Which is the best heritage organisation to join?

So you want to visit old places.  You enjoy soaking up the stories, stepping through elegant stately homes and palaces, climbing claustrophobic spiral staircases, exploring battlements, gazing in wonder at ancient megaliths, or meandering through beautiful, old, gardens.  Who is responsible for Britain’s heritage?  The answer is ‘the owner’, of course – but that could be anyone from the resident, a charity, educational establishment, elected local authority, local interest group, the military, or, in the case of medieval churches, usually the parish itself.  These are the people that preserve Britain’s heritage for future generations.  This heritage is not limited to old buildings, but includes huge collections of rare, beautiful, fascinating and priceless artefacts, artwork and ephemera.

StonehengeNumerous historic places, particularly very old sites and ruined castles, are freely open for anyone to visit, but historic houses, castles in good repair, stately homes and the like are expensive to maintain and an entrance fee is often charged, which can range from just a few quid to the price of a very good lunch. If you are visiting with family, it can be a costly day out – especially if you bolt-on eating-out, ice-creams, souvenirs – and so on.  Heritage is expensive – and is also big business.

Who owns Britain’s heritage?

Many of the heritage properties that are open to the public in Britain are owned and managed by, or affiliated to, no more than half a dozen heritage organisations – what we might call The Big Six of Cadw, English Heritage, Historic Houses, Historic Scotland, the National Trust, and the National Trust for Scotland.  These organisations offer annual (and life) memberships, the main benefit being that this includes entry to most of their properties.  This is therefore a sensible option if you want to visit more than a just a few of their properties, because you will soon recoup the cost of membership.  But which is the best heritage organisation in Britain?  Or, should the question be: what is the best heritage organisation for you to join?  Should you join more than one?  This obviously depends what you want, where you are going and how much you want to pay.

Conwy Castle, WalesTogether, The Big Six British heritage organisations account for about 1700 houses, castles, ruins – and more places besides – that can be visited by the public.  The two heavyweights, The National Trust and English Heritage, together account for more than 50% of those attractions, with the rest divided between Historic Houses, Cadw, Historic Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland.  In addition, there are thousands of medieval churches and scores of cathedrals, which are cared for by church authorities and parishes, as well as thousands of national and local museums and other attractions that are privately or publicly owned and run.  Historic Royal Palaces looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court (etc) and the Royal Collection Trust takes care of residences such as Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and Holyroodhouse.

Let’s take a look at the Big Six and their membership offers; they are all slightly different, but do share some characteristics.

What do heritage organisations have in common?

  • With the exception of Cadw, all memberships include a handbook of properties and a regular house magazine. Cadw provide members with a map of their properties.
  • With the exception of Historic Houses, all are responsible for properties and attractions that are free to visit by anyone, irrespective of membership. In the case of Historic England, Cadw, and Historic Scotland, these properties include prehistoric sites and ruined castles.  In the case of the National Trust and the National Trust for Scotland, free places are usually natural attractions – acres of beautiful green spaces and miles of coastline.
  • Larger properties offer facilities such as toilets, cafes, shops and playgrounds. Even smaller properties have ticket offices where snacks and guidebooks can be bought.
  • All offer individual and joint membership.
  • Most offer concessionary rates for young people, older people, the disabled and sometimes members of the military. However, they all define their age categories differently and membership of Historic Houses makes no concession for age – though the individual properties may do.
  • With the exception of Historic Houses, all have reciprocal arrangements with other heritage organisations.
  • Membership includes free parking in the respective organisations’ car parks. This is a particular benefit in the case of the National Trust, which charges for parking at many of its countryside and coastal sites.
  • All membership offers include free or discounted special events, some of which are exclusive to members (particularly in the case of Historic Houses).
  • They all offer a range of interesting and historic places to stay, though Cadw has a very limited number. You do not need to be a member of the organisation to book holiday accommodation, though.
  • Some properties host weddings and other events. It is irritating, and frustrating, to turn up only to find you cannot see inside a house, or have limited access. Therefore, if it is a property you are particularly interested in, it is always a good idea to check before making a special trip.
  • Some properties have limited opening – typically, the visiting season runs from March until the end of October. Again, check before making a special trip.
  • Many heritage properties depend heavily on volunteers.

Montacute House, SomersetHow much does heritage membership cost?

