professionals which means its public face can be variable. As a reporter I found the trust was slow off the starting blocks with stories despite many newsworthy events in its properties. But it has generally been shrewd in appointing its top officials so that the huge organisation works reasonably well. It has to keep up with the times in embracing social media and making most of its properties accessible. But it also needs to be traditional in the presentation of its historic properties.

It is a bit like a well-loved but eccentric relative in being both exhilarating and exasperating at the same time. Take the issue of opening hours. For years the trust said it couldn’t keep its properties open in the winter because they needed time to recuperate from the summer throngs.

When it was pointed out that buildings such as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton managed to stay open nearly every day, the trust did open some of its prize properties longer but it still has some irritating opening hours.

Take the Alfriston Clergy House. It is closed on Thursdays for some random reason while several other places shut on Fridays. It would be much easier for visitors to make Mondays the trust’s national day off.

But it won’t. There are many other odd anomalies which are what my friend from abroad called typical of the trust. He found it had many of Britain’s best features but some of the worst as well.