Make the most of Heritage Open Days

With 4,500 venues to choose from, how do you plan a perfect Heritage Open Days itinerary?

© Fiona Woodfield

Few people are better placed to advise than Fiona Woodfield, the Heritage Open Days local organiser in West Kent. She’s been involved in the event for nine years and is responsible each year for coordinating more than 50 properties, guided walks and other activities.

“Prioritise the properties and events that most interest you,” she says. “Look out for special displays and exhibitions, and make sure you don’t miss places that aren’t usually open to the public.”

Above all, she recommends, plan ahead. “Many people only visit one or two places, but others are keen to do more. One person told me last year that she’d visited 11 venues in a day, which must have required a lot of planning!”

Heritage is all around us

Which venues would Fiona choose to visit personally? “I love finding history in everyday places you’d probably not immediately think of as heritage sites,” she says.

“For example, this year a blacksmith will be demonstrating his craft and we have a cold war listening post open. It’s most unusual; if there had ever been a four minute warning, someone would have gone into this underground bunker, which is about the size of a caravan, and stayed there to monitor radiation levels.”

A local school is opening its World War Two air raid shelter. “Nobody there knew about the shelter until some older residents mentioned it. It had been tarmacked over, but was rediscovered very rapidly. Although school parties visit it during the year, Heritage Open Days is the only time adults can see it.”

“I also like more creative events. For example, our adult education centre is running a one-hour history taster course to help people enhance their enjoyment and understanding when exploring our local heritage.”

Memorable moments

Fiona, a mother of three, adds: “Look for places offering special activities for children. Nearby Tonbridge Castle, for example, has a Medieval Fair and Union Windmill, Cranbrook is also popular with families.

“Personally, I always like the private houses which open. They may not be large or listed, but are always interesting and it’s a privilege to see around them.”

One of Fiona’s most memorable moments involved a Grade II listed private property which opened last year.“Ten years before, the former care home stood empty and rundown and there was a proposal to redevelop it and build 32 houses in the garden. Happily, the proposal was rejected, and the current owners have restored it. Being able to show Heritage Open Days visitors their wonderful transformation quite choked me up.”

As we talk, it becomes clear that Fiona has real passion for her role, which is a year-round job. “It’s not always very glamorous, with lots of contacting people about forms and things,” she laughs, “but you do get to see some wonderful places.

Keeping our heritage alive

“Each year, our programme has about a dozen new venues and events. So I’m always looking for fresh ideas to ensure there’s always something new to see or do.”

During Heritage Open Days, Fiona will lead local walks, which are always popular. This year, for example, one is themed partly around the first visit to Tunbridge Wells by Charles II's queen Catherine of Braganza 350 years ago.

None of this would be possible, of course, without the army of volunteers who open their properties and arrange events, and Fiona is keen to pay tribute to them.

“They really do matter, because much of our heritage would disappear without them,” she says. “They’re interesting and interested people, and often there are only a few at each venue – and we could always do with more help.”

So, if you’re interested in our heritage, why not join us? “You don’t have to be a historian and our existing volunteers will always make you feel welcome,” says Fiona.

Four point plan for a great day out

  • Explore the website for your local program of events. “In West Kent, Tunbridge Wells Borough Council also funds a leaflet in which we group properties into categories so people can easily find places that interest them,” says Fiona.
  • Plan your itinerary. "Few venues open all four days. Make a note of what you want to do and when it’s happening, then plan your route. Some properties can only admit limited numbers, so check whether you may need to book."
  • Maximize the opportunity. “Visit places that are new to the program, unusual, putting on special events or displays, or aren’t normally open to the public”
  • Broaden your horizons. “Most people visit venues or events in their immediate area. I’ve found that looking further afield can also be really rewarding”.