How we're opening historic houses and buildings again

Installing a one-way system at Petworth House, ready for reopening

We've reopened eight houses in England and Northern Ireland to visitors for the first time since lockdown. They're part of our phased reopening and the start of a careful and steady plan to reopen the houses we care for. We've started with a small number to make sure we can do it right. Most of the houses we care for were built as family homes so each is unique, giving us its own set of challenges to overcome before we can reopen.

Booking a visit

Your visiting experience will be a bit different for the moment. You will need to book your visit to the property using our online booking system. This will give you access to the gardens and wider estate. To keep everyone safe, visitor numbers to the houses will be limited so we can't guarantee you'll be able to view the house on the day you visit. We know people will be disappointed if that's the case, but we ask for your support and patience while we pilot this phased reopening.

What’s changed?

To ensure your safety, we’ve put one-way systems in place and in some cases only part of the house will be open. ‘Hands on’ elements have been removed and some displays have been adjusted to create more space. We’ve plenty of sanitisation points and signs to help you throughout your visit.

Preparing for reopening at Petworth House, West Sussex
Preparing for reopening Petworth House
Preparing for reopening at Petworth House, West Sussex

Which houses are open?

We’ve carefully selected the first houses to reflect the challenges of opening a range of different types of properties in the coming weeks and months. As the reopening trial progresses we'll be able to learn lessons from them and may find better ways of doing things.

Please check the house is open on the day you wish to visit before you travel. ​

The State Dressing Room at Nostell, West Yorkshire

Nostell, West Yorkshire

Reopening the first houses

Most of the houses we care for were built as family homes. They're all different, with their own quirks and character. They each gave us unique challenges to overcome before we could reopen.

The Argory, County Armagh

The team at The Argory have made some significant but exciting changes to create a safe environment for visitors, as General Manager Edward Mason explains:

‘We’re really looking forward to welcoming visitors back for a new experience at The Argory.

‘Safety is our priority and we have reorganised the rooms in the house for an easy one-way system to allow social distancing. Visitors will now be able to enjoy a free-flow tour of the ground floor of the house, including the Drawing Room, Dining Room and Billiard Room, all laid out with the treasured family items of Mr Bond, the last owner of the house.

‘Traditionally we have offered guided tours of The Argory, so we are really looking forward to hearing what visitors think of the new free-flow system that allows them to explore the rooms at their own pace.

‘I’m also delighted that we will have a number of staff and volunteers working as room guides. Visitors who want to learn more about a particular room or item in the collection, will have the opportunity to ask questions on a one-to-one basis, giving them the opportunity to really engage with the story of Mr Bond and four generations of the MacGeough family.’

Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk

Oxburgh Hall is one of the first seven houses to reopen. Russell Clement, General Manager for Oxburgh Hall, explains how pleased the team are to open again:

'Welcoming visitors back to Oxburgh is something we've been looking forward to for a long time now. We've had a major roof restoration project ongoing at Oxburgh and as part of that the house has been closed since November. We opened the house again in March, but just a week later lockdown came into force, so being part of this pilot reopening feels particularly special. The whole team are genuinely very excited to be welcoming people back in this way.

How we’re keeping everyone safe

'We’ve put new measures in place to keep everyone safe. Initially only the ground floor will be open and we’ve set up a one-way system so that visitors will enter through the Dining Room and out through the South Corridor. For hygiene reasons we’ve removed our hand-held information sheets but we’ve replaced them with narrative boards for each room. We’ve also produced an introductory narrative at the beginning of the visitor route to help set the scene.

What to look out for

'Our exhibition called Endurance still remains. It tells the stories of the people who have lived here and how they coped during periods of difficulty and struggle, when their house became their sanctuary. It might resonate even more with people now than before and we would love to hear the reflections and thoughts of our visitors about that.'

Petworth House, West Sussex

For Adam Hastie, General Manager for Petworth, opening the doors of Petworth once more is a special moment:

‘Our visitors really bring the house and gardens to life. We're so glad to welcome them again, to see the treasures in the collection for the first time in four months. Safety is paramount. We've gone round the whole visitor route to make sure that it is safe as can be – so that our visitors are looked after, as well as our volunteers and staff.

‘Petworth is a large house, built in the Baroque style and has plenty of wonderful wide corridors and open spaces. This means it is easier to make sure visitors can safely keep two metres apart while visiting. But we will still need to limit numbers and we’ve set up a one-way route through the house.

‘As always, our staff and volunteers will be on hand to talk to you about the history of the house and its collections. We’ve given everyone additional training so they’re clear about the additional measures in place and what to do to protect themselves and our visitors.

