The National Trust has recently come under fire for changing its approach to the historic properties it manages, and members are leaving it in droves. If you are one of them, but still want to visit grand houses, there is another choice - Historic Houses. Read on to find out more about this organisation that gives you access to stately homes without the politics, the homogeny or the queues.
The National Trust was formed in 1895 to preserve Britain's vanishing historic homes and areas of natural beauty, many of which were at great risk of being sold off to developers and private businesses. The stated aims of the Trust were for green spaces and places of historic interest to ‘be kept for the enjoyment, refreshment, and rest of those who have no country house’. In recent years however, its traditional supporters have become disillusioned with the Trust's insistence on identity politics, and massive divisions have been formed.
What's wrong with the National Trust?
An early indication of the problems began when they ran a 'Pride and Prejudice' year in 2017 which focused on LGBT issues. Volunteers were forced to wear rainbow lanyards; those who refused were no longer welcome in their previous roles (the Trust reversed its decision after a public outcry). The exhibitions also 'outed' several of the people who had donated their properties to them, men and women who had wished to keep their sexuality confidential. Now their private lives were being shouted about from the rooftops and plastered all over the displays, much to the dismay of people who knew them, and who knew that they liked to keep such matters to themselves.
The same year was the year of the Easter Egg contoversy, when the Trust removed the word 'Easter' from all of its promotional material, renaming the “Easter Egg Trail” as the “Great British Egg Hunt”, to the horror of Christians across the UK, and even the then Prime Minister weighed in on the row. The following year, 'Easter' was back on the menu.
Further problems came during the first lockdown of 2020, when they laid off many of their curators and highly skilled staff, but managed to spend money on reports looking at the links to the slave trade and the assumed racism of their properties owners, many of whom had simply committed the crime of living in a different era. Articles also appeared in the press about National Trust academics who stated that the landscape, and even gardening, are racist. None of this has gone down well with their membership, who tend to be on the more traditional side of the spectrum, and who didn't want to be made to feel guilty for the deeds of other, richer people's ancestors, every time they went for an afternoon out.
Even if you agree wholeheartedly with their focus on identity politics, there are other issues with the National Trust which many have grumbled about over the years, connected to their handling of properties in their care. The Trust has developed a one-size-fits-all approach to their stately homes, where you now have the same style of presentation across the board.
You are guaranteed that each property you enter will have blinds drawn, over enthusiastic guides in every room wanting to talk at you, trails for kids which ensure little mice/squirrels/random animals are hidden in various rooms and huge crowds ruining your photos.
The cafes serve the same food and drinks (Luscombe Sicilian lemonade, anyone?) and the gift shops are filled with the same overpriced scarves, chutneys and books as every other National Trust gift shop across the country, however lovely the items may be.
Signage is prolific, with instructions barking at you every way you turn. In recent years, barriers have sprouted up around every patch of grass or river embankment, and where you could once picnic or paddle in peace, you are now corralled onto designated plastic walkways or into official picnic areas. Beautiful historic buildings are ruined with signage, ugly plastic barriers, 'community' displays, or modern artworks and sculptures.
The Trust judges [the public] ... to be so utterly incapable of independent thought as to be unable go outdoors without a prominent sign, or 20, urging visitors to admire the view (the one it just disfigured), eat a picnic or to count something it might find exotic, like a bee.
Is outing people really the remit of the National Trust? - Catherine Bennett, The Guardian, 13 Aug 2017
Matters got worse for the Trust during 2020 and the lockdowns. Properties were closed but the membership were not reduced. When they did open for a brief window in between lockdowns, access was severely limited and even if you could book a place to visit, you only ended up being allowed into half of the property compared to before.
Christmas lights are a fairly recent event for National Trust houses, but for Christmas 2020, after a year of paying fees for no return, even the members were still expected to pay vast sums (about £100) for a family of four to park in a mud swamp, walk maybe a mile through the garden of a stately home, with hordes of other families around them, to look at twinkling lights, but with no access to the properties, restaurants or wider grounds. (Photo taken at Stourhead Christmas Lights, 2019)
Why not English Heritage?
L: Darwin's bedroom - the only room you are allowed to take a photo of
R: Windswept ruins in Hastings, complete with barriers and randomly placed signage
So what is the alternative? There is always English Heritage, but they do tend to have a different style of property. There are a lot more castles and windswept ruins, with fewer luxurious homes and beautiful gardens, but they also have the same barriers, the one-size-fits-all approach and quite frankly, some of their properties are utterly shabby (Darwin's House I'm looking at you here). They have also introduced a ban on photography in many of them, which seems spitefully trivial when they are not private homes - it's unnecessary and forces you to pay for an expensive guide book if you want any visual memories of the place.
Advantages of Historic Houses Membership
So what else is there?
In the spirit of Slow Travel, where the independent is prioritised over the conglomerate, where unique character and eclecticism is more important than conformity, and where we encourage people to avoid the over busy tourist attractions, Historic Houses fits the brief perfectly.
Historic Houses is the UK's largest collection of independently, privately owned Grade I and II listed houses, most of which are still lived in by the owners. There are 1,600 houses in the collective, many of them open to the public. Others are available for hire for weddings, events or as filming locations. As with the National Trust, members pay an annual fee for free entry to the properties.
The advantage of the houses being owned and lived in, often by the same family for generations, means that each house has an individual style and hasn't been forced to conform to a corporate vision of how an old house should look. Furnishings and possessions have often been in the house for centuries, not brought in to complete a 'look', and will be from a range of time periods, not just the one that a curator has decided is the era which the house will be portrayed in.
When I first visited Highclere Castle, a member of Historic Houses, I was astonished to discover that the blinds were kept open for visitors - you could actually see outside. It was quite a revelation - the rooms looked completely different with the addition of daylight. Not only was it easier to actually see the rooms and their contents, it also became far easier to understand the vast scale of the houses, how they sat within the grounds, to appreciate the views from the windows and how the two areas interacted.
Another aspect I had never considered before was the absence of aroma in National Trust houses. Many rooms in Historic Houses will be decorated with cut flowers and pot plants - neither are something you will see in a Trust property, unless they are artificial. Walking into Athelhampton House, an Historic House, for the first time, the aroma of woodfire combined with an earthy scent was enough to stop us in our tracks - this wood panelled Tudor Hall smelt alive and as if it was still lived in. It was a huge and very welcome contrast to the antiseptic Trust properties.
It is also a pleasure to be able to see that the properties are still in use - a walk round the bedrooms of Highclere revealed a stack of thrillers next to a small plastic alarm clock on a bedside table - evidence that the inhabitants live much like the rest of us when away from their oil paintings and leatherbound tomes. In some places they even let you sit on their chairs or touch the furniture! It is a refreshing change to so many of the properties you may have visited before.
Historic Houses Membership Benefits
Adult Membership is £56 p.a. (National Trust is £72). Family and Joint memberships are available.
Membership includes a handbook and magazines.
Private tours are available - often by the home owner.
Many properties have holiday lodges, whole houses or rooms inside the main house for holiday rental.
This link will take you to a list of all of the properties you can visit as part of your membership
Historic Houses Membership - Factors to take into consideration
Not all of the houses are open year round, they tend to be seasonal, so always check the opening hours before you visit.
Because they are family homes, you are not usually allowed to take photos indoors.