Historic houses tourist boom

Britain’s historic houses can expect a bumper year, as more people take holidays at home and foreign tourists are tempted by the weak pound. However, the concurrent downturn in spending power the National Trust recorded lower spending in its shops last year means the onus is on houses to be more creative with special offers and interesting attractions; many properties are making a noticeably greater effort for Mothering Sunday (March 22).

John Hoy, chief executive of Blenheim Palace, says: ‘I think it’ll be a good year if you grasp the opportunity, and, so far, we’re trading up year-on-year by 30%. But people are still money conscious. We’ve gone on the front foot with a supersaver ticket, which means that if you come once (for £17.50), your ticket will be upgraded to an annual pass and you can return for free all year.’

Blenheim is one of several houses capitalising on its film connections and has an exhibition on The Young Victoria (until March 31). Also new are themed tours, including ‘Ladies of Blenheim Palace’ (March 24), ‘A Palace at War’ (April 23) and ‘The Unknown Winston’ (May 14). Leeds Castle, another Treasure House, puts its prices up on April 1, but is offering one ticket for 12 months in its ‘key to the castle’ scheme, and celebrates Henry Vlll’s 500th anniversary with a jousting tournament (May 26–31). A spokesman said: ‘Visits were up by 8% in 2008 and we are cautiously optimistic.’

Castle Howard, which has a ‘Brideshead Restored’ exhibition, is offering annual-pass holders 14 months’ membership for the price of 12 when they renew. Woburn Abbey, which opened last weekend, is waiting to see how the season goes before offering deals, but has a ‘passport ticket’ for the abbey and safari park that can be used on separate days.

Burghley, which has also put its prices up, as it does annually, opens on March 28 with a new exhibition, ‘Travelling Earls’, about the 5th and 9th Earls’ Grand Tours, and Holkham Hall, cheapest of the Treasure Houses at £10 for entry, has a The Duchess exhibition and is trying a longer opening season (May 1–October 31, plus Easter).

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The National Trust’s Ham House, Richmond, is also capitalising on its role as a film set for The Young Victoria, and nearby Osterley House is pioneering the Trust’s new audio-visual handsets. National Trust chairman Simon Jenkins comments: ‘We’re always very cautious about figures and weather is a huge factor, making it  impossible to compare like with like, but we’ve seen figures up by as much as 30% so far and have our fingers crossed.’