What to look out for

‘Petworth is one of the nation’s treasure houses, full of works of art and precious objects. The state rooms are a particular highlight, with works of art by Van Dyck, Turner, Reynolds and Gainsborough.’

Why some houses are still closed

Our priority is to make sure our visitors and the collections and houses we care for are kept safe. This means that some houses will take longer to reopen than others as we will need more time to put safety measures in place.

Stoneywell, Leicestershire

As Jennie Lloyd, Stoneywell Operations Manager says, Stoneywell is small, but perfectly formed:

'Stoneywell’s small size is a huge part of its charm and enables us to provide a unique and intimate experience of an Arts and Crafts gem that was truly a family home. But the global pandemic has meant that small and intimate spaces suddenly work against us and become an obstacle that must be overcome before we can welcome visitors back again.

Telling the story in a new way

'While our visitor route is likely to remain unchanged, the way we tell the story of the cottage will need to be different when we reopen. It’s currently bought to life through guided tours, which is a tricky method to continue under the circumstances. We’ll be thinking creatively over the next couple of weeks to work out how we can safely tell our story.  

'Stoneywell has quirky staircases to accommodate the fact that the cottage was built into the bedrock. It’s exciting to ascend and descend with the aid of rope handrails. But one of the biggest challenges we face is making sure we can keep these handrails sanitised. When we reopen these will need to have protective coverings to keep them clean and hygienic.

'Stoneywell’s irregular shape was designed to wrap its walls around everyone that crossed the threshold, so to welcome visitors back eventually will be a joy, but there’s still a bit of work to do first.'

Calke Abbey, Derbyshire

Calke Abbey tells the story of the dramatic decline of a country house estate. It has the cluttered feel of ‘the house where time stood still’. As Julie Griffith, House and Collections Manager at Calke Abbey explains, our biggest challenge is to enable a safe route around the house for visitors, while ensuring we continue to care for the objects and keep them safe:

‘Calke has a really atmospheric visitor route, packed with objects everywhere but it can get a bit tight in places, too tight for social distancing. We’ll need to move objects around and look at our displays again to create safe spaces for visitors to enjoy, while keeping the house’s "lived in" feel. Although this is a challenge for us it’s also a great opportunity for visitors to see the collection in a new way.

Keeping the collections we care for safe

'We have some objects that are incredibly tempting to touch, such as the cases of shells, minerals and curios in the Saloon. But historic collections aren’t keen on the chemicals we need to use to sanitise surfaces. So, we’re looking for other solutions, including creating purpose-made covers to fit over the cases that can be wiped down regularly through the day.

Welcoming you back

‘Closing houses can create the perfect conditions for all sorts of problems, such as pest infestation. We’ve had to work hard during lockdown to keep our collections safe, particularly protecting our taxidermy specimens from insect attack. Seeing visitors enjoying the house again will have made all this hard work worthwhile. The joy of laughter, the curious questions of children and footsteps echoing as visitors explore the rooms are all sounds that we have sorely missed. We look forward to hearing them again soon.’

Calke's gardens and parkland have already reopened and there’s plenty to see. Come and explore the walled gardens, meet our deer and see if you can spot the ‘Old Man of Calke’, our 1,200-year-old oak tree.

Snowshill Manor, Gloucestershire

When you enter Snowhill you step into a world of beautiful objects and extraordinary curiosities, as each room is packed with the eclectic collection of Charles Wade. But, as Kate Groome, Visitor Experience Manager at Snowshill explains, the volume of Wade’s collection is one of the reasons why it will take us longer to safely reopen:

'The rooms in the house are quite small. With so many objects on display there is not much space, making social distancing difficult. Many of the objects are delicate and Wade put a lot of thought into the display of his collection, positioning them carefully to make the most of the natural light to show off their texture and colour. We are looking at all options for the visitor route around the manor so visitors can get the most out of this atmospheric and theatrical house, just as Charles Wade intended, while maintaining social distancing and ensuring the safety of our visitors and team.

Looking after the house

'Not only does the collection need great care, but the house itself is delicate. It dates from the Tudor period, making it over 400 years old. The doors, staircase and handrails could be damaged if cleaned too thoroughly. We need to make sure that we can introduce a cleaning regime that will protect our visitors but that will also not damage the fabric of the building.

Explore the gardens

'Although the house is not yet open, you can come and see the garden at Snowshill. It’s an Arts and Crafts gem and looks at its colourful best throughout the summer and into the autumn. The garden is also home to Wolf’s Cove, a replica of the beautifully detailed model village that Wade built, complete with harbour and miniature fishing boats.'

Welcome back sign in field

Booking your visit 

We are working to open the parks, gardens and houses in our care as safely and quickly as possible for booked visits. Find out which of your local places are open, how to book your visit and what to expect.