The Heritage Open Days occur over four days in mid September and offer the public the opportunity to explore properties that are normally inaccessible or, in some cases, would ordinarily charge entrance fees. All the properties and events are related to local culture or architectural heritage and the range of events on offer is staggering - from the chance to visit a local synagogue or Sikh temple through to town halls, factories, castles and courtrooms, there should be something of interest to everyone. Yet despite this, I've met almost nobody who even knows that the scheme exists.
I would certainly encourage anyone who is thinking about making a visit to the UK to find out when the HOD dates are and to consider mid September. We often have great weather at that time of year, the flights and hotels should be cheaper and you have the country's heritage laid out in front of you - all for free.
The HOD has been running since 1994 and is part of a wider European Heritage Open Days scheme. The scheme is administered by English Heritage and each year they invite people with special properties to apply to be included in the scheme. Last year the scheme attracted one million visitors - clearly none of them people that I know!
I first learned about the HOD scheme when a website I used featured it as a special competition, encouraging members to get out and visit the properties, review them and take photographs. I didn't know the name of the scheme beforehand but I did know that there was only one weekend in the year when it's possible to get into Northampton's very beautiful Guildhall. Since this had been on my 'must do' list ever since we moved to the area, I decided to head into the town on the Sunday and check it out.
What I discovered when I got into Northampton was that hundreds of other people far less ignorant than me knew about HOD and were having a great time checking out the heritage buildings of Northampton. And to help them do so, a couple of old vintage buses were driving them between the sites. And to top all that, absolutely everything was completely free of charge.
I really enjoyed my tour of the Guildhall and decided to follow it up with a tour around the Sessions House which was built in the 17th century after most of the centre of Northampton burned down and was used to instil law and order for nearly 3 centuries. I saw where they used to hang convicted felons, and learned about the architectural features of the courts including two large courtrooms that are badly in need of repair and left me feeling I should probably have been wearing a hard-hat just to sit in them. In between the two HOD events, I popped into one of the town centre's large churches which wasn't on the HOD scheme but I'd been 'fired up' by the open access to these other places and inspired to go and have a look instead of always standing outside wondering what it might be like.
My biggest mistake was not to start sooner since I had only a few hours of HOD visiting whereas many of the people around me had been hard at it since the Thursday.
Most of us probably know a lot about the towns and cities where we went to school and maybe where we studied later. I could give you chapter and verse on the history of Salisbury where I grew up but I was shocked to realise that I really didn't know much at all about Northampton. Yes, I knew it had been the centre of the shoe-making industry and I also believed it to be a rather unloved and unlovable mess of a town. What I hadn't realised was that it once had one of the country's largest castles or that the city had been badly damaged by fire a few centuries ago leading to the need to rebuild most of it from scratch. I certainly didn't know about Northampton's chip on its collective-shoulder that it gets passed over for city status because of siding with Cromwell against the royals way back in time.
This year fate decreed that once again the HOD fell on the weekend when my husband was working so I'd be off on my own to hit the HOD scene and take advantage of the chance to see places I couldn't otherwise get into. I wasn't worried about this as I found last year that the people who go along to these events tended to be very friendly and open and happy to pass on their experiences of which other places they'd been to and whether they were worth a look.
In 2009 I spent my Saturday bombing around the county starting at a stately home then heading off to see a triangular folly and a strange town hall. On the Sunday I joined an enormously over-subscribed tour of the Jewish heritage of Northampton which visited some really ugly spots and required us all to ignore what our eyes were telling us and imagine great synagogues and graveyards beneath the kebab shops and car parks of the town centre.
Next year I'm hoping to head to Leicester or Oxford and widen my horizons a little. I know Oxford ridiculously well but even so there are opportunities to get into places that would normally be really tricky. Many people find Oxford a frustrating place to visit because so many of the colleges don't exactly welcome visitors so the HOD weekend is a perfect time to go when many will be throwing open their doors to tell the world about their history.
Some of the places in the HOD scheme are open all year round but where that's the case, they lay on special events for the HOD weekend. For example you can visit the Northampton Museum all year round, but for the 2009 HOD days they offered a tour of the Costume Store, another of the Shoe Store (Northants Museum is 60% or more about shoemaking) and gave a special talk about Mary Queen of Scots on the Sunday. The Royal and Derngate Theatres will show you around behind the scenes and there's no need to book in advance.
If you'd love to see inside the temples, mosques and churches of other religions but wouldn't dream of just wandering in on a normal weekend, the HOD is a great way to get a look at how other people worship. In most areas you'll find several options to visit a Sikh temple, a mosque or a Jewish temple. In Northampton you can even visit the so-called 'Jesus Army' who have their HQ in a vintage cinema which is included in the scheme.
It's important to plan your visits and the best place to start is the website - http://www.heritageopendays.org.uk - and using the link on the home page which takes you to the Event Directory. Not all places are open on all 4 days so you might want to make a list of your 'must sees' and their availability. Most places need no prior booking but for those that do, it might be best to get your bookings confirmed before planning other events around them. In some cases it might be worth phoning ahead to check if there are set times for tours or if you can just turn up and have a look. If there are tours, check how long they last as you might find there are more things you want to see than you have time for and some of those tours might take longer than you can afford.
Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and the Irish Republic all have similar schemes and London does its own thing, often a week after the rest of England. It's free, the people are friendly and there's plenty to choose from. And remember in these credit crunch times, you don't get much for free - certainly not much of this quality.