What To See At The Heritage Open Days Festival

If you travel outside London on the weekend of 7-10 September you’ll find an extra-warm welcome. As part of the annual Heritage Open Days festival, 5,000 special events across the country see the doors opened to fascinating buildings that are usually closed, from artists’ studios to nuclear bunkers.

Annie Reilly, an American, went to her first Heritage Open Days weekend 10 years ago and was immediately hooked. A decade later, she is now the manager of Heritage Open Days, bringing to it her immense personal enthusiasm as well as professional skills.

‘I came to the UK to get a master’s degree in Guildford, landed at the house I was living at, terribly jet-lagged, and had this real “what have I done with my life?” moment. I just had to go out for a walk. So I went to the city centre, where I found all this pink bunting strung up, ‘Open’ signs everywhere and people saying ‘Come in, it’s free’.

‘I went into Abbot’s Hospital, a Jacobean almshouse founded in 1619 – amazingly, it is still being used as social housing. Then I crossed the street to the Royal Grammar School, which has one of the few chained libraries left in Britain, where the books are physically chained to the wall. It was wonderful to wander through the town, seeing these amazing sights. I have this slight American thing of being shocked just to find anything that is more than 300 years old, but I was also so impressed by the enthusiasm of the volunteers opening up their doors and giving up their time to talk about what Guildford has that is special. I became an avid fan, and went every year.’

Opening This Year
New to the packed programme this year, and accessible only during Heritage Open Days, is England’s first mosque, in Liverpool. It was founded by Abdullah Quilliam, who converted to Islam in 1887, and was subsequently used as the Liverpool Records Office.

Also new and exclusive is Strawberry Studios in Stockport, Cheshire, where from 1968 to 1993 hundreds of musical artists recorded, including Joy Division and The Smiths. Explore the archives of Gieves & Hawkes in Winchester, Hampshire, the tailor which has dressed every British sovereign since George III and gaze on a Hampshire Regiment colonel’s jacket once worn by Diana, Princess of Wales; and visit a nuclear bunker built in the centre of a 4,000-year-old megalithic barrow in Farmborough, Somerset for views across Bristol and Severn Bridge.

More underground intrigue is to be had in the secret tunnels of Saltaire World Heritage Site 
in West Yorkshire, opening to the public for the first time. The two tunnels underneath Victoria Road and Exhibition Road were used by the students of Shipley College and the workers at Salts Mill in the late 18th century. Families with children might appreciate another kind of secret history: Stinky Tudors explores the questionable hygiene of the age. Discover why Elizabeth I’s teeth rotted and Henry VIII seldom bathed, on an interactive trail through the Tudor House Museum in Worcester.

Belmont in Lyme RegisHistoric Homes 
Historic houses include Arundells in Salisbury, Wiltshire, the home of former Prime Minister Sir Edward Heath, which has been unchanged since he lived there and filled with gifts from world leaders alongside great works of art. Belmont in Lyme Regis, Dorset, was where the great writer John Fowles lived and worked, and boasts a Victorian observatory tower with revolving roof, and a wild garden tumbling down to the esplanade by the sea. Cumberland Lodge in Windsor Great Park just outside London, a former royal residence now used as a conference centre. But, as Reilly says: ‘There is an embarrassment of riches – you can stick a pin in a map of England and find something that’s covered in the Heritage Open Days. And there are always new stories to tell.’

Events And Talks 
This year the festival also offers a special series of events under the banner of Unsung Stories, which focuses on personal histories from the LGBTQ+ community. You can discover more about Alan Turing, the man who cracked the Enigma code, thus accelerating Britain’s victory in World War II, who suffered official persecution for being gay. More groundbreakingly, a huge trove of love letters between two World War II soldiers named Gilbert and Gordon has been unearthed in Oswestry, Shropshire.

‘There are hundreds of these letters,’ Reilly explains. ‘One of our local organisers in Oswestry came across them on eBay, bought them, transcribed them and realised what a precious find he had. It’s very rare to find documents like this: because homosexuality was illegal, most letters were burned. In fact, one letter says ‘you’ve got to burn these’. Academics are coming from all over the world to see them.’

Theatre performance collective KILN celebrates the story, asking visitors to write their own love letters which will be added to a memorial flame burning throughout the weekend. At the end of Heritage Open Days, the resulting ashes will be made into a commemorative diamond. ‘It’s very important to be inclusive,’ Reilly says, ‘and make sure the full breadth of stories in England are told.’ 

Eastbourne has been a major tourist attraction since Victorian times. Heritage Open Days give access to spectacular sites. Take a tour of the Redoubt Fortress, one of only three surviving in the UK from a series of fortresses constructed 200 years ago to protect Britain from Napoleon’s fleet. Delve into the area’s history on a guided tour with one of Heritage Eastbourne’s experts of the exhibition Living on the Edge: 8,000 Years by the Sea. Explore The Hermitage, with its thatched roof, in Manor Gardens; hear stories of Rats, Ruins and Regeneration in Dovecote in Motcombe Gardens; tour the Royal Hippodrome Theatre; and travel through 800 years of history at Wilmington Priory.

Colchester in Essex was once the Roman capital of Britain, and is home to two of the five Roman theatres in the country. As part of Heritage Open Days, you can visit Colchester Castle Museum. It was built on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius: book in advance for a tour of its vaults, and don’t miss the recently discovered Fenwick Hoard of Roman jewellery. You can also visit  a Roman burial barrow, excavated just before World War I. Voyaging through the ages, visit St John’s Abbey Gate, built in the early 15th century. Churches to visit as part of Heritage Open Days include Saint Peter’s, with its medieval features and a fine pulpit; and St Leonard at the Hythe, which hosts history tours and organ recitals.

London Planner London Planner London Planner

The Latest Social Stories