In historyNews

Long ago and far away people relied on stories to keep the building blocks of their culture close.  From Homer to Beowulf, stories of the mythical past gave people a sense of their own place in the world.  Despite a run of Marvel movies, we don’t believe in superheroes any more, but we do still like to share stories and visiting heritage places helps us find them.

Some of the first places people visited were libraries; repositories for stories.  Henry VIII got rid of the great monastic libraries of the medieval abbeys but old libraries do survive. Duke Humfrey of Gloucester’s Library dates from the 1450s and is the oldest part of Oxford’s Bodleian Library; in Scotland, the oldest lending library is the charming Library of Innerpeffray founded in 1694; most iconic of all, the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral, established in 1611, contains manuscripts from the original 12th century monastic library.

Our medieval forebears placed great store by other artefacts from the past, believing that saint’s relics would grant them special sanction with God.  The gilded shrines and reliquaries that preserved them were victims of the Reformation but the pilgrim sites of veneration still survive.  St Thomas’ Becket’s shrine at Canterbury was a relative newcomer, pre-dated by the miraculous shrine to St Cuthbert at Durham Cathedral or the shrine to Our Lady at 12th century Walsingham Abbey, where today the ruins look their best at snowdrop time. 

The Renaissance brought with it a rediscovery of the heritage of Greece and Rome.  In Britain, this began to be expressed by the growing fashion for taking a Grand Tour. Starting as a scholarly collecting trip, this morphed into an indispensable education a bit like a modern gap year.   Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Arundel was probably the first Grand Tourist.  His travels in Italy in the 1610s made collecting Old Masters an essential hobby for a man of good taste.  Today he is remembered in the Renaissance-revival Collector Earl’s Garden at Arundel Castle (pictured below).

By the 1750s, Grand Tours were all the rage, so that the interiors of a rash of new Palladian mansions filled up with souvenirs.  Newby Hall in Yorkshire is a great place to understand the impact.  In 1764, William Weddell set off for Europe, returning with Old Master paintings, antique sculptures, medallions and coins from Italy, tapestries from France and a portrait of himself posing at the Vatican by top portraitist, Pompeo Batoni.  Today, your gap year child might send a selfie from the Taj Mahal and return laden with incense sticks and cotton sarongs. To house his treasures, Weddell ordered a house at Newby designed in a neo-classical ideal by Robert Adam employing the finest craftsmen of the day.

People were curious about the treasure houses that were being created and visiting them became something of a pastime.  Among the first was the indefatigable Celia Fiennes. The daughter of a Cromwellian colonel, she undertook a series of journeys in the late 17th century visiting several historic houses we would recognise today.  Her family home was Broughton Castle in Oxfordshire (pictured below), a centre of intrigue during the Civil War, and her Puritan upbringing coloured her view of the “very fine paint in pictures” at Burghley House.  She found fault with the baroque murals because “they were all without Garments”. At Chatsworth, she was impressed with the fountains and the large panes of glass; Haddon Hall,  she found “a good old house”; and Burton Agnes Hall “looks finely in the approach”.   As the road system improved visiting historic houses as a hobby grew in popularity and rail travel boosted it still further; in 1849 when the railway opened, 80,000 people made the journey to Chatsworth.

A growing curiosity about places was matched by a curiosity about objects.  We can trace the first museums to private ‘Cabinets of Curiosity’ where Enlightenment scholars displayed curated collections of natural history, antiquities and ethnological rarities.  Original Cabinets of Curiosity in situ are rare but you can still visit William Constable’s, collected in the 1780s, at Burton Constable Hall in Yorkshire or the collection of Dame Jane Wilson, a pioneering expert in beetles, curated in the 1690s and inherited by her daughter at Wallington in Northumberland.

A famous collection of curiosities collected by John Tradescant in the 1600s, known as The Ark, became the foundation collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford in 1683. In the 1750s, the collections of Sir Hans Sloane were left to the Nation and, when George III felt obliged to build a fine public building to house them, the British Museum was born. The museum movement really picked up momentum in the 19th century. The Museum Act of 1845 encouraged local authorities to establish town museums to entertain and inform the growing populations of industrial cities. Leisure time was for self-improvement. The success of the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park generated enough profit to fund three important new national museums in Kensington, the V&A and the Museums of Science and Natural History.  There was no question about their popularity - six million people, nearly a third of the entire population, had turned out for the Great Exhibition. 

By the mid-20th century, the heritage habit was well entrenched.  The end of the Second World War co-incided with a crisis in Britain’s country houses where a combination of social change, taxation and the impact of war meant that many were abandoned, accepted by the National Trust or demolished.  A small group of owners realised that public interest in the past might be harnessed to generate an income from their stately homes.  At Longleat, Lord Bath filled his parkland with lions; at Beaulieu, Lord Montagu opened the National Motor Museum; and at Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford opted for a zoo, playground, boating lake and tearooms.  These men were great showmen, happy to play the eccentric aristocrat for the press or TV as long as it attracted visitors. They proved to be the pioneers of a generation of open houses just as the National Trust’s Country Houses Scheme developed. 

In our own century, the enthusiasm of the people of Britain for their heritage has not diminished but once again, tastes are changing.  The National Trust are regularly lambasted for ’dumbing down’ but schemes like their presentation of the Georgian villa at Allan Bank in Cumbria, where visitors are encouraged to make their own tea, paint a picture or chill out with the newspapers is democratising heritage.  If you are in doubt, consider the simple fact that more than 300 private houses are now open to the public for anyone to visit.

The power of heritage is being harnessed to regenerate and engage, played out in the Auckland Project where the economically depressed village of Bishop Auckland is being given a future by reconnecting it with a more glorious pre-industrial past. When the Prince-Bishops of Durham ruled the North from Auckland Castle, it was a centre for world class art and scholarship and will soon be again. Historic Environment Scotland’s opening of The Engine Shed in Stirling as a centre for skilled crafts and the heritage of Scotland is generating a sense of pride and purpose and a meeting place for present and past.

A stroll through The Alnwick Garden in Northumberland (above) sums up the new egalitarian heritage.  There is a traditional garden here but around every corner is a twist - a poison garden, a maze, an Italianate cascade, a treehouse, kinetic water sculptures, water games, space to run or picnic, cafés, shops, plenty of interaction and a strong community ethic. This is a place of entertainment for all, not a demonstration of ‘good’ taste or an attempt to educate the masses. Heritage has a history all its own and we are in the age of democracy.


Broughton Castle
Historic House / Palace
Broughton Castle

Medieval Manor House later transformed into a Tudor Mansion, surrounded by a wide moat and parkland.

Haddon Hall
Historic House / Palace
Haddon Hall

Haddon Hall, located at the heart of the Peak District, is one of England’s most elegant and timeless stately homes.

Historic House / Palace

Chatsworth is renowned for the quality of its art, landscape and hospitality. Home of the Cavendish family since the 1550s, it has evolved through the centuries to reflect the tastes, passions and interests of succeeding generations.



Nobody has commented on this post yet, why not send us your thoughts and be the first?

Leave a Reply