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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 10th September 2010
It’s Heritage Open Day this weekend, with several properties open in Ripon. David Winpenny asks why we like looking behind the usually-closed doors.

‘Three years ago Fred and Ethel asked for our help as they looked to change their hectic London lifestyle for a more laid-back life on the Scottish island of Muckle Flugga. This week we’re back with them to see if that search gave them all they asked for.’

Do you recognise the style? It’s the sort of introduction that Kirsty Alsopp (with the impractical shoes) and Phil Spencer (with the doubtful taste in tailoring) use each week for their Channel 4 property programmes ‘Location, Location, Location’ and ‘Relocation, Relocation’. The series have high viewing figures – and so do others like them, such as ‘Escape to the Country’ or ‘Homes under the Hammer’. What is it about them that makes us watch?

We may believe that it’s a high-minded interest in the well-being of fellow human beings who are undergoing some sort of struggle, which usually has a happy outcome. But, really, it’s not that – it’s just that we like seeing inside other people’s houses, to admire or to criticise, sometimes to laugh at their pretentious taste in furniture or interior decoration or to pick up ideas for our own homes.

It’s the same impetus that takes us to visit stately homes. You may think this is a modern phenomenon, but it’s been going on for centuries. In Elizabethan times the nobility visited each other, often writing to each other about what they saw. And, of course, the Queen herself made royal ‘progresses’ from great house to great house – though this was probably as much for royal economy (she had no bills to pay) as for a delight in seeing the interiors of the homes of her nobles.

Such houses were also open to foreigners of the highest classes, but by Jane Austen’s time they were available to the upper middle classes, too – those whom Wordsworth was to call ‘persons of taste and discrimination’. Arriving at a great house, you would send in your card, and the designated servant – often the Housekeeper or Steward – would guide you round the house. Castle Howard, for example, had welcomed such visitors from early in its history.

Horace Walpole’s house at Strawberry Hill near Twickenham had so many people applying that he issued a statement saying that ‘Persons desiring a ticket, may apply either to Strawberry Hill, or to Mr Walpole’s in Berkeley Street, London. If any person does not make use of the ticket, Mr Walpole hopes he shall have notice, otherwise he is prevented from obliging others on that day. And thence is put to great inconvenience. They that would have tickets are desired not to bring children’ – so no adventure playground or miniature railway for him.

Other noblemen were less formal. At the times when the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle was ‘willing to receive visits from the neighbouring gentry, a flag is hung upon the highest turret as a signal that he may be approached.’ Some places such as Holkham Hall in Norfolk and Stowe in Buckinghamshire produced their own guidebooks. Wilton House in Wiltshire had versions in English and Italian, while at Blenheim Palace you could have guidebook in French, perhaps to point out more clearly to the losers the English victory the house represented.

The arrival of the railways greatly increased the number of visitors, and in the Victorian period many owners of great houses felt it part of their social obligations – noblesse oblige – to throw open their doors (at carefully-restricted times) to the public. By the 20th century the age of the motor car opened up even more possibilities – but it was the two world wars that really revolutionised stately home visiting. Many great house owners no longer had either the income from land or the willing servants to keep them as purely private domains.

Longleat and Woburn Abbey were at the forefront of opening their houses to a paying public –embellishing them with safari parks to attract more people. Other noble families gave up the struggle and passed their houses into the care of the National Trust – and many others wished they could have done so. In more recent years the Trust has been conscious that it should be helping to preserve not just the grand houses but smaller ones too – so it has opened, for example, a middle-class villa (Sunnycroft at Wellington in Shropshire), a 1920s semi (Mr Straw’s House in Worksop) and back-to-back houses (in Birmingham).

There seems to be an undimmed appetite for seeing inside otherwise hidden places – and this weekend there’s a chance to do that in Ripon, too. On Sunday 12 September the national Heritage Open Days are being marked here with some special openings.

The remarkable 18th-century gazebo off Blossomgate, a rare survivor of a garden pavilion, will be open for the only time this year. The Masonic Hall in Waterskellgate is open, too. This year for the first time the Ringing Chamber in the Cathedral will be open, and a visit here also offers the chance to see the bells themselves. These are all open from 2.00 pm to 4.00 pm on Sunday. Make time to visit the Workhouse Garden off Allhallowgate and St Mary Magdalen’s Chapel in Magdalen’s Road, which will also be open. Entry is free to all the properties.

When Lord Bath opened Longleat in the 1950s he wrote that ‘It isn’t the same type of person it was built for, but at least you feel they are enjoying themselves and you feel it is alive.’ Today we can look ‘through the keyhole’ of properties of all sorts on our television sets – but a visit in person behind the normally-closed doors still feels like a privilege. Do take advantage in Ripon this weekend!

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