Why look far when it’s under your nose

I should know better, really. After all, this year was my  11th Heritage Open Days. And yet, every year, on the eve of the event, I am faced with the same dilemma; where shall I go?

© Katja Condy - Happy Harold in Hastings

Of course, you may say, that’s only too natural. Depending where you live, you can be spoilt rotten by the variety of sites on show, and there’s no way you will ever fit all the places you’d like to see in the short lapse of an extended weekend. But you see, having scrawled through thousands of entries to draw up highlights list after highlights list during the summer campaign, my poor short-term memory is bursting with information. It’s the inverse to not seeing the wood for the trees. So, as the weekend draws nearer, the pressure grows to make the MOST of this “once-a-year chance” and panic sets in. Help, I can’t decide!

You may roll your eyes and impatiently exclaim: ‘Woman, get a life. Just practice what you preach, “explore what’s on your doorstep”.‘ – I wished I’d listened to this very wise advice. Because, yes, I did enjoy our trip to Hastings – the ride on Happy Harold, one of only eight open-top double decker trolleybuses in the world, was a treat for the whole family and chatting with retired fisherman Nick Barrow in his netshop on the Stade made us appreciate the town’s still active fishing heritage. But it was on Sunday, when we decided to stay in our local area, the Medway, that we experienced this warm glow that is special to Heritage Open Days. And this was not just down to the summery temperatures on that day.

We first headed to Temple Manor, which is all that’s left of an expansive farm estate once owned by the Templars. It’s now surrounded by high metal fencing, tucked away in a sterile industrial area on the Strood side of the river Medway. We knew it was there, and although we could have easily made a detour from our weekly shopping route, we never went to see inside before. What made our visit doubly worthwhile was a lively Knight Templar who had temporarily taken residence in the medieval stone hall. He really brought the place alive. Five-year old Felix was mesmerised by the tall figure in full armour (the lolly and stickers were a bonus) and so was his father who vowed to read up on the legendary order (and not just mystery thrillers). Needless to say, it wasn’t the flying visit I had initially planned.

So, the ambitious itinerary was ditched, and we just went along with the flow of the day, staying at the sites for as long as it took to do them justice. We made time to have a chat with volunteers and fellow visitors. We learnt about the vision of an English-Finnish couple who restored an old lightship to transform it into a creative community space, and sat down for a cup of tea and a cake in the graveyard that gave Charles Dickens the inspiration for the opening scene to Great Expectations. We made connections with like-minded people in the community we chose to settle in a few years ago. And more than before, we appreciated the places – not just the recognised ones featuring in tourist guides – that give meaning and character to our surroundings.

I’ve learnt my lesson: the closer the discovery the more precious it is. And don’t rush, seize the moment. There’ll be another Heritage Open Days next year.