Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:31 am
Britain has an almost embarrassing amount of built heritage. It includes everything from archaeological sites to castles, cathedrals, stately homes, railway stations, dog kennels and all points in-between. It is a magnet for history enthusiasts, lovers of literature, intriguing tales, art and architecture, as well as film and TV fans. Hence Britain’s heritage is big business, enjoyed by millions of overseas and domestic tourists, employing thousands of people, directly and indirectly, and worth billions of pounds to the economy. And at the top of many a must-visit list, whether for a day trip or as part of a holiday, is the historic house or stately home. Historic houses, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, from massive mansions to modest manor houses and cute cottages. Although thousands of country houses and mansions have been lost since the 19th century, and particularly after the Second World War, there are still an estimated 3000 significant historic house properties in the United Kingdom. The vast majority of these remain in private hands and, indeed, some have been owned by the same family for generations. The socialist revolution never quite worked in the UK; at least, it hasn’t yet.
Many people do not realise that almost 1500 of these independently owned historic houses are represented by an association, Historic Houses, which you can join – in the same way as you might become a member of The National Trust, say, or English Heritage. Actually, Historic Houses represents the largest collection of privately owned historic houses and gardens in the United Kingdom – more than the combined total of such properties in the care of all of the UK’s other heritage organisations put together.
The properties represented by Historic Houses include some of Britain’s most famous stately homes, such as Blenheim, Burghley, Highclere, Scone, Hever and Longleat, as well as gems you will never have heard of. Normally, some 300 of these properties regularly open their doors to the public. But many of the houses that are not generally open to the public still host special events, or can be hired for weddings or conferences. Some places just open their gardens. Many offer accommodation, perhaps in the historic house itself.
Of course, every single one of these places has its own idiosyncrasies and particular tales to tell. But a further unique selling point is that hundreds of Historic House properties are lived-in family homes, not sterile museums. So, when you drop in, it is possible that you may spot the occasional out of place cushion, or evidence that children have recently been playing nearby. Sometimes, visitors get to meet the owners themselves. And, because all of the properties are privately owned and individually distinctive, each one has its very own personality. There is no danger of confused corporate branding; little likelihood of feeling as though you’re in a replica of the last historic house and garden you visited, like another branch of Marks & Spencer.
So, if you enjoy pootling around old places and soaking up a bit of medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Georgian or Victorian atmosphere, membership of Historic Houses is worth considering. First and foremost, it gives you free access to around 300 historic properties. That alone will pay for itself if you plan to visit more than a few houses and gardens – though bear in mind you’d have to be a member for several years to see them all! Members also receive a handbook and a quarterly magazine. What is different about being a member of Historic Houses, however, in addition to the unique nature of the properties, is the opportunity to be offered exclusive tours, sometimes of places that are rarely seen by the public. These packages often include refreshments, ranging from a welcome cuppa to a glass of fizz – or even a full meal. You may even get to hear a few family stories told first-hand, or learn some of the challenges the owners face maintaining – or restoring – historic properties.
Historic Houses is more than some kind of heritage tourist organisation, though. It exists to help conserve Britain’s heritage. It provides property owners with technical support and advice on a range of topics, from conservation to education and organising festivals. Historic Houses also champions the cause of protecting Britain’s heritage, which includes lobbying government on behalf of its members. Now, before you get all excited about aristocratic owners of large estates being fabulously rich, the injustices of inherited wealth and power, uncontrolled capitalism – and so on – remember that that not all owners of large old properties are either wealthy or powerful. Some are. Nor did the ancestors of every stately home, castle, grand mansion or manor house owner exploit peasants, hide priests, own slaves or become filthy rich whilst their workers endured abject poverty. Some did. But no 21st century owner can rely on government assistance, and all depend on their own resources for survival. Therefore, whilst your primary objective in joining any heritage organisation may be to maximise the benefits to you, it’s also good to know that you’re helping to maintain Britain’s heritage for the future.
You can find out more about membership of Historic Houses from their website. If you do decide to join, you can benefit from an astonishing deal negotiated between A Bit About Britain and Historic Houses. Simply enter the code ABAB17 during the joining process (where it says ‘add discount code’) to get a £5 discount on your first year’s membership. Come on – it’s not often someone gives you a fiver, is it?
All images in this article are courtesy of Historic Houses.