One of my favourite events in the year is the annual Heritage Open Days. This event – or should I say these events since there are many – take place during September, running on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday with something to appeal to almost everyone around England. Slightly different dates and organisations cover the other constituent countries of the UK and London usually gets its own dates but I’m in Northamptonshire, so I attend the English HODs.
Heritage properties across the country throw open their doors to visitors, free of charge during the HODs. Some are very old, historic buildings, many much more modern. All have something special about them. Some are places you can see any time of the year by just walking in off the street, others are fee-paying attractions handled by the National Trust or English Heritage, and some – such as Northampton’s fabulous town hall – only open on the HODs. One year I went to a place that was a nursery school where they told me that opening for the HODs was a condition of their listed building status and that they never open to the public at any other time. If you want to get in to these places and nose around, you need to take advantage of the opportunity when it strikes. Even if you visit a place that’s always open, you may well find they’re making a special effort to make the HODs special so it’s still worth a look.
I first discovered the HODs about 4 years ago and for the next couple of years I ran around like a headless chicken doing everything I could to see the maximum number of places. This year, for the first time, the HODs fell on the weekend when my husband wasn’t working so I didn’t have to do it all on my own. We decided to keep things simple and head into the town centre rather than driving all over the countryside since the weather was looking a bit gloomy and we didn’t want to get caught in the middle of nowhere in a downpour.
The best way to prepare for the HODs is to check the website really carefully – it’s www.heritageopendays.co.uk – and get all the details. Many of the properties taking part do not open every day. Some require pre-booking and will not accept anyone who shows up on the day. Some have varied restrictions on family groups or may not be suitable for wheelchair users or people who are not too good on their feet. Others may have just a few limited start times for their activities. Take the time to check and it will help avoid disappointment. Pick the things you most want to do then look at the map and work out if you can realistically cover them all in one day. If you can’t, create a plan to guide you through your visits. One year I got through five properties in an afternoon and travelled about 40 miles between them all. I don’t recommend that or your head may well be spinning by the time you finish.
Food and drink are a key part of heritage tourism and one of the few ways that the properties taking part can earn a little bit of money from the event. When we’re planning a day of visiting places that charge entry, my husband usually makes us a packed lunch to take with us, but when the HODs are free, I like to make sure we spend a bit of money on teas and coffees and the obligatory cream scone.
Find a pair of comfy shoes – you don’t want to have to stop early because your feet are aching and there’ s nothing like standing around being talked at to make feet ache. Wear comfortable clothes – just because you’re visiting a grand property, doesn’t mean you have to dress up as if you’d been invited for tea with the lady of the manner. Make sure your clothes are appropriate to the weather but be prepared for change. Mid September can be gloriously sunny or can rain like Noah needs to start building. So sunblock and a waterproof are both a good idea. I’d suggest to pop a paperback or your Kindle in your bag in case you’re left with a long gap before a tour starts and need to keep yourself amused. If you plan to come home and write about what you saw for Igougo, you might want to take a notebook and you’ll probably want to take your camera. Make sure it’s charged up and you’ve got a spare pen before you leave home.
After we failed to get into the church which was top of my ‘must visit’ list, thanks to the vicar booking a wedding in the middle of the Saturday afternoon (the busiest time for the HODs) and ‘forgetting’ that half of Northampton would be coming to look around, we gave up and headed into the town centre where we knew we’d find lots to look at. We didn’t cover as many places as we expected after the tour of the old Art Deco cinema that’s now the home of the Jesus Centre took a lot longer than we expected. Many places close at 4 pm so don’t be too lazy and not set out until after lunch like we did. And remember when you’re making your shortlist that there’s nothing to stop you going back on Sunday to catch up on anything you missed on your first day.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in England in September, I highly recommend checking the dates for the HODs. They can save you a small fortune on National Trust entry fees and offer you fascinating insights into the country’s past.