WE tend to take our national treasures for granted and perhaps it is only when we have visitors from overseas that we see ourselves through their eyes. But one way to make the most of Britain’s extraordinarily rich historic, architectural and landscape heritage is to take out membership of one or more of the organisations which care for the land and properties.
Membership usually gives free entry, special events for members, a seasonal magazine and other benefits. And the fact that you have paid to join tends to encourage you to make use of the membership. So you enjoy free days out, with the added attractions of fresh air and relaxation – and you only need to visit a handful of properties to feel the benefits!
We joined the National Trust and English Heritage some years ago, and have richly enjoyed the benefits of free entry to many of the finest properties and also some of the lesser known castles, gardens and ancient sites. From the north of Scotland to the furthest Atlantic edge of Cornwall, there is something for all tastes, whether it is hiking Hadrians’s Wall or visiting a Victorian workhouse or an Arts and Crafts manor house.
We also love the Landmark Trust, which offers the chance to stay in medieval, Tudor, Regency or more recent properties, all with a fascinating history. You can, for example, enjoy a medieval feast in the great (albeit unheated) hall of Purton Green, a thatched hall-house reached up a muddy field path in Suffolk. You can relax in Georgian splendour in an apartment in Bath or revel in the flamboyance of the Pineapple at one of the Scottish properties.
We recently joined another conservation organisation, Historic Royal Palaces, which gives access to some of the finest and most historic properties in Britain, including Kensington Palace and the Tower of London.
Our first Royal Palace visit was to Hampton Court, on one of the gloriously hot days this summer, when the gardens were full of picnicking and sunbathing visitors.
The Tudors exert a lasting fascination over most of us, and none more magnetic than King Henry VIII and his six wives. Partly it is the never-ending stream of novels, television dramas and films that keeps this merry monarch turned grotesque tyrant alive in our imaginations. And of course there are gorgeous paintings, lovely Tudor music and most of all the fabulous houses and castles.
But they were the aristocrats and their households, the lucky ones – as long as they escaped the king’s wrath, or even worse, his roving eye!
Life for ordinary people was far from colourful or comfortable in a time when the country was often at war with foreign powers, and there were tumultuous upheavals in the country’s religious practice. As the 17th century writer Thomas Hobbes put it, their lives were “poor, nasty, brutish and short,” which sounds rather less glamorous.
But Hampton Court IS glamorous. It has a gorgeous situation on the Thames, the old red brick buildings are beautiful, and the corridors and great state rooms seem full of the whispered voices and memories of the King, Anne Boleyn, Thomas Cromwell, the Duke of Norfolk, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas More and all the other historical figures who played out the great dramas of the Reformation within its walls.
You can see another side when you explore the kitchens and discover the hot, hard work of feeding an enormous and ever-changing household that often numbered hundreds. There are regular demonstrations in the kitchens by skilled cooks who are also historical researchers – you can sometimes even try your hand at some of the kitchen crafts.
Elsewhere in the courtyards and grounds, there are frequent demonstrations and re-enactments of many aspects of Tudor life – and in the cafe you can sample baking from Tudor recipes, such as honey and mead cakes.
You can stay at Hampton Court – the Landmark Trust has two apartments within the ancient buildings. Your party can enjoy the unique atmosphere after the crowds have gone. Who knows, you might even see one of the many ghosts who walk these old stone corridors and yards?
On the day of our visit, one of the main courtyards was crowded to watch the young King and his friends heading out with their hawks and hounds. Handlers explained to the visitors, including many excited children, how some of the hounds were called “sight hounds” because their role was to see the fallen prey, while others heard the birds’ calls.
Later in the day there was a very authentic and exciting jousting tournament with knights in armour and handsomely caparisoned horses.
Throughout the palace and grounds there are activities and information boards aimed particularly at younger visitors. A generation that has been inspired by Horrible Histories can find plenty to whet their appetites here!
For details of Hampton Court opening times and days, re-enactments, Tudor cookery workshops, etc, and information on membership of Historic Royal Palaces, visit www.hrp.org.uk
The young King Henry VIII and his friends joke with visitors before heading off with their hawks and hounds