It’s the peak of the British summer: the days are languorous and long, strawberries are in season, tennis and cricket matches are drawing huge crowds. Everyone is enjoying the outdoors – whether it’s picnics, barbecues, days on the beach, or just lounging in the park.
Many of us will be contemplating the school holidays, or perhaps planning a staycation – a much safer option than risking airport chaos and cancellations. For those of us who plan to explore home territory this summer, the British countryside provides a rich palimpsest of history, replete with archaeological remains from the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, Medieval castles, Tudor mansions, stately homes and remains of the Industrial Revolution. It also offers a stunning range of landscapes – from the mountains of the Lake District, Wales and the Scottish Highlands, to the fens of East Anglia and dramatic coastlines of the Southwest. The distances between all these attractions are comparatively small, meaning that a magnificent array of landscapes and history is widely accessible.
Much of this heritage is managed by two extraordinary organisations, both of which can trace their origins to the late 19th century, when there was a growing recognition that our national legacy needed to be protected and preserved.
In 1895 three Victorian philanthropists – Octavia Hill, Sir Robert Hunter and Canon Hardwicke Rawnsley – founded the National Trust. They were dismayed by the impact that rapid industrialisation and uncontrolled urban development was having on the landscape and decided that something should be done to safeguard our national heritage. They embarked on a determined plan to acquire historic buildings and land that was under threat, setting up the Trust as the guardian of our historic legacy. Their first acquisition of property, in 1896, was the Alfriston Clergy House in East Sussex, which they bought for £10. Their first nature reserve was Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, which they acquired in 1899.
Britain’s remarkable cultural patrimony of stately homes and landscaped grounds, mainly constructed between the 17th and 19th centuries by aristocrats and landed gentry, was coming under increasing threat in the 20th century. Advancing industrialisation was undermining their land-based wealth, and crippling taxes and death duties were causing further difficulties. Many aristocrats were forced to sell their birthright, and the National Trust began to step in in to save and preserve this unique legacy.
From its modest beginnings in the 1890s a great national organisation took root. Today the Trust manages over 780 miles of coastline, more than 250,000 hectares of land, over 500 historic houses, castles, parks and gardens, and nearly one million works of art.
The National Trust currently boasts more that 5.37 million members, and runs its properties with the help of over 50,000 volunteers. It operates over 280 cafés and restaurants at its various sites and properties, and even owns 39 pubs and inns. Substantial tracts of Britain’s most beautiful terrain are expertly managed and protected by the Trust, ensuring that the organisation is woven into the tapestry of the British landscape, an instantly recognisable sign that our history is valued and respected.
The origins of English Heritage date back to the same period: the Office of Works, a government department responsible for architecture and building, began to acquire buildings and monuments in the 1880s. The initial focus was on prehistoric and Medieval remains – it was several decades before country houses and industrial landscapes were recognised as a heritage that needed to be preserved. By the 1930s the Office of Works was responsible for world-famous sites such as Stonehenge and Rievaulx Abbey. While the primary aim was to protect these historic treasures, it was also recognised that they should be made accessible to the general public.
After the Second World War, the Ministry of Works (as it was now known) continued to acquire a widening range of sites, including its first stately home, Audley End in Cambridgeshire. After much debate it was decided that it would be preferable for the National Trust to manage country houses, while the Ministry of Works looked after more historic monuments, although this brief was extended to include a widening range of sites including Georgian villas, windmills and iron works.
In the 1980s the Ministry of Works briefly became the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, which was then renamed English Heritage. Since 2015 it has been a charitable trust, which not only looks after historic properties but also safeguards and protects our national legacy. It now cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites, including 66 castles, 58 prehistoric sites and 47 London statues.
With a great range of historic sites and pristine landscapes to choose from, we are spoilt for choice. But it would be irresponsible to take our heritage for granted, or to be careless or inconsiderate about our carefully conserved landscape.
So, if you are out and about this summer, bear the following recommendations in mind:
• Many of us will want to enjoy a picnic, but don’t just choose your site indiscriminately. Many sites have designated picnic areas, or you can find a ‘suitable for picnics’ icon when you are looking up the site details. In general, fires and barbecues are not allowed. If, in doubt, ring up the specific property for advice first. English Heritage encourages visitors to picnic at all its sites.
• Carefully dispose of all rubbish, and if you can’t find a bin, bag it up and take it away. Always leave the site absolutely pristine.
• National Trust-managed landscapes are completely dog-friendly (keep dogs on leads when you are crossing fields with livestock, or when requested to do so). It’s fine to take your dog to historic gardens, but you should keep your dog on a lead. Look up individual properties’ details to check whether dogs are allowed in cafés. English Heritage encourages visitors to bring dogs to castles, abbeys and gardens.
• Always follow the countryside code and ensure that gates are securely fastened when you have passed through.
• The National Trust is tolerant of wild camping, but requires visitors to follow certain guidelines. Wild campers are not allowed to camp in valleys or lowland areas or by lakeshores. They must keep their pitches small – if two tents are already in their chosen spot, they should move on. Food should be heated on lightweight camping stoves – lighting fires is risky and leads to the risk of damaging wildfires. Wild campers should use small, lightweight tents, and blend as much as possible into the landscape.
• It’s fine to photograph any outdoor site managed by the Trust, but care should be taken when photographing or filming indoors. Photography without flash and filming is permitted at many properties, at the property manager’s discretion. Permission must therefore be sought and any restrictions respected. Both the National Trust and English Heritage must be contacted for copyright permission if photographs of their properties are being sold commercially.
• Obey the ‘don’t touch’ notices and don’t stray into roped-off areas. Follow normal gallery etiquette: be aware of the flow of crowds, don’t block access to works of art for other visitors, keep your voice down. If a guide is giving a talk (even if you’re not part of the group), don’t talk over them.
• If the facility is available, check in large and bulky bags. You wouldn’t want to cause incalculable damage to a precious antiquity with your bulging rucksack…
• Switch off mobile phones when you are in historic houses or other buildings. Be considerate about using your phone in enclosed gardens – other visitors may not appreciate being forced to eavesdrop on loud conversations.
• Smoking is not permitted inside buildings, or in cafés or shops. If you’re smoking outside, try and find a spot away from other visitors, who may be hoping for lungfuls of delicious floral scents, not nicotine.
• We all enjoy spectacular floral displays and exquisite gardens, but horticultural enthusiasts should resist the temptation to purloin the odd cutting when nobody is looking. As with the art on display, the plants are for contemplating, not touching.
• Never wear stiletto heels inside historic properties – they can do irreparable damage to floors, carpets and rush matting.
• Always be polite and respectful to stewards inside historic buildings. They are giving up their time voluntarily, and are often genuine enthusiasts, who are well-informed and delighted to talk about the property. Engaging in a polite conversation with them will probably elicit all sorts of arcane and fascinating information.
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