Following clarification from government on 22 May that fee-paying outdoor heritage sites in England could now reopen to visitors, the attractions of Historic Houses – Britain’s largest collection of independent heritage – are throwing open their garden gates in increasing numbers, giving the public a chance to stretch their legs and enjoy the sunshine in some of the country’s most beautiful places.
Charles and Lynda Tucker, who live at the moated Tudor manor house of Hindringham Hall in Norfolk, have an added incentive to welcome visitors back to their grounds: Hindringham is one of eight historic gardens to have been shortlisted for the 2020 Historic Houses Garden of the Year Award, sponsored by Christie’s, whose winner is decided on by the votes of members of Historic Houses and the general public. Hindringham’s gardens have been accessible since 27th May, though a strict one-way system has been imposed to ensure social distancing and the tearoom must remain shut.
This prestigious annual garden prize has been awarded since 1984. Past winners include Blenheim Palace, which will reopen its park and gardens on Saturday 30th May, and Newby Hall in Yorkshire – previously home to Lord Grantham and the model for ‘Downton Abbey’ – which is the current title holder and will reopen from next week (3rd June for season ticket holders and 6th June for the general public).
Painshill Park, Surrey, another nominee for the prize, is open from 28th May for members, and will allow any holder of a pre-booked ticket to enjoy its immaculately restored eighteenth-century pleasure grounds, studded with eccentric grottos such as Turkish tents, gothic temples, and Chinese bridges, from next Monday (1st June).
While the return of visitors could be a lifeline to heritage sites that have been devastated by the loss of half a season’s income, there’s still huge caution from owners keen to avoid the disease spreading and creating a ‘second spike’. Historic Houses have issued guidance for their member gardens, and measures being taken across newly opened places include, as appropriate, limits on numbers, requirements to book timed tickets in advance of visiting, expansions of car parking and picnicking areas to allow for social distancing, and the opening up of previously blocked paths or routes to avoid bottlenecks.
Many shared facilities, such as lavatories and cafes, remain closed because with no income for months many places have furloughed the staff that would be needed to operate and sanitise them – and many owners are terrified at what other problems may be being stored up from the reduction in vital repairs and maintenance that the crisis has forced on them.
One attraction trying to serve the public’s appetite as best it can, though, is Hole Park in Kent, which has been open since 22nd May and is doing a ‘roaring trade,’ according to owner Edward Barham. While customers are not allowed inside his tearoom, he is offering a take-out service; as long as the weather holds visitors coming to view his ancient parkland and colourful seasonal gardens enjoy eating their meals spaced out on the grass. ‘I’m busier than the same period last year,’ Edward says, suggesting that lockdown may have left Britons desperate for the typical summer holiday activities of cream teas and stately home snooping.
Knebworth House near Stevenage, home to Historic Houses Deputy President Martha Lytton Cobbold and husband Henry, tells the same story. Her strict cap of 200 pre-booked visitors each morning and afternoon sold out within hours of her grounds opening yesterday, and with no sign of demand easing up, getting in looks to be one of the hottest tickets in town. ‘It’s worked a treat,’ Martha said. We’ve plenty of sanitiser outlets, social distance signage, and visi-vested monitors to assure visitors. It was a delight to see people in the gardens again, and they were thoroughly delighted to be there. The visitors and the roped-in staff had a fabulous day!’
Voting is open to anyone and will run until 30 September here