The National Trust is an amazing organization. For over 100 years, they’ve been trusted with safeguarding Britain’s heritage – not just stately homes mind you but also pieces of important land. They run farms. They protect artifacts. They do so much for Britain. That being said, a visit to a National Trust property should be on everyone’s to-do list when they visit Britain. Here are a few tips we’ve learned over the years from visiting many properties so you can make the most of your visit.
Join the Royal Oak Foundation
If you’re an American (and most readers this website are) you must join the Royal Oak Foundation. The Royal Oak is the NT’s official American partner. You see foreigners can’t joint the Trust directly, so by joining Royal Oak you get all the benefits of joining – the biggest benefit being free entry into all National Trust Properties. When you start to add up admission prices, this can add up to quite a bit. We saved $225 on our recent trip simply by being members. Membership lasts a year and you also get the NT magazine, guidebook, and map as well as parking disk (so you can park for free). Also, the Royal Oak have their own programs here in the USA related to British history and culture – my most favorite being their Spring and Fall lectures programs.
I should add that Anglotopia readers can save 20% on joining by using coupon code: ANGLO2019.
Pack a Picnic
Most major NT properties will have a cafe or restaurant. The problem is that these places will be very pricey. Since there are plenty of places to eat outside as these properties, we recommend packing a picnic. A few light sandwiches, some cheeses, crisps, fruit and maybe a little bit of wine and you’ll have a delightful lunch that doesn’t cost that much. Also, don’t forget to bring a blanket to sit on though many places will have free blankets you can borrow.
Buy the Guidebook
Every time I visit a property, I’m always sure to pick up the official guidebook. They’re usually under £5 (about $8) and they’ll provide all the important historical background on the place that you wouldn’t normally pick up just walking around. They’re usually full color with tons of pictures. They’re a great keepsake, especially for your personal library but also for remembering. It also helps you find things to look out for if you happen to visit the place again.
Plan to Walk in the Gardens
When you visit a National Trust house, don’t just visit the house and leave. Most houses were planned as part of the landscape. The gardens and homes combined are often stunning. Stourhead Gardens may even overshadow the house itself they’re so famous and amazing. So, if you have time, plan to spend some time exploring the grounds and gardens. Some are vast and have plenty of trails. Some are small and intimate like the gardens at Chartwell, which were laid out by Churchill himself.
You Have to at least do Tea & Cake
I know I cautioned against eating in the restaurant for cost but you must at least stop and do tea and cake – that won’t be expensive and it will always be a lovely experience. I recommend the NT scones and chocolate brownies.
Usually neat shops like bookshops
Most major NT properties will have a gift shop which one must always visit. But many will also have other shops like small art studios or my favorite, used bookstores. The bookstore in the Stourhead Estate stables runs on an honor system. There’s no one in there but you and the books. If you find something you want, you drop the correct amount in the tin and go on your way. Amazing.
Talk to the Room Guides
The backbone of the National Trust is their army of thousands of volunteers. They’re usually stationed in each room, standing off in the corner. These people aren’t just there to make sure you don’t touch anything. They’re usually experts on their room and can tell you a lot of fascinating information about the artworks or design pieces or even the family history (and maybe some gossip about current occupants). You may be afraid to talk to them, but they are more than happy to talk to you and tell you everything they know. Sometimes it’s a little hard to pull away but these will become your most memorable experiences.
Don’t Go with Kids but if you do…
If you’re going to visit a major house, we don’t recommend going with young children. We’ve made this mistake and won’t anymore. There are far too many items of National Importance that little hands could break inside the houses. If you must visit with kids, take turns going through the house while the other spouse keeps an eye on the kids. Most properties will have activities to keep the kids busy and sometimes a playground. If you’re not going to see the house, the grounds are always a great family activity. We saw many families enjoying grand days out on our recent travels. You know your kids, you know what they can handle. Ours is not quite old enough to take them to a great house. Maybe in a few years.
Check Open and Closing Times
Always, always check the opening and closing times in advance. Some properties may only be open on the weekends. Most are closed in the winter months. Some might close early or open late. I highly recommend getting the National Trust App for your phone, it will have that day’s times (and the time for dates in the future). It will also have the admission prices if you’re not a member (join the Royal Oak!). It’s best to plan these visits in advance with the right timings. Also, some properties will have timed entry into the houses – this will vary but you will be notified when you arrive. Most staff will be happy to help and explain things. Also, pay attention to when the last admission to the property is – most places stop admitting new visitors about one hour before closing but this can also vary. Check the app, it will save your day out!
Some places plan a whole day, some places you can see in an hour
Some NT properties deserve an entire day to visit – such as Stourhead. Between the house, the gardens, the walking trails and the restaurant you can easily spend a whole day there. Some places you can see in an hour – like Benthall Hall which is much smaller than most stately homes and doesn’t have extensive gardens or facilities. The key is to plan in advance – look at the NT guidebook or the app, it will tell you what’s on offer at each place and list upcoming events (that may make it more crowded).
Overall, it’s important to have fun and be respectful. While the properties are owned by the National Trust, many of the families that built the homes still live there. It’s very much a private world that we get the pleasure of visiting. Britain’s built heritage is probably its most crucial asset after the Monarchy and the National Trust does a superb job at preserving it and making it accessible to everyone. I’m inspired daily by their motto: “For ever, for everyone.”