After a recent weekend away in Suffolk my partner and I discovered a number of English Heritage sites in the area. We tried to visit one but we were too late in the afternoon. After a perusal on the web I realised that there were loads of sites all around England that are of interest to people with an enthusiasm for historic sites and we decided that we would like to join for a year and see how we go.
English Heritage is a government founded and supported organisation coming under the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is partly funded by the government, and partly from admission incomes and site/venue hire. Not all their sites charge an admission, a lot are free. They are currently responsible for over 400 sites in England including Stonehenge, and a variety of palaces, castles and stately homes amongst other buildings, some of which are little more than ruins now. They also are responsible for the blue plaques in London (stating connections between various buildings and famous historical figures). Membership appealed to us as not only do we get free admission to any charging sites in England we also get discounts off of visits to sites in Wales and Scotland run buy EH's sister organisations and by some other associated organisations. There is also the opportunity to attend special events and lectures (for a fee) which are exclusive to members. Membership also includes a handbook and a quarterly magazine. Any children in you family group also come in free. Membership cost us £75 as a couple for a year's membership. Individual membership is £43. It is slightly less for renewals and there are cheaper rates for senior citizens and students. Prices are held until end March 2010, after that then you will need to check the website.
You can join online or over the telephone, but we decided to join whilst we were out at one of their sites - Wenlock Priory in Shropshire. The assistant was very helpful and informative, telling us what attractions were available locally, and what we can expect. She gave us a form to fill out and we paid by credit card (other options, including direct debit were also available). Once paid up we were given our handbook, the latest magazine, map of the sites and a temporary membership card.
The handbook, which is about A5 sized, is compact enough to keep in the glove compartment or pocket in a car door. It is divided up by region and each one highlights the main, admission paying sites plus smaller mentions of the free sites. Associated sites within England (such as Warwick Castle) are included also. It lists facilities at each site by symbol (parking, diabled access etc), address and directions, details of what is there and why you may wish to visit opening times and prices (although members do not pay). The magazine is of the usual size, and not particularly thick but is colourful and features articles on special events and exhibitions that support the existing sites and general news about the organisation and its work.
As I mentioned above, English Heritage runs free sites also, and here you will find limited facilities, such as boards telling you about the history of the site and how it would have been in its day. At these sites there are no toilets or shop or even a person to speak to so you are on your own. Sometimes postcards etc are sold at other nearby sites. Some sites are seasonal, and don't open in winter months so that is worth checking, plus most sites will have reduced hours in winter due light conditions, details of all of this is listed in your handbook. Overall the sites I have visited have been well maintained and cared for. You won't find modern lighting and concrete paths around some of the ruined properties (for example), so you may get muddy if you come during poor weather. It mentions in the handbook if the site is potentially hazardous.
At the admission charging sites we have found the staff to be helpful and friendly. I cannot praise the service I have received, so far, high enough. EH's guide books sell for about £3.99 (although there are sometimes cheaper ones available depending on the site), postcards are reasonably priced at 35p, and the selection of gifts and souvenirs are relevant, tasteful and reasonably priced. For example the shop at Wenlock Priory sells Tudor books (for both kids and adults), gothic jewellery and other things along that theme, whilst at Wroxeter Roman City, everything is Roman themed. The shops aren't big but have an interesting array of general as well as topical gifts - I bought an EH Calendar reduced in the sale on 2nd January. You can also pick up a hot drink from a machine and perhaps some crisps or chocolate and a bottle of water. Most admission sites also have toilets, these are clean but fairly basic - don't expect any fancy touches.
I have really enjoyed the three admission charging and one free site that I have visited for free since I joined EH. Each charging site had an included optional audio tour (which would also be included in your admission price if you were a non member), but I don't think this is not available at every site but I found it interesting and very informative. I understand that the guide books are even more informative. We estimate that we have already saved £25 out of our £75 annual joining fee in the first month, so consider this money well spent, hopefully in the spring we can start exploring again and see some of the houses with gardens. I thoroughly recommend English Heritage for those who are interested in history, plus if you like to take weekend breaks or holidays in England there is a wealth of sites that you can visit for free, some of which you don't need to be a member for.
There is also an Overseas Visitors Pass for tourists visiting the UK for up to two weeks.