National museums and galleries finally agreed last week to scrap entry fees. Yet this bank holiday weekend, thousands of tourists will be charged what some regard as rip-off prices to visit Britain's historic cathedrals.
While it costs nothing to view the Magna Carta in the British Museum, for example, anyone wanting to see a version of the same historic document in Salisbury will have to pay.
And while Holman Hunt's famous religious painting The Light of the World can be seen free at Manchester City Art Gallery, a glimpse of the artist's alternative version will cost £5 at St Paul's Cathedral.
Many cathedrals claim that they do not have an "official" admission charge. But most apply considerable pressure to extract a "voluntary" donation, with uniformed guides and "greeters" keeping a watchful eye on visitors and the donation boxes.
Visitors drawn to Salisbury, for example, by the lure of England's tallest spire may be pleasantly surprised to learn that the cathedral has no compulsory entry charge. Inside, however, they will be confronted by a cash till and signs listing a sliding scale of "recommended donations" ranging from £2 for children to an £8 "family ticket".
Tourists keen to visit Ely's Norman cathedral, with its 24-hour lunar clock and unique octagonal tower, may be put off when they learn of its compulsory £4 admission charge.
For anybody living outside Canterbury, the cost of a visit to the cathedral is £3.50, while the fee for a close-up view of the tomb of the Venerable Bede at Durham is £2. At Hereford Cathedral, general admission is a voluntary £2, but to see the 13th-century Mappa Mundi and its "chained library" costs a further, and compulsory, £4.
They may be places of worship, but Anglican cathedrals are making millions of pounds from entry charges. In contrast the Roman Catholic Church has a formal policy of free entry. The Church of England allows its individual dioceses to decide for themselves which has resulted in a bewildering array of practices, with some dioceses making compulsory charges, some leaving them voluntary and others not charging at all.
Many justify their entry fees by stressing that, while the Government gives each of the 17 national museums a multi-million-pound annual grant, cathedrals receive no state funding.
However, the church's entrance charges cause some disquiet. Iain Taylor, spokesman for the inter-denominational Evangelical Alliance, said: "Cathedrals are terribly expensive to run, so we have a lot of sympathy for them, but people often have social needs which are helped by going to churches, and if they say you can't enter one without paying a fiver that's not exactly welcoming.
"The issue here is who should be paying for their upkeep. We wouldn't agree with the French system of nationalising churches, but if a church has a specific need we would rather see the government step in to offer help than entry fees raised."
The charges voluntary or otherwise are defended by the church, which points out that without them cathedrals would fall into disrepair.
Bernard Kane, chief executive of Peterborough Cathedral, said: "It costs us £2,000 a day just to keep this cathedral open, and about 80 per cent of those who visit us do so for cultural reasons.
"These are, in many cases, very old buildings and in order to preserve them it seems reasonable to expect those visiting out of historical interest to make a contribution."
However, the upkeep problem of cathedrals is nowhere near as desperate as it once might have been. Last month the Government reduced VAT on repairs on listed churches to 5 per cent, while English Heritage now provides many with annual grants.
This year, for example, Lincoln Cathedral, which charges a compulsory £3.50 entry fee, will receive £259,000 from English Heritage.Reuse content