Alison Boulton meets the National Trust head who has lived in Oxford for 40 years

For most of her local journeys around Oxford – a city Dame Helen Ghosh has lived in for more than 40 years, including her time as a student – Helen believes in pedal power. To carry out her new job as director general of the National Trust, she favours the train.

While its eco-friendly headquarters in Swindon is her base, much time is spent out of the office, visiting the trust’s 300 historic houses and gardens, its 240,000 hectares of land, and its 700 miles of coastline.

“I’m a huge fan of the train. Over the years, I’ve appreciated the many changes that have occurred on the railways for the better. Train travel is infinitely more comfortable, efficient and reliable than when I first started to commute to London in the late 1970s,” Helen said.

After meeting her husband Peter while both fellow history undergraduates at the university, Helen took a masters in sixth century Italian history and then pursued a glittering career in the Civil Service in Whitehall.

However, the family remained in Oxford.

Peter was appointed to his Fellowship at St Anne’s College in 1982. Their two children William and Olivia attended local schools: St Ebbe’s and Cheney School in Headington. Both recently graduated from Cambridge University.

We discuss the burden of student debt, and then about her decision to join the Civil Service after university, rather than something more glamorous.

“I came from a public sector family, and so the sense of doing something challenging and intellectually rewarding while serving the public was more attractive to me than jobs that might have paid more,” she said.

We talked about the influence of her parents. Educational opportunities were not as widely available for women of her mother’s generation, who raised five children and supported her husband’s career as an aeronautical engineer, but later trained as a librarian, taking an Open University degree.

“That achievement and her subsequent career gave my mother a great deal of satisfaction,” Helen said. Her enjoyment of her own career is evident in Helen’s enthusiasm and drive.

“It never occurred to me that I could not successfully combine family life with a fulfilling career and the opportunities and challenges that presented.”

She looks back at her family life as happy and rich in experiences.

“Our childhood in Hampshire included lots of days out in the countryside, visiting lovely places and buildings. I’m grateful to my parents for introducing me to all that,” Helen said Helen may be the director of the largest charitable organisation in Britain which preserves magnificent and unique buildings for the nation – but she’s also a home maker.

So although she only has to pick up the phone to access some of the grandest vistas ever conceived, she’s appreciative of small things with a great eye for detail – equally at home eating carrot cake at my kitchen table as at a black tie dinner in the Mansion House.

When she began work on urban regeneration at the Department of the Environment under the leadership of Michael Heseltine, it helped to have a down-to-earth existence at home.

“I knew what it was like as a parent to support my local play group and primary school, or to fund raise for the church fete or for better community play facilities. It really helped when it came to formulating policy.”

By the time she left her role as Permanent Secretary at the Home Office in 2012, she had already spent two periods in the Cabinet Office. At the time of her appointment at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in 2010, she was the only female Permanent Secretary to head a major department of the British Government.

Having spent so long inside government, Helen has an invaluable insight into how it works. This makes her a particularly effective lobbyist – something prized by all organisations profoundly affected by central government policy.

Her wide-ranging job experience within different departments developed not only her understanding of real challenges faced, but also ways of problem solving which had practical, workable outcomes.

“I love working as a team – the free exchange of ideas to come up with the best solution and to achieve something together is the way I like best,” Helen said.

While time went on, her ambitions hadn’t changed: “I’d come to the end of a long career in the civil service, which I’d loved, but felt I had one more job in me. I wanted to capitalise on the energy and drive I still possessed and take up a new opportunity as soon as possible.”

When Dame Fiona Reynolds left the National Trust in 2012 to become Master of Emmanuel College Cambridge, Helen was appointed to succeed her as director general.

From day one, she was determined to see the National Trust’s work in a much wider environment.

“It’s only by understanding the context and issues which affect our most treasured assets that we are able to best plan how to protect them for the future. We need to share them in such a way that the whole community thrives,” Dame Helen said.

“Around 20 million people visit our ‘pay for entry properties’, our houses and gardens every year and, of course, that’s hugely gratifying, and we get about 200 million visits to our countryside. But while the overall number of visits is growing, the number of people who actually set foot inside the houses – rather than spend their time in the garden or parkland – stays more or less flat. We’ve got to change that, and encourage more people in.

“But we’re fortunate to have many ways of displaying content for the art historian or the enthusiast. We want to share the experience of our properties as widely as possible. If that means enabling other people to sit quietly in an uncluttered space and get to know one or two treasures really well, that is also part of our job,” she says before pedalling off on her bicycle, no doubt to spread the news even further.