Historic sites `closing doors to visitors'

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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of historic properties open to the public in England is falling for the first time in 20 years, according to a report published today.

A total of 32 historic buildings and monuments have closed over the past two years, bringing down to 1,985 the number of places open to visitors.

Tourism experts fear that increasing numbers of owners may close their doors to the public in favour of more lucrative events such as weddings and conferences.

The new issue of Cultural Trends, published by the Policy Studies Institute, said that 2,001 historic buildings and monuments were open in England in 1998 - compared with 2,013 in 1997 and 2,017 the year before. And new figures from the Heritage Monitor 1999 reveal that a further 16 properties have closed over the past 12 months.

The institute's report found that the most famous attractions, such as Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, are receiving more visitors, whereas lesser-known ones are struggling to stay viable.

The number of people visiting historic properties has increased by 9 per cent since 1994. But while more than one in three attractions has fewer than 100 visitors a week, Westminster Abbey started charging a pounds 5 admission fee in March 1998 to try to reduce the growing numbers of tourists. The National Trust now issues timed passes at some of its properties to try to control the flow of people.

Over the past year, Castle Ashby in Northamptonshire has diversified to provide facilities for weddings and conferences. Meanwhile, Exeter Maritime Museum has had to close altogether because of a lack of visitors.

Max Hanna, one of the authors of the report, said: "People are struggling to get enough visitors because the odds are stacked against the less well- known places, and there are so many new attractions, like aquaria, which are the new fashion in tourist attractions."

Historic properties open to the public are also having to compete with purpose-built "entertainment parks", which feature a range of shopping and leisure facilities under one roof.

Victor Middleton, an expert in tourism trends, said he feared that the number of visitors to historic properties was in long-term decline.

"Visitor numbers are up. But in the context of a longer time frame, these are indications of only minimal growth. The National Trust and English Heritage have achieved real growth - but beyond that it has been very modest."

He said that the growth of purpose-built tourist attractions placed an added pressure on the more traditional historic properties.

"These developments are going to have a profound impact on heritage properties as we think of them now. In particular, the development of the new major out-of-town centres, which are based on the American models of urban entertainment centres.

"In the same way that the Victorians built seaside resorts for the railway era, so 100 years later - in the era of mass car ownership, and the abolition of the Sunday trading laws - we're building commercial resorts. These new resorts for the 21st century are targeted at people within a two-hour drive. And given that this is exactly the market which the heritage properties have traditionally tapped for the bulk of their visitors, I think it's inevitable that these new centres will provide enormous competition over the next five years."

But Richard Wilkin, the director general of the Historic Houses Association, of whose 1,489 members 400 regularly open their properties to the public, said that many stately homes were thriving.

"The report deals with the broadest range of historic properties, from monuments to museums, and we have found that historic properties are not seeing a decline in visitor numbers," he said. "However, some owners are supplementing their income by adopting a range of other activities, from concerts to weddings."

The Stately Art Of Survival

Rotherfield Park

Sir James Scott (above), the owner of Rotherfield Park in Alton, Hampshire, has recently closed it to the public, except for a couple of days a year, because there were simply not enough visitors to make it worthwhile.

His 20-bedroomed Regency mansion is run as a family home and the family relies on the farm and private means to support it. "The reason we are no longer open is that it didn't really count as a business. The house was open for 28 days a year and it really didn't make any money from being open," he said. "I think that if we really needed to find a way of paying for a new roof then we would try and find a way of doing it without having to open up for weddings and things like that. It is, after all, a family home."

Ripley Castle

Sir Thomas Ingilby (above) lives in Ripley Castle, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire. There are 30,000 visitors to his home each year and a thriving business of hosting conferences and dinner parties. "We also hold around 90 weddings a year and employ 79 people full time," he said.

"We really have diversified. Before 1981, the castle was open to the public between two and four days a week. It was not really enough to survive. It enabled the family to stay living here but it didn't bring in enough to pay all the overheads. "Then the Harrogate International Conference Centre opened and we had people turning up, asking if they could come for dinner and we thought, why not. The first few times it was like an episode of Fawlty Towers. But people seemed to like it and kept coming back."