Remember September 1994?

What did you do in 1994? Were you among the first passengers to take a ride through the Channel Tunnel? Did you cheer Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black President? Can you remember buying your first lottery ticket? Or, actually, were you busily organising your first Heritage Open Days?

© Heritage Open Days 1994 - Flyer launching the new scheme

Yes, it’s twenty years since the Heritage Lottery Fund was set up, the Spice Girls formed and the curtains lifted on the first national Heritage Open Days. But what’s twenty years? Nothing, really, just a blink of an eye in historical terms. And depending on your station of life, 1994 may either feel like yesterday or buried in the dark past. For an event like ours, though, to survive two decades, three Governments and two organisational changes and still to be in rude health is something to be proud of.

The beginnings

There’s no doubt that the concept of opening up places that are normally locked caught on instantly. It's true though that open door events weren’t completely new. Whilst the European Heritage Days were initiated in 1991, Faversham Open House had been running since 1969. Faversham’s Arthur Percival was subsequently instrumental in getting the England-wide event off the ground under the umbrella of the now defunct Civic Trust. The first national co-ordinator, Jean Slater (née Ashton), had just nine months from the moment that funding from the Department of National Heritage started to flow to the second weekend in September. In breath-taking speed and assisted by Arthur and the Civic Trust’s Head of Civic Societies, Saskia Hallam, she built the framework that has withstood the test of time: the name, timing, entry criteria, registration cycle and marketing support.

Jean remembers sharing a cramped office, a whirring Amstrad computer and a telephone line. With the internet still in its infancy, it sounds incredible that 380 local organisations, mostly civic societies, followed the call to make the inaugural event happen. Among the 701 sites that opened were highlights like Napoleon III’s last residence in Chislehurst and the giant Cardington Aircraft Hangars in Bedfordshire, which just intended to run a few hard hat tours but ended up hosting thousands of enthusiastic people. 150,000 visitors across the country witnessed the first edition of Heritage Open Days. It was an auspicious start.

Your side of the story

Fast forward now twenty years. As we embark on our anniversary cycle, we are looking for the people and places that blazed the trail. So far, we’ve been piecing together the history of the national co-ordination, but that’s just one side of the story. We want to celebrate our pioneers and hear and share your memories. I suspect some of you may still hoard some yellowing posters, news clippings, brochures or photos. And if someone happens to have in their attic a copy of the very first event directory edition somewhere, please, please, donate it or lend it to us; only a little more than a thousand copies were printed and sadly, none has survived in our archives.

So, were you or your organisation involved in 1994? Did you even take part in the initial local pilots in 1992 (Gosport) and 1993 (a dozen locations across England)? Do you remember going to an event? And who has been on board ever since? Come forth, drop us a line, we want to hear from you!