Welcome to Historic Houses

Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:31 am

Elsing Hall, NorfolkBritain 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.

Abbotsford, Sir Walter ScottMany 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.

Longleat House, WiltshireThe 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.

Plas Brondanw, GwyneddOf 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.

Forde Abbey, SomersetSo, 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.

Spencer House, LondonHistoric 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?

Historic Houses logo

All images in this article are courtesy of Historic Houses.

52 thoughts on “Welcome to Historic Houses”

  1. Could I use the five pound discount to subsidize the cost of a pot of Earl Grey and a sticky bun at any of these august premises, or does that depend?

  2. I’m so glad you wrote this. Since entering lockdown I have been hearing a lot from Historic Houses, which I must have subscribed to at some point, and it has an interesting newsletter. but I didn’t realise from the newsletter that there was simply such a variety of privately owned properties to see. So your post made me visit their website and I realised that in fact there IS a huge variety- for some reason the newsletter didn’t make me aware of this. Over the summer and early autumn my daughter began taking her young children around, partly because they haven’t been able to go abroad. She’s been amazed at what she has found almost on the doorstep, and has told me all about places I’d never even heard of. I mentioned Waverley Abbey in my last-but-one post, but she’s also told me about Michelham Priory which I really can’t wait for the chance to visit once this Covid stuff lets up.

  3. Thanks for another great post (and the tip in the comments about hovering over each photo for more details. The depth of history in your country is astounding!

  4. I joined Historic Houses a couple of years ago. Each visit it unique and individual, no corporate uniformity as with the National Trust. You never quite know what tasty treat will be awaiting in the tea shop and there is always a chance that during a visit that you might meet the owner of the property.

    This year when houses had to remain closed (for part of the year) owners of some of the houses provided video tours of their properties and gardens to share with HH members.

  5. We joined last year, and rejoined this year although we haven’t managed to visit a single property! We’re also members of the National Trust for Scotland and Historic Scotland, and of the three I think that Historic Houses has by far the most interesting magazine.

  6. Hi Mike – what a brilliant organisation … I hate to say I hadn’t realised – but I’ve made a note for next year to join … brilliant and I’ll look more closely at the website sometime – take care – loved the post … all the best – Hilary

  7. I can’t believe I didn’t know about Historic Houses; I have of course always been aware of the National Trust and National Heritage, but not HH.
    Yes, nowadays, such property is most likely more of a burden than anything else, but it would be a shame to lose more of them “only” because the owners can not gather enough money for upkeep and renovation.

  8. artandarchitecturemainly

    I loved an organised tour of Hatfield House in St Albans years ago, but I don’t remember who looks after the property.

  9. What a wonderful organization! I can’t image the time and money needed to keep those beautiful homes up- I’m glad they’ve found this way to preserve them and share them.

  10. May i book for a friend? She has been with the NT for years , is now very fed up with the organisation, and this would be a cheer up for her…if she is ever allowed out of the house again, of course…..

  11. Stephen Pennells

    Britain’s history is so big. I’m such a history fan. I went to Somerset a few weeks back to the birth place of England and Alfred the great. Was shocked to find very little there

  12. You are blessed to live in such a beautiful country! So much rich history. One day I’m going to set foot there! ❤️

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