Annual Membership £ *
Properties Where? Single Adult Joint Adult Senior Couple Discounts for
CADW 121 Wales 51.30 79.10 64.60 U18s, over 65s
ENGLISH HERITAGE 400 England 64.00 111.00 87.00 Students, over 65s
HISTORIC HOUSES 294 United Kingdom 56.00 89.00 89.00 U16s
HISTORIC SCOTLAND 300 Scotland 52.20 90.90 76.50 U24s, over 65s
NATIONAL TRUST 500 England, Wales, N Ireland 72.00 120.00 90.00 U26s, over 60s (subject to 5 years membership).
NATIONAL TRUST for SCOTLAND 82 Scotland 63.00 114.00 87.60 U24s, over 60s

* Prices as of May 2021

You can see that, if you are looking at membership purely based on cost, Cadw is the cheapest and The National Trust the most expensive.  However, on a measurement of value taking into account the number of properties, the National Trust for Scotland is the most expensive (because they have fewer properties) and The National Trust is the cheapest.

However, what you should probably do is look at which properties you would like to visit, where they are – and how many you are most likely to see during the term of your membership.

Heritage organisations’ USPs

Now let’s look briefly at the individual organisations and their unique selling points, in alphabetical order.

CadwShould you join Cadw?

Cadw is an agency of the Welsh Government, responsible for the historic environment.  It has 121 properties in its care in Wales, including castles, monuments and prehistoric sites, some of them in a ruinous state. Examples of Cadw properties include the magnificent medieval castles at Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech, and the Roman ruins at Caerleon.

Valle Crucis AbbeyIn addition to the benefits already described, membership of Cadw includes:

  • 10% off products in Cadw gift shops
  • 50% off entry to English Heritage and Historic Scotland sites
  • FREE entry to Manx National Heritage properties
  • FREE entry to English Heritage and Historic Scotland sites on renewal

If you would like to know more about membership, visit Cadw’s website.

Should you join English Heritage?

English Heritage is a charity that has evolved from the government department responsible for looking after England’s monuments and ruins.  The collection is now far more varied, though English Heritage still cares for more ruins than the National Trust does.  Many of their manned sites are often only staffed by a couple of people, but I find they are invariably knowledgeable, and helpful. Examples of English Heritage properties include Stonehenge, Dover Castle, Middleham, Osborne House and most of the sites along Hadrian’s Wall.

Osborne House, visit Isle of Wight, terracesIn addition to the benefits already described, membership of English Heritage includes:

  • Free entry for up to six children per adult member
  • Discounts on entry to additional ‘associated’ (non-affiliated) attractions in the UK
  • 50% off entry to Cadw and Historic Scotland sites
  • Free entry to Cadw and Historic Scotland sites on renewal
  • Free entry to Manx National Heritage properties
  • Free entry to OPW (Office of Public Works) properties in Ireland
  • Members’ rewards – offers and discounts from ‘partner’ suppliers

Merely for interest, English Heritage also runs the London blue plaques scheme, which began in 1866.

If you would like to know more about membership, visit English Heritage’s website.

A Bit About Britain is a member of English Heritage’s membership affiliate programme and may earn commission from new memberships purchased via a link from this website. You do not pay any more.

Historic HousesShould you join Historic Houses?

Historic Houses is the United Kingdom’s largest collection of historic houses and gardens.  It represents almost 1500 independently owned historic houses, of which some 300 are normally open to the public.  The properties represented by Historic Houses include some of Britain’s most famous stately homes, such as Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace, Burghley, Highclere, Scone Palace, Hever Castle and Longleat, as well as gems you will never have heard of.  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.  Given that those at the higher end of entry fees charge £20 or more, you can see that you only need to visit three such properties in a year to justify the cost of membership.

Castle Howard, Atlas Fountain, visit YorkshireIn addition to the benefits already mentioned, the real USP of Historic Houses is that hundreds of the properties are lived-in family homes.  So, when you drop in, it is possible that you will spot the occasional out of place cushion, or evidence that children have recently been playing nearby.  Sometimes, visitors get to meet the owners themselves.  Moreover, because all of the properties are privately owned and individually distinctive, each one has its very own personality.

Membership also provides the opportunity for 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.

You can read a feature about Historic Houses on A Bit About Britain. If you would like to know more about membership, go to Historic Houses’ website.

If you decide to join Historic Houses, you can benefit from an astonishing deal negotiated with A Bit About Britain.  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 ScotlandShould you join Historic Scotland?

Historic Environment Scotland is an agency of the Scottish Government that cares for and promotes Scotland’s historic environment.  Its properties range from grand castles, like Edinburgh and Stirling, to ruins like Caerlaverock and prehistoric sites.  In my experience, their staff are invariably friendly and helpful.

Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfries, ScotlandIn addition to the benefits already described, membership of Historic Scotland includes:

  • 20% discount in Historic Scotland shops and 10% discount in their cafés
  • Free entry to heritage attractions on the Isle of Man (Manx National Heritage).
  • 50% off entry to English Heritage and Cadw sites
  • Free entry to English Heritage and Cadw sites on renewal

If you would like to know more about membership, visit Historic Scotland’s website.

Should you join The National Trust?

