English Heritage saw a boom in visitor numbers to its smaller, more local sites in 2021, with several reporting their best years since records began. Many of our hidden local gems, situated away from traditional tourist destinations, saw visitor numbers rocket by up to 82% in comparison to pre-pandemic 2019 - in a clear indication that the public took advantage of the ‘stay at home’ mandate to rediscover the heritage on their doorstep.
Perhaps thanks to its high media profile over the past 18 months, Barnard Castle in County Durham had its best ever year in 2021, with visitor numbers to the picturesque fortress up by almost 20% in comparison to 2019. Boscobel House, where Charles II famously hid from Cromwell’s soldiers in an oak tree, also had its best ever year, with visitor numbers increasing by a huge 82% in comparison to 2019 following a relaunch of the Shropshire site. Meanwhile, several lesser-known historic attractions in North Yorkshire clocked up their highest visitor numbers in over a decade, including Kirkham Priory (up 75% on 2019), and Pickering Castle (up 30% on 2019).
Kate Mavor, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said:
“At English Heritage, we look after over 400 historic buildings, monuments and sites across the country – many of which attract visitors from far and wide. In the past, those lesser known, more intimate local sites in our care have often been overlooked in favour of our more iconic ones, despite having just as rich and important a history. This has been a long and hard pandemic but one silver lining appears to be that with people staying closer to home, they have discovered historic places nearby.
“We also saw last year, once our sites had re-opened after lockdown, a surge in people joining English Heritage as Members. And it’s these Members who account for more than half of those bumper visitor numbers at local sites. People fell in love with their local heritage and as English Heritage Members they were able to enjoy our sites for free.”
In 2021, more than 372,000 people joined English Heritage as Members and it is our 1 million plus Members who have really driven visitor numbers to those local sites recording a bumper year in 2021. For example, Members accounted for 68% of visitors to Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight, 70% at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, 65% at Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire and 59% at Roche Abbey in South Yorkshire. And with Membership costing as little at £51 a year for unlimited access to over 400 sites nationally, it really is great value for money.
Those local English Heritage gems that benefited from the stay at home culture last year include:
• Barnard Castle in County Durham – up 20% on 2019, with 2021 being its best ever year. Set high on a rock above the River Tees, this 12th century fortress belonged to Richard III and offers fantastic views over the Tees Gorge, as well as an attractive sensory garden.
• Boscobel in Shropshire – up 82% on 2019, with 2021 being its best ever year. King Charles II took refuge in this picturesque hunting lodge in 1651 after Civil War defeat, famously hiding for a day in an oak tree whilst Cromwell’s soldiers searched for him below. Latterly a thriving Victorian farm, the site boasts a host of resident farm animals.
• Wrest Park in Bedfordshire – up 12% on 2019, with 2021 being its best ever year.A magnificent 19th century French chateau style house set in an outstanding restored landscape garden originating in the 17th century. Wrest Park’s grounds reflect three centuries of English garden design, including one of the few remaining early 18th century formal gardens.
• Aldborough Roman Site in North Yorkshire – up 2% on 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2007. The capital of the Romanised Brigantes, Britain’s largest tribe in the early Roman period, Aldborough’s treasures include a section of the original town wall, mosaic pavements and a museum with an outstanding collection of Roman finds.
• Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire – up 17% on 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2001. One of England’s greatest Elizabethan and 17th century houses, with a delightfully restored Elizabethan garden, Kirby Hall is now semi-ruined but retains much of its rich decoration.
• Kirkham Priory in North Yorkshire – up 75% on 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2003. Founded 900 years ago on the banks of the River Derwent, Kirkham Priory was home to Augustinian Canons until its dissolution in 1539. In World War II, secret military research was conducted in its grounds.
• Pickering Castle in North Yorkshire – up 30% on 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2009. This splendid and remarkably well-preserved 13th century castle was used as a royal hunting lodge, holiday home and stud farm by a succession of medieval kings.
• Roche Abbey in South Yorkshire – up 2% on 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2005. Beautifully set in a valley landscaped by ‘Capability’ Brown in the 18th century, 12th century Roche Abbey has one of the most complete ground plans of any English monastery and the Gothic transepts still remain to their original height.
• Yarmouth Castle on the Isle of Wight – up 22% in 2019, with 2021 its best year since 2003. Once one of Henry VIII’s most sophisticated coastal fortresses, Yarmouth Castle was designed to guard the western entrance to the Solent and prevent capture of the Isle of Wight as a prelude to larger assaults on the south of England.