A Great Gift
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- Last updated: 14/12/2022
Not all historical sites have connections to military history or indeed, anything to do with battles. Some locations are fascinating to visit because of their heritage, such as Stonehenge in the middle of Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. The site of Old Sarum, lying just off the A345, about 10 miles south of Stonehenge, is another non-battle related location, and whilst there is no recorded incidence of any military engagement, the site itself holds a wealth of other historical evidence that charts how it developed over the centuries.
These sites are two examples of the more than 400 other buildings, monuments and historic locations, spanning around 5,000 years of history that today are in the care of English Heritage (EH).
Formed in 1983, the organisation is responsible for the maintenance and preservation of these important locations and has undertaken many renovation projects, often involving the use of traditional skills such as stonemasons, carpentry, thatching, ceramics and glazing. It has also organised archaeological digs and presents exhibitions and displays at many of the sites in its care around the country. The result of this hard work attracts millions of national and overseas tourists.
EH was made a charitable organisation in 2015, with over 2,500 staff that are supported by almost 2,000 volunteers. However, it is its membership of some 1.5 million through which it receives its greatest support. These are the people, usually family groups, who use their annual guidebook, which comes as part of their membership, to plan days out and visit places which they may not otherwise know about. In addition, members also benefit from either free or reduced entrance charges to some sites in the care of Cadw or Historic Scotland, offered by EH’s opposite number in Wales and Scotland respectively. Reciprocal arrangements also exist for visitors to the Isle of Man, Republic of Ireland and New Zealand.
The list of properties which can be visited is enough to satisfy even the most ardent history enthusiast, spanning, as they do, from prehistoric sites to secret nuclear bunkers from the period of the Cold War. In between, there is a wealth of estates and castles great and small, such as the tiny Lydford Castle in Devon, to the impressive Dover Castle in Kent.
Each location has its own unique history which is fascinating and absorbing and some have secrets ‘locked’ away, waiting for visitors to discover. For example, the grounds of the remote Kirkham Priory, dating back to the 12th century, lying just off the A64 and close to the Rover Derwent in Yorkshire, was used as a training area by the British 11th Armoured Division in preparation for D-Day.
King George VI and Winston Churchill visited the site to watch preparations, which included troops crossing the River Derwent. By contrast, there is the massive site of Maiden Castle (an Iron Age hillfort) covering an area the size of 50 football pitches.
From a distance, the site, lying less than two miles southwest of Dorchester, looks like an ordinary hill feature. However, on arrival visitors discover a complex defensive settlement which was once home to more than 700 people. For those who enjoy more recent history, there is the once top-secret nuclear bunker, lying just 2 miles west of York city centre, dating from the height of the Cold War and today open to visitors.
The sprawling castle overlooking the town of Dover in Kent, known as ‘Hellfire Corner’ in WWII, was the command centre from where Rear Admiral Bertram Ramsey conducted the Dunkirk evacuation of the British army from France in 1940. EH has restored the centre to show how it would have looked when used throughout the remainder of the war, with visitors transported back to find out about the Battle of Britain and the V-Weapon campaign. The tunnels, some of which date back to the Napoleonic wars, and hospital facilities, complete with distinctive smells, have been replaced, and the ‘air raid experience’ will thrill younger visitors.
EH has done a marvellous job in preserving so much history and uncovering details of the locations to inform visitors. Some of the sites are open and free to enter at reasonable times, such as Lydford Castle or the much grander ruins of Donnington Castle in Berkshire. As with any such site, a visitor only gets out from a visit what they want to. None of EH’s sites are disappointing and they offer great value for money when it comes to the duration of the visit.
Becoming a member of EH opens up so many places of interest and provides a solution to those problematic questions that many families face, especially if on holiday in the UK - ‘Where shall we go and what shall we do?’ Both can be answered quickly and easily by looking in the guidebook.
Details of membership can be found at the website (www.english-heritage.org.uk/join) and it lists various types from individuals to family groups, allowing entry for up to six children. Annual membership can be purchased for a friend or family member as a special gift, such as Christmas or a birthday. It may sound like a cliché to say ‘this is the gift that keeps giving’, but in this case, though, it happens to be true.
Many of the sites organise special events at certain times of the year, which could be medieval archers, knights jousting on horseback, recreating a battle from the Civil War or even a WWII military encampment complete with vehicles. These are thrilling family events and re-enactors interact with visitors to bring history alive, like walking through a huge authentic film set. At other times, sites will organise exhibitions to mark historical milestones, such as the coronation of a monarch or the foundation of a castle.
If you enjoy walking around the gun platforms that are the artillery forts at Deal or Walmer in Kent, treading the corridors of Osborne House, where Queen Victoria resided or wandering around the Roman forts such as the one at Corbridge, then English Heritage has something for you. Many of the properties have access for wheelchair users and permit picnics. Dogs on leads are welcome and a range of on-site facilities, including shops stocked with related titles, make each visit a complete experience. Also, you will be helping to preserve all this wonderful history for future generations.