Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Longleat in Wiltshire ' one of the first country houses to be fully commercial. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)
Longleat in Wiltshire ' one of the first country houses to be fully commercial. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

When the Duke of Northumberland is willing to receive visits from the neighbouring gentry, a flag is hung from the highest turret as a sign that he may be approached.

If you wanted to visit the Duke’s seat of Alnwick Castle in the early 19th century there were two hoops through which you had to pass; the first was that the Duke had to decide that he wanted visitors, the other that you had to be ‘gentry’.

Receiving guests was part of the hospitality of all abbeys, such as Fountains. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

Receiving guests was part of the hospitality of all abbeys, such as Fountains. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

In our more egalitarian – and perhaps more mercenary – times, Alnwick castle is open every day from March to October, much to the relief of the many children who come to ‘Hogwarts’ for flying lessons – parts of Harry Potter were filmed at Alnwick.

It’s easy for us these days to visit many of Britain’s great houses and castles.

We have lots of publications that set out clearly what’s open when – from the all-encompassing Hudson’s to those from The National Trust, English Heritage, Historic Scotland, The National Trust for Scotland, CADW in Wales and the Historic Houses Association – to say nothing of those from Tourist Boards and individual attractions, all vying for our patronage. But, as the Duke of Northumberland’s attitude suggests, it wasn’t always so.

In the Middle Ages there was a tradition of welcoming visitors to the great abbeys – like Fountains Abbey – where they would be given board and lodging.

Queen Victoria opened Hampton Court to the public in 1838. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

Queen Victoria opened Hampton Court to the public in 1838. (Copyright ' David Winpenny)

Many religious houses had dedicated buildings to welcome guests; Fountains’ has largely gone, but at St Mary’s Abbey in York the aptly-named ‘Hospitium’ survives.

These guest houses served a double purpose; they were convenient places for the gentry to stay as they travelled the country, and they were, of course, for the welcoming of pilgrims. But, on the whole, pilgrims were not tourists – despite Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which described a group not dissimilar to the happy travellers on a modern coach holiday. So when did country house visiting start?

By the late Middle Ages hospitality in great houses was well-established; from the earliest times powerful chiefs had lived in their great halls in close proximity to their followers of all classes.

These halls, like that at Stokesay Castle in Shropshire, had a central fire, the smoke wafting upwards to percolate through the roof, and in them everyone in the household, from the Lord and his Lady, who occupied a slightly-elevated dais, to the lower household servants would live, work and sleep.

It was considered important for everyone to be together; if you were a visitor of high status you would sit with the Lord on the dais – but be prepared for a certain amount of squalor; as the writer Thomas Shadwell reported, ‘great tables were kept in large halls... with dogs’ mess and marrowbones as ornaments on the rushy floor’.

This communal eating gradually vanished as, first, the aristocracy and then the higher servants moved out into private rooms of their own, but it did hang on in connection with coronations; until 1821 coronation banquets were held in Westminster Hall, the most imposing of all medieval English Great Halls.

The monasteries and baronial halls were both set up for hospitality, but the idea of visiting a country house for its own sake – to see its architecture, its furnishing and its pictures, and to learn about the lives, good or bad, of the families who live there – was yet to develop. It did so in the Elizabethan period.

Great houses like Hardwick Hall began to allow visitors – rather than guests – through the doors to see the splendour within. And by the Jacobean age, country house visiting was well-established; later in 17th century Samuel Pepys visited Audley End in Essex, where, he wrote, ‘The housekeeper shewed us all the house, in which the stateliness of the ceilings, chimneypieces and form of the whole was exceedingly worth seeing.’

By the end of the 17th century such visits were becoming usual.

As long as you looked presentable and arrived in a suitably smart carriage, you could ask the housekeeper to show you round; silver would change hands discretely, though not everyone approved.

By the mid-18th Century the owners of the greatest show-houses, like Stowe in Buckinghamshire, made things more formal by providing guidebooks, but it was Horace Walpole at his innovatory Gothick-style house of Strawberry Hill near London, who brought in tickets of admission.

The idea of visiting houses with historical associations was fuelled by Sir Walter Scott.

Novels like ‘Waverley’, with scenes set in places including Doune Castle and Holyrood House in Scotland, or ‘Rob Roy’, in which Osbaldistone Hall was based on Chillingham Castle, proved an incentive for fresh waves of visitors to those places. And Scott himself became an object of pilgrimage with hundreds of visitors to his home, Abbotsford, in Roxburghshire.

Queen Victoria gave a great fillip to such visiting when in 1838 she threw open Hampton Court to the masses – soon it was attracting more than 300,000 visitors a year. This was seen in some quarters as reprehensible; great houses should be kept as private as possible, many thought. It wasn’t really until the 20th Century, when many great houses were under threat of demolition, that a new wave of openings came about, particularly after World War II. The National Trust’s Country Houses Scheme acquired some of the most vulnerable houses and opened them to visitors.

Other entrepreneurs, like Lord Bath at Longleat and The Duke of Bedford at Woburn, found exciting new ways of supplementing their income from visitors with wildlife parks and amusements.

Today we assume that many great houses will open their doors to us, as long as we pay the fee or take out a subscription.

Our money helps to keep them open, and we can still enjoy them, even if we are now welcomed as customers rather than as the guests of an abbot or a great lord.