14 Apr 2023

Respecting our heritage

Image: Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire

Spring has finally arrived and many of us will be taking advantage of the new season to enjoy exploring Britain’s rich array of heritage sites. Whether our tastes turn to exquisitely manicured gardens and imposing stately homes or isolated castles, archaeological remains and rugged scenery, the British landscape boasts a rich array of heritage sites that span our entire history, from Neolithic stone circles to the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

With such a wide range of historic destinations on offer, it may seem to be an impossible task to devise an all-encompassing heritage etiquette code. But we should approach all these sites with the same level of care and respect and ensure above all that our visit does not cause damage or leave an imprint. Organisation such as the National Trust, English Heritage and Historic Houses are the conservators of our national legacy, and it is important that we always observe their rules and regulations as well as ensuring that we do not have a negative impact on other visitors’ experiences.

Heritage Checklist

• Picnic time

Many of us will want to enjoy a picnic, but don’t assume that picnics are a general free for all. Many historic 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. Remember, some historic landscapes are fragile, or may be undergoing re-wilding, land management, reclamation, re-planting – heedless picknickers can cause irreparable damage to fragile environments.

• Litter beware

Whether you’re visiting a cultivated garden or a wild and rugged landscape, there is only one rule when it comes to rubbish – carefully dispose of all litter, and if you can’t find a bin, bag it up and take it away. Always leave the site absolutely pristine.

• Dog Days

We’re a nation of dog-lovers and while many heritage sites are completely dog-friendly (keep dogs on leads when you are crossing fields with livestock, or when requested to do so) it is sensible to check up on sites’ dog policy before setting out. It’s fine to take your dog to historic gardens, but you should keep your dog on a lead. Bagging and binning dog mess (which may mean seeking out a bin) is the only considerate way to behave – dumping plastic bags in hedgerows when no bins are immediately available is simply not acceptable.

• Country codes

Always follow the countryside code and ensure that gates are left as you found them once you have passed through – generally this means securely fastening the gate but remember sometimes farmers leave gates open for a reason. Follow local signs and keep to designated paths.

• Polite photography

Outdoor photography is completely acceptable, though it is always considerate to be aware of other visitors and ensure that your photography is not obscuring a viewpoint or blocking their access. When you are visiting the interior of heritage properties, such as stately homes, be aware that while photography without flash and filming is widely permitted, it is at the property manager’s discretion, so permission must be sought, and any restrictions respected.

• Respect the signs

Always obey signs and respect ‘No entry’ and ‘don’t touch’ warnings, which are always displayed for a good reason. If you are visiting an archaeological site, you may well find that you are forbidden from clambering over precarious remains. In stately homes ‘don’t touch’ notices protect valuable paintings and furnishings. If you have children with you, then you will need to be extra vigilant.

• Observe gallery etiquette

If you are looking around the interior of a property, 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.

• Come unencumbered

Don’t come burdened with large bags and if you do, try and check them in whenever possible (though not all historic properties have this facility, so plan ahead). Avoid carrying rucksacks, which can be very hazardous in confined spaces. It’s easy to forget that you’ve got a bulky object on your back, and you wouldn’t want to cause incalculable damage to a precious antiquity with your bulging rucksack…

Put your phone away

Switch off mobile phones when you are in historic houses or other heritage properties. Be considerate about using your phone in enclosed gardens – other visitors may not appreciate being forced to eavesdrop on loud conversations. Wherever you are, be it a historic house, a garden, or an archaeological site, be aware of other visitors when taking photographs or selfies with your mobile.

• No smoking

Smoking or vaping is never permitted inside historic buildings, or in cafés or shops. If you’re smoking outside, try and find a spot away from other non-smoking visitors, and be very careful to throw your cigarette butts into litter bins and to ensure that matches are extinguished.

• Lose the Heels

If you’re exploring historic properties then under no circumstances should you wear stiletto heels, which can wreak terrible damage on wooden carpets and rush matting. You will be doing a lot of standing, so it is sensible to wear flat, comfortable shoes.

• Remember your Ps and Qs

Always be polite and respectful to stewards inside historic buildings, guides, gardeners, and people at ticket booths. Many people who work at these sites, especially stewards and guides who are giving up their time voluntarily, are 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. Questions are always welcomed and asking genuine questions is a great way of showing your guides your interest and appreciation.

• Enjoy a cup of tea

Many heritage sites offer tea rooms, cafés and gift shops and it is a supportive gesture to patronise these establishments whenever possible. Funds are always limited and maintaining, repairing and refurbishing these sites is an endless task. It will certainly be appreciated if you do whatever you can to help the invaluable work of keeping Britain’s historic heritage alive.

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