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Viewers flock to stately film sets

THE NATION'S stately homes and historic houses are cashing in on the growth of period costume dramas on television and film to attract record numbers of visitors, according to tourism figures out today

They are also embracing modern marketing to banish memories of a dreary stroll round a crumbling pile on a rainy day.

In the latest figures from the English Tourist Board, visitors last year to historic properties, which include the Tower of London and Canterbury Cathedral, topped 71m. It was the third successive annual increase, with visitor numbers rising two per cent on 1996.

The 1997 rise has been attributed to better overall marketing strategy exploiting period film and TV location tie-ins such as BBC's Antiques Roadshow, greater investment in visitor facilities and longer opening hours.

Osborn House on the Isle of Wight had a 30 per cent increase in tourists, helped by its featuring in the film Mrs Brown, in which Dame Judi Dench starred as Queen Victoria, alongside Billy Connolly.

Admissions to Walmer Castle in Kent soared 47 per cent to 59,121 after the creation of a new garden celebrating the 95th birthday of the Queen Mother.

Other leaps in visitor numbers were recorded at Harewood House in West Yorkshire (up 23 per cent) and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (up 21 per cent). Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire - where Sir Winston Churchill was born - received 15 per cent more visitors.

Harewood House, the home of Lord Harewood, the Queen's cousin, is well- known for its tireless marketing and innovative exhibitions. It is showing an art exhibition that features interactive videos of nude figures but is also quite happy with the traditional - recently housing a prestigious Turner collection.

There is hardly a weekend when Harewood is not host to some unusual rally, backdrop for a TV shoot or using its vast kitchens for workshops in ice sculptures and Victorian cooking lessons.

It has also managed to transform what once was simply a menagerie of peacocks and penguins into a rare bird breeding centre.

While it cannot rustle up the three tenors, it does manage to pack out its estate during the summer with a series of open air classical proms.

It is this kind of re-invention that the Tourist Board hopes will see another overall increase for this year although their are reservations about the effect the strong pound will have on foreign visitors.

New attractions which it is hoped will do well during 1998 include the former home of ex-Beatle Sir Paul McCartney at 20 Forthlin Road in Liverpool.

ETB chairman David Quarmby said: "Investment in new facilities, refurbishment and interpretations are encouraging even more people to visit England's wealth of historic properties."

Last year, English Heritage properties achieved a five per cent rise in visits and a 10 per cent increase in spending. Historic Royal Palaces enjoyed a three per cent rise.

About 40 per cent of England's historic properties offer free admission. The average adult charge at properties charging admission in 1998 is pounds 2.71.