The National Trust is a charity funded entirely by donations, entry fees, membership payments and the proceeds of their shops and restaurants. It receives no government funding yet plays a crucial role in the preservation and protection of approximately 350 properties and monuments throughout the country as well as a large land bank of woods, beaches, moors and even whole islands and villages. These cover England, Wales and Northern Ireland but Scotland has a separate organisation called the National Trust for Scotland. It used to be cheaper to join in Scotland but I think there's little difference these days and if you join either organisation, you get free entry to the attractions of the other's territory. Without the National Trust to keep an eye on many of these places, I hate to think what horrors might have befallen our national heritage.
The Trust has over three and a half million members, most of them paying annual membership to the charity although some - like my parents - have life membership cards. Life members apparently get some extra perks like discounted food in the Trust tea rooms which I have to confess gave me a fit of giggles as a membership benefit. "Roll up ladies and gentlemen, all the scones you can eat at 20% off!" is a very English kind of selling point.
For Christmas 2009 my husband and I couldn't think of anything material that we wanted from my parents. A month or two earlier as we'd been bouncing around southern India clocking up dozens of local heritage attractions, my husband asked me "Why don't we do this sort of thing when we're at home?" and so we decided to put that right. Hence we asked for a year's membership for the two of us as our present.
Joining the National Trust is easy and can be done at any of the Trust's properties. If you turn up, buy your tickets and have such a super time that you realise you want to do it again, they'll even knock the cost of the tickets you already bought off the membership. If you join online, all the details are available to explain your options. If you are willing to pay by direct debit - a nifty way for the Trust to get people to sign up who then forget to cancel after the year is over - then there's a substantial further discount. For example annual membership for a couple costs £79.50 but paying by direct debit knocks that down to £59.63. Similar reductions apply for individual and family membership. Children and under 25s get really good prices as it's clear that the Trust wants to move their membership demographic towards younger people, in an attempt to avoid the impression that it's just for 'old duffers'. Pensioners also get a good deal.
There's even an American 'arm' of the Trust called the Royal Oak Foundation which offers Americans the chance to buy membership at a better rate of $80 for a couple - effectively, the same number of dollars as it'll cost you in pounds. If you are thinking about a trip to the UK and love visiting these kind of properties, then plan ahead and buy before you fly and it's a useful saving. If you are wondering whether you'd really get value for money, check out the Trust's website for the listings of all the attractions and work out how many you'd be able to see during a visit. In a week of holiday my husband and I clocked up over £200 worth of entrance fee and car parking savings. OK, we did go a bit crazy and run around like heritage-loons but nothing too extreme.
So what kind of places are included? Well we've been mostly to old stately homes packed with all sorts of eccentric furniture and weird collections of odds and ends. We've also been to a place near our home where the building was abandoned before completion after the owner died and his son was hanged drawn and quartered. We've been to spectacular gardens that exhibit just how potty we Brits are about our own little patches of green and pleasant land. The ancient village of Avebury sits inside a stone circle that predates Stonehenge (which is just down the road). There's no admission fee but we saved £5 on the car park and we've visited a variety of other fantastic parks and viewpoints. There is something to suit just about everyone with notable sites including Lindisfarne Castle, Wordsworth's house and gardens and the childhood homes of the Beatles. Greater London has 18 properties and the Lake District is particularly well covered.
It's often said that visiting the UK is expensive and that's sometimes a fair criticism. However, if you plan ahead, check out local museums, many of which are completely free, and get a Trust membership, you can easily fill a week or two in the UK without spending a penny on entrance fees. Where else in the world can you make that claim?