Heritage Open Days: 10 of the best places to visit

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There is so much happening during Heritage Open Days, September’s annual festival of history and culture. Here are some of the highlights...

Every September for 27 years, Heritage Open Days (10-19 September) has been shining a spotlight on England’s local history, culture and architecture.

It’s part of European Heritage Days, a European-wide celebration of our common heritage. Every country of the UK takes part under slightly different monikers, and we’ll be visiting each one as we take a tour of ten regional highlights. The National Trust and 50,000 volunteers coordinate this fantastic festival, with the support of players of People’s Postcode Lottery. 

The Heritage Open Days’ theme for 2021 is ‘Edible England’, so get ready to travel through a foodie time tunnel, with thousands of possible detours from medieval cathedrals, Tudor manor houses, London streets, city parks, and even cemeteries. So, where takes your fancy?

1. St Albans Cathedral

Sumpter Yard, St Albans, AL1 1BY

St Albans Cathedral

With historical credentials dating back 1700 years, St Albans Cathedral is the perfect host for Heritage Open Days Medieval Munchies. Characters from its past reappear to show you how to bake Hot Cross Buns (the abbey’s Brother Rockcliffe invented them), or how to cure your aches and pains with herbs and other plants. You might bump into a hungry and angry peasant about to storm the building, so take sanctuary inside and walk England’s longest Nave, or hunt for ancient graffiti and carved doodling on the walls.

If you can’t make the journey, they’re holding a unique Medieval Munchies Bake Off on social media. Post your St Albans-inspired creations to win various Cathedral goodies. 

2. Little Moreton Hall

Congleton, Cheshire CW12 4SD

Moreton Hall

Originally built 500 years ago by the Moreton family, their Tudor contemporaries would have regarded Little Moreton Hall as ostentatious architectural bling. These days this manor house is embraced as a unique gem, with not a right angle to be found between any of its walls. The National Trust is throwing open the doors to the house from 15th to 19th September.

Costumed guides will walk you through five centuries of its history, starting with the Hall’s powerful first family. Afterwards, wander the ancient grounds, before treating yourself in the tearooms. And don’t forget to search the pre-loved bookshop for a leather-bound piece of the past to give a new home.

3. Stephenson Railway Museum

Middle Engine Lane, North Shields, Tyne and Weir NE29 8DX

Stephenson Railway Museum

Photo: Asaunders1991 / Wikimedia Commons

On Saturday 18th September, take a journey around the fascinating museum celebrating the pioneers of the railways with exhibits and films. Here, you’ll meet ‘Billy’, George Stephenson’s forerunner to that superstar of steam, the ‘Rocket’, as well as learn about the impact of coal and steam on local people’s lives. Pre-booking is essential, so don’t dawdle! 

4. Bath Royal Literary and Science Institution

16-18 Queen Square, Bath, Somerset BA1 2HN

Bath Royal Literary and Science Institution

Make your way to Bath’s lovely Queen Square for a visit to this fascinating museum, library and archive collection. Among the exhibits are exceptionally preserved Jurassic fossils from Strawberry Bank, Ilminster, the correspondence, library and collections of clergyman naturalist Leonard Jenyins – a lifelong friend of Charles Darwin – and a 4.2-billion-year-old meteorite fragment.  

5. Abbeygate Cinema

4 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP33 1LZ

Abbeygate Cinema

Photo: Abbeygate Cinema

The Abbeygate Cinema has been a picture house in Bury St Edmunds since the 1920s. Located in the heart of the town’s historic centre, this lovingly restored building offers a mix of art-house, independent and quality mainstream films, as well as dementia-friendly screenings.

Until 19th September, the Abbeygate is doing a Talk and Tour, featuring a lively chat by local legend Pat Church, who has worked at the cinema for 55 years. The event includes a display of history boards and a peek at photos and memorabilia. Book now for a behind-the-scenes cinematic experience.

6. Powderham Castle

Powderham Park, Powderham, Exeter, Devon EX6 8JQ

Powderham Castle

Photo: Raymond Cocks / Wikimedia Commons

The Earl and Countess of Devon are exclusively opening the magical Powderham Castle’s gates for free until 24th September. Situated in parkland, with beautiful gardens, you’ll wander for hours, spotting fallow deer along the way, before stopping for lunch along the Woodland Picnic Trail. There’s a mountain of information about life in and around the castle, but we want to know how many times you say ‘Aww!’ when you visit the pot-bellied pigs in the Secret Garden. Please book for the grounds and the fascinating tour of the castle separately.

As tickets are complimentary, why not finish your day with Devon’s most sought-after contribution to ‘Edible England’, a scone oozing with clotted cream and jam in the Courtyard Café? Perfect!

7. Maryhill Burgh Halls 

10-24 Gairbraid Avenue, Glasgow G20 8YE

Maryhill Burgh Halls

Photo: Maryhill Burgh Halls

Scotland also takes part in European Heritage Days under the banner of Scotland Doors Open Days. Glasgow has events all over the city, but Maryhill Burgh Halls has two unique offerings for its Doors Open Day weekend of 18th and 19th September. The historic Halls are a space for local history and community events, so where better to sample the unique flavour of the Something Smashing collective. They are uniting improv movement artists and musicians from all over Scotland to create surprising and energetic performances for a thrilled audience.

The Halls are also exhibiting Jo Treen’s 1978 photographs of Glaswegians, capturing the demolished tenements and vanished streets of the once poverty-stricken city.

8. Feastival at the Forum 

Millennium Plain, Norwich, Norfolk NR2 1TF

Food and cider

Over the course of two mouthwatering days, dozens of local food and drink producers will gather at the Forum in Norwich to sell, and let you sample, their wares. As well as being able to nibble at artisan goodies, you'll be able to watch food demonstrations, listen to talks and have a boogie to some live music.

9. Erddig and Erddig Hall

Erddig, Wrexham LL13 0YT

Erddig Hall

Photo: Jim Linwood / Wikimedia Commons

This stunning National Trust property and 1200-acre pleasure park was saved from dereliction in the 1970s. As part of the Welsh programme of Open Doors eventsErddig is welcoming visitors between 12:00 and 15:00 on 16th September for free. It offers an eclectic mix of natural and man-made beauty, and the histories of its inhabitants, above and below stairs. You can even get a peak into the servants’ quarters.

However, the real pearl at the heart of Erddig is its collection of servants’ portraits. Commissioned by the Yorke family over a span of 200 years, their loyal employees live on in paintings, photographs and verse. It was a unique relationship, and highlights that not all life in great houses was like Upstairs Downstairs.

10. Six Sound Walks

Woman smiling headphones

High Street Sound Walks are Historic England commissions. They are immersive, self-guided sound walks to help you discover the magic of your local high street. They are available to download now, so click on the place name to find your perfectly matched walking partner.  

Barrow in Furness, Lancashire, brings library calm and lively carnivals. Hull, East Riding of Yorkshire, showcases sounds you’d usually overlook. Grantham, Lincolnshire, reveals its local history, while Great Yarmouth, Norfolk visits its past and present. Reading, Berkshire, gets to know its London Street community, and coming in at number six, Redruth, Cornwall, talks to residents from its past. 

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Photos: Getty Images, unless otherwise stated

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