From mills and missiles to sacred spaces and Shakespeare: Heritage Open Days is back for 2011

By Culture24 Reporter | 30 August 2011
A photo of a family outside a brick mill on a cobbled path
Sarehole Mill, a site just outside of Birmingham which inspired parts of Tolkein's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, will be one of thousands of sites opening to the public for free as part of Heritage Open Days
© Chris Hoare
Event: Heritage Open Days 2011, various venues, September 8-11 2011

Tourism and Heritage Minister John Penrose called it “absolutely brilliant”, National Trust boss Dame Fiona Reynolds defined it as “the biggest event in the cultural calendar” and Griff Rhys Jones said it tickled “our innate urge to get inside and poke about.”

Superlatives aside, annual freebie fest Heritage Open Days returns after a record year in 2010.

The number-crunching tells a story of more than a million visitors, 4,463 historic properties, 39,350 volunteers and 578,445 hours of unpaid manpower, and the search facilities and selected highlights offered on the campaign’s website try gamely to keep track of it all.

There's a mill from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings on the outskirts of Birmingham, a Hampshire house full of pre-19th century female writing once owned by Jane Austen’s brother, a "vehicle cavalcade" around Burnley featuring 40 vintage juggernauts, plus literal relief in the form of the oldest public toilets in Leeds, which have probably played witness to a sight or two since their construction 162 years ago.

A Stratford-upon-Avon school opens the classroom where Shakespeare is thought to have scribbled his first sonnets, and decontamination centres and airforce bunkers figure among enough sites to keep even the most fervent military fanatic happy. Elsewhere there are churches, abbeys, Hindu temples and long-forgotten hospitals to be discovered.

All of which makes impressive and exciting reading for a concept which, almost inconceivably, would have disappeared in 2009 without the help of English Heritage, who will continue to fund it after handing much of the organisation over to the National Trust, Civic Voice and The Heritage Alliance in October.

“We have long been proud to be associated with [HOD] as such a strong expression of local pride of place,” says Dame Reynolds, who expects a "sustainable future” for the campaign.

Government leaders have praised the weekend, seeing it as chiming with the premise of the Big Society, although concerns have been voiced that local authority cuts and stretched resources will test the ability of venues to repeat last year’s success.

The Heritage Alliance – described as “the leading coalition of natural voluntary heritage organisations” – will be aiming to add organisational expertise to mass enthusiasm.

“English Heritage proved a good friend to the sector when it rescued the event in 2009, and we’re grateful for its continued support in making sure the transition is smooth,” says Loyd Grossman, the Chair of the Alliance.

“It is the largest voluntary cultural event in England. We all know how extraordinarily popular our heritage is with people up and down the country, and Heritage Open Days gives us all an opportunity to showcase that heritage and the outstanding voluntary effort and commitment that makes it available to all.”

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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