Why visit Britain's stately homes on your next vacation

Britain’s plentiful stately homes are a window to its past. Here we explain why they’re so well preserved, and the best way to visit them on small group tours of England and the British Isles.
7 minute read
Roman Baths, Bath, England

 Great Britain. It’s a small island that punches well above its weight when it comes to heritage. Every nook and cranny of this nation is crammed with stories from its past.

 If you know who to ask (and we do), you can even find a tasty morsel of history between the folds of a Cornish pasty!*

 Just imagine what you can uncover in a whole house…

 Britain is home to an amazing variety of historic houses. You can explore rambling country manors, grand townhouses, castles slowly crumbling into the sea, the world’s oldest and largest inhabited palace, and historic estates set in the middle of carefully landscaped grounds.

 A world of history, in a house

 These stately homes are a great way to engage with Britain’s past. Much of British history is encased in their walls. It’s displayed in the columns and colonnades that line intimidating mansions. It’s in the pockmarked battlements of buildings that saw the English Civil War, such as Corfe Castle. And it’s in the Georgian wings built onto Tudor halls made with beams inscribed with centuries-old symbols of witchcraft. If only walls could talk!

 Look behind the impressive architecture, manicured lawns, ancient chimney breasts and beautifully carved wood panelling, and you’ll find evidence of murder and marriage, lives lived together and apart, upstairs and downstairs.

 You can glimpse into the mind of a great statesman as you stand before Winston Churchill’s carefully preserved desk at Chartwell, Kent. Technological innovation and monastic roots sit side-by-side at Lacock, in Wiltshire; the former home of William Henry Fox Talbot (the inventor of the photographic negative) is a country house built upon the foundations of a former nunnery.

 Visit Corfe Castle and Lacock on our Southern England Tour vacation packages. We often manage to take guests on our small group tours of England behind the scenes at Lacock, to see treasures not usually seen by regular visitors. Some things are still too precious for public display!

 It might seem that the past is set in stone as thickset as the walls of these old buildings. But these stories are still evolving. The social inequality and social reform that these places can represent is as much a part of the national conversation as they ever were. Look deeper than the superficial grandeur and there’s much to learn.

 A recent report into the history of slavery and colonialism at National Trust properties brought to the organisation’s – and the nation’s – attention how various properties were in part or wholly funded by slavery. These details are, in turn, relayed to visitors, necessarily changing the way we see these stately homes forever. If you’re visiting from overseas, you might find that these genteel places have connections, however bleak or dark, to your home country.  

Why are so many stately homes open to the public?

 There are more than 3,000 stately homes in the UK. Many of these are open to the public. The cost of upkeep and death duties means that the owners have had to diversify, give up their properties, or donate them to organisation such as the National Trust.

 Despite this, many stately homes are still lived in. Often, the families welcome members of the public to roam through their rooms or even spend the night in the grounds.

 Who looks after Britain’s stately homes?

Highclere Castle, Hampshire, England: Film location for Downton Abbey

 Of course, many places, such as Highclere Castle, better known as Downton Abbey, are still privately owned. But others are looked after by an army of passionate volunteers and a plethora of institutions, sometimes working alongside the latest generation of estate owners.

 These organisations include National Trust for Scotland, Historic Scotland, Cadw Wales, Historic Houses, National Trust and English Heritage. Of these, English Heritage and National Trust are by far the largest.

 What is the difference between English Heritage and the National Trust?

 Founded in 1895, the National Trust is Europe’s largest conservation charity. It looks after more than 500 historic buildings and gardens, nearly a million works of art, 780 miles of coastline and more than 250,000 hectares of green spaces. It’s one of the largest landowners in the UK.

 The National Trust’s long-stated goal is to take care of natural and historic places and open them up to the public. Many of its properties were bequeathed to it by members of the public.

Among its treasures are the boyhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney, timber-framed gems such as Lavenham Guildhall at the heart of one of Tudor England’s wealthiest towns, as well as precious landscapes like the White Cliffs of Dover and several spots along the Jurassic Coast World Heritage site (and the focus of our Jurassic Coast tours).

A panoramic photo of Durdle Door in Dorset

 English Heritage looks after more than 400 historic places. Its 19th-century roots as a government public body predate a time when country houses and industrial sites were viewed as ‘heritage’, so its focus was on collecting prehistoric and medieval sites that told the story of Britain.

 In 1983, the collection was rechristened English Heritage and given responsibility for both caring for the places under its charge and running the national system of protecting heritage. Then, in 2015, it was formally split into two parts: Historic England and English Heritage Trust. The latter is now a charity, more commonly known as English Heritage.

 English Heritage looks after a wide range of places, from Bronze Age burial sites on the Isles of Scilly to ruins such as Whitby Abbey (perhaps best known for the role it played in Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and Hadrian’s Wall, as well as incredible stately homes such as Audley End in Essex and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.

 With such a similar remit, there is naturally some overlap in the places that English Heritage and the National Trust care for. The Stonehenge, Avebury and Associated Sites UNESCO World Heritage site is one example. English Heritage looks after the Stonehenge stone circle, while the National Trust is responsible for managing the surrounding landscape, including Avebury, the largest stone circle in the collection.

 How to visit English Heritage and National Trust places on small group tours of England

 Both organisations sell memberships and passes for overseas visitors, but because English Heritage and National Trust places are spread across the country, buying membership of both can be both expensive and impractical. It’s also worth noting that there are plenty of other places worth visiting that aren’t part of either, such as The Roman Baths, which we visit on our Southern England vacation packages.

 It can be more practical and cost efficient – and less confusing – to join a group tour that curates the places most likely to be of interest to you. That’s where we come in. We organise visits to many of the places mentioned here in our small group tours of England. All of our group tours are available as private tours, too. And we can tailor our private tours to your needs even more.

 Our custom tours are planned entirely around your interests, so if you would love to see, for example, the best National Trust places on a small group tour of England for your family or embark on a Beatles-themed tour of Britain, we can arrange that for you. Or perhaps you’d like to see a selection of National Trust, English Heritage and other historic properties with a Tudor connection on an England tour for seniors? We can arrange that too. And we’ll always do our best to take you to areas other members of the public don’t see.

 Interested in visiting Britain’s stately homes? Our Southern England travel packages, Jurassic Coast tours and Isles of Scilly tours visit several English Heritage, National Trust and privately owned historic properties. Book your place now, or get in touch to find out about private or custom-built tours.

 *The Cornish pasty was invented as a way for Cornish tin miners to eat their lunch without getting it dirty!