Places to visit
By Frances Garnham Published 11 February, 2013
Frances Garnham was Assistant Director of the Historic Houses Association.
Britain’s historic houses, castles and gardens are amongst the most visited and best loved places in the UK, welcoming well over 60 million visits each year.
People care about history. It fuels a passionate fascination with the world around us; it helps us to understand ourselves, it underpins our individual and collective identities and it informs our choices about the future.
Historic places are stimulating and exciting places for everyone. They conserve cultural treasures in their historic setting; tell stories of the families who have looked after them past and present; create inspiring places for learning; and bring people together to enjoy a shared history.
But many people don’t realise that two-thirds of listed buildings are looked after by private individuals and families who play a crucial role in the care and conservation of Britain’s cultural heritage. The Historic Houses Association’s 1,500 member houses represent an astonishing variety of our rich built and cultural heritage, from intimate family homes to some of Britain’s most important and iconic buildings. 500 are open to the public, welcoming 13 million visitors a year. Others open for charities, for special events and tours, and many provide venues for weddings, conferences and, festivals, even places to stay. Historic houses host classical and rock concerts, historical re-enactments, theatre and sports events, making them an essential ingredient in Britain’s annual cultural calendar. One in five of all HHA properties offer educational programmes, welcoming over 300,000 schoolchildren and older learners.
Around half of our members are dependent upon income from the house itself for their survival. It's a competitive market and when it comes to visitors, historic houses are up against many other demands on people’s leisure time. Poor weather last year, which in some parts of the country saw visitor numbers drop by 25%, has increased pressure. And yet, tourism remains the fifth largest industry in this country. When incoming visitors are surveyed as to why they come to the UK, the top reason given is to visit houses and castles. Perceptions of Britain’s heritage and culture were hugely positive during the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and we need to capitalise on this.
And at home, Heritage Counts – the annual state of the historic environment report co-ordinated by Historic England - found that the proportion of the adult population which makes heritage visits has nearly reached three-quarters (74.3%) and has increased across all ocio-demographic groups. (Heritage Counts 2012). People find them to be invigorating places for learning and understanding; environments where people can come to share a common history; and spaces to provide relaxation and enjoyment.
But historic houses have to be increasingly innovative in welcoming new audiences and encouraging existing audiences to engage in deeper ways. The Darkest Muncaster illuminations involving 18km of lighting and fibre-optic cabling have made Hallowe’en the busiest week of the year at the Lake District’s Muncaster Castle; at Kelburn Castle in Ayrshire, Brazilian street artists have brought in a new audience through the creation of psychedelic murals on the external walls of the seat of the Earls of Glasgow; and Dalemain in Cumbria hosts The World’s Original Marmalade Awards and Festival artfully twinning food and history and winning awards for best heritage event.
The HHA also works in partnership with many organisations to reach out and welcome new audiences, particularly from amongst those who may not have been involved in heritage before. HHA houses work with minority ethnic groups, people with disabilities, older people, women’s groups, inner-city children and those affected by rural poverty. At Doddingon Hall near Lincoln, an HLF grant helped to reinterpret the house for visually impaired people; Eastnor Castle in Herefordshire holds the first private collection of Sikh artefacts to join the Anglo Sikh Heritage Trail; and Weston Park, Shropshire has worked with the local Education and Resource Centre in Wolverhampton to design and create a Sensory Garden.
Historic places are a great day out but increasingly houses and gardens want visitors to become more involved as supporters, volunteers, friends and ambassadors. Heritage provides character, distinctiveness and a sense of place to our local environments; we all need to connect with what’s on doorstep and feel part of it.
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