The National Trust is a charity, founded in 1895.  It now claims to be Europe’s largest conservation charity, looking after more than 500 historic houses, castles, parks, and gardens as well as in excess of 780 miles of coastline and 250,000 hectares of land in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Not all NT-owned properties are open to the public. Entry to most of the countryside and coastal attractions that are open to the public is free for everyone.  As well as those outdoor spaces, examples of National Trust properties include Bateman’s, Montacute, Cragside and Chartwell.

Chartwell, Churchill, orchard, KentThe Trust has a strong corporate image, evident at its key properties to the extent that you sometimes need to check where you are and, though most staff are friendly and knowledgeable, some can be pompous and irritating. The writer Bill Bryson referred to the National Trust’s “irksome sense of its own perfection,” but though I have some sympathy with that view, the debt we owe to this amazing organisation is enormous; where would heritage and the countryside be without it?

In addition to the benefits already described, membership of The National Trust includes:

  • Free entry to National Trust for Scotland sites
  • Free entry to properties managed by International National Trusts Organisation members worldwide, including in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Romania, the Czech Republic and Zimbabwe.

There is a sister organisation, the Royal Oak Foundation, based in the USA.

If you would like to know more about membership, visit The National Trust’s website.

A Bit About Britain is a member of The National Trust’s membership affiliate programme and may earn commission from new memberships purchased via a link from this website. You do not pay any more.

National Trust for ScotlandShould you join The National Trust for Scotland?

The National Trust for Scotland is a charity, formed in 1931.  It cares houses, battlefields, castles, mills, gardens, coastlines, islands and mountain ranges. Examples of NTS properties include Culloden, Falkland Palace, Glenfinnan and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

Glenfinnan Memorial, Loch Shiel, the 45, Bonnie Prince Charlie, Stuart standardThe NTS has foundations in the USA and Canada. The National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA website. To find out more about the Canadian National Trust for Scotland Foundation, please contact cnts.foundation@gmail.com

In addition to the benefits already described, membership of the National Trust for Scotland includes:

  • Free or concessionary entry to National Trust properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Free entry to properties managed by International National Trusts Organisation members worldwide, including in Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Romania, the Czech Republic and Zimbabwe.

If you would like to know more about membership, visit The National Trust for Scotland’s website.

So – which heritage organisation should you join?

Which is the best heritage organisation for you?  The first thing to do is to look on the different websites and search on your postcode, or the postcode of where you are staying, to see what’s on offer nearby.

Join Cadw, English Heritage or Historic Scotland if you want to contribute to their work in their native countries; but you only need to join one of them, because you get 50% off entry for the other two in your first year and thereafter it’s free.

Join either the National Trust or the National Trust for Scotland – but not both.

If your main interest is prehistoric sites, ruins and battlefields, you do not actually need to join any heritage organisation at all, because generally speaking, and with the exception of hugely popular sites like Stonehenge and Culloden, it is free to visit many of them anywhere in Britain.

That said, generally speaking, Cadw, English Heritage and Historic Scotland are best for prehistoric sites, medieval castles, ruined and otherwise, and ruined abbeys.

Generally speaking, The National Trust and Historic Houses are best for lovers of houses, modest and palatial, from Tudor times to the present.

The National Trust and Historic Houses are best for lovers of gardens.

The National Trust and The National Trust for Scotland offer the widest range of attractions in terms of type, because they look after natural attractions as well as buildings.

English Heritage offers extremely good value for kids – free entry for up to six children (under 18s) per adult.  Many larger attractions have facilities for children these days, from simple playgrounds to large, imaginative, adventure areas, and many put on family-friendly events, such as medieval fairs, re-enactments and Easter egg hunts.

If you are an overseas visitor, English Heritage and The National Trust offer limited visitor or touring passes. The other organisations are not so welcoming.  Cadw used to offer limited duration visitor passes, but is not doing so at the time of writing. Similarly, a Scottish Heritage pass used to be available, but only via selected travel agents.

If you are an overseas visitor and a member of a heritage organisation in your home country, see whether it is a member of the International National Trusts Organisation. If it is, you will probably be able to use your membership with National Trust and National Trust for Scotland sites in Britain.

Join The National Trust or the National Trust for Scotland if you plan to visit any of the countries where they have affiliations within your membership period. This is obviously of no benefit if you are only interested in visiting properties in Britain.

If you are in the United States of America, consider joining the Royal Oak Foundation.

 

The objective of this article is to help promote Britain’s heritage and heritage sector.  As part of the research, each of the ‘Big Six’ heritage organisations was contacted to advise them that the page was going to be created, and to see if they would like to promote membership via A Bit About Britain. They have had no input into the piece, however.  I hope it helps you decide which heritage organisation is best for you – maybe it’s more than one!  If anyone spots any errors, please let me know.

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