Festival: Heritage Open Days, various venues, September 9-12 2010
During one long weekend each September, you can snoop around the sorts of places you’d usually only expect to access if you wanted to run the risk of public trespassing or were watching a period drama.
Back for 2010 with more than 4,000 properties and an expected visitor count of more than a million people, Heritage Open Days returns in rude health to unlock a huge selection of historic buildings across the UK.
Programmers are championing the Battle of Britain command centre in Stanmore, the RAF base which will witness a poignant first reopening on the 70th anniversary of the campaign, complete with re-enactors impersonating military personnel in the Operations Room and a Spitfire and Hurricane fire display.
Symbolising the diversity of the Days, some of the best contemporary building designs – including the sustainably-housed Aardman Animation headquarters where Wallace and Gromit is made and the youngest Grade I-listed structure of the Willis Building in Ipswich – also dust off the welcome mats alongside the 18th century Gothic Temple at Stowe and Gothic Revival house The Grange, built by Houses of Parliament designer Augustus Pugin in Ramsgate 165 years ago.
They’re all open free of charge, but the team behind the weekend might never have got the chance to sledgehammer through the usual admission charges. Their future looked bleak when previous organisers the Civic Trust went into administration last year, giving English Heritage the chance to step in and save the Days.
“It is about people and places,” says Baroness Andrews, the Chair of English Heritage.
“It offers a chance to explore those local landmarks which, however familiar, are normally closed and therefore mysterious and alluring.”
Key themes this year include establishments made by or for women, from Virginia Woolf’s country retreat in Lewes to Elizabeth Gaskell’s final home in Alton.
King’s College Library in Cambridge is laying on an exhibition of first and early editions of Jane Austen’s works, and other feminist highlights come at Great Yarmouth’s Blackfriars Brewery – a living homage to the Scottish girls who would pack herring into barrels in the brewing town – and Chawton House in Hampshire, the former home of Jane Austen’s brother which now hosts a research library of English women’s writing.
Eco-living is high on the agenda, with sustainable and environmentally friendly openings searchable via Green Living Theme listings on the campaign’s website. Pastscape, an online record of national monuments, also aims to ratchet up enthusiasm before guests encounter the legion of well-informed volunteers standing in wait.
“It means you can meet the people who live or work in those buildings and who are delighted to share their knowledge and enthusiasm,” observes Andrews. “Those are the people who, by dedicating their spare time to opening properties and organising activities, make Heritage Open Days the huge success it is.”
The North-East takes a Victorian theatrical twist with backstage tours of the Journal Tyne Theatre and Theatre Royal in Newcastle and Leeds’ Grand Theatre and Opera House. Chester’s 16th century Racecourse, Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Molineux Stadium and lidos from Ipswich to Cheltenham should also excite sports fans.
Key cities such as Oxford and Norwich have launched individual campaigns to cover a deluge of openings. In Brighton, there are more than 180 events.
“Last year we were the launch city, and to celebrate we put together 155 different events and activities,” says curator Nick Tyson, warning visitors to pre-book amid high demand to sneak inside smaller venues.
“This year we’ve topped that with the largest and most wide-ranging programme of events in the country.”
Planning your Heritage Open Days trip? See our guides to art, archaeology, science, and our city guide to Norwich.
Visit www.heritageopendays.org.uk for full listings.