Historic Houses Association: Welcome to the Historic Houses

Historic Houses Association: Welcome to the Historic Houses

The Historic Houses Association is not a trust but a body that advises owners of stately homes how to administer their houses and estates, which are open to the public when you join the comprehensive HAA membership scheme.

Great Britain is littered with great houses and castles but which ones would you want to visit? Are Alnwick and Bamburgh castles, Beaulieu House with its collection of classic cars, the awe-inspiring Castle Howard, Blenheim Palace, the home of the Churchill family, or Stratfield Saye near Reading, the grand house given by a grateful nation to the Duke of Wellington after the battle of Waterloo, on your list? If they are you need to become a member of the Historic Houses Association. All these famous homes and strongholds are just some of the 300 historic houses and gardens that are grouped together under the HHA. They are not like similar historic houses you are able to visit with a National Trust membership card, but are managed directly by the owners, who still largely live in the houses. The HHA offer owners advice on running the homes, and also administer a nationwide visitor scheme.

It is the owners who are members of the HHA, and they in turn allow access to a wide range of properties and gardens to corporate members, heritage and charity organisations and through a range of friends membership schemes. And unlike the National Trust, the HHA, which was formed in 1973, believes that private ownership is the best way to preserve the nation’s great houses. The owners are responsible for looking after their own properties, which includes all the maintenance and financing. It is a huge undertaking on many estates, which has turned them into thriving businesses.

The Historic Houses Association takes no part in managing these properties, their sole role is to represent and advise the owners, administer the association’s membership schemes and publish its yearbook and other promotional material. To get a taste of the wide range of properties on offer let’s visit one house that has a very special connection with the present Conservative government – Sutton Park, just eight miles north of York.

You never know who you might bump into!
There’s one way to find out what really goes on in the nation’s big country houses, take the tour and talk to the guides. They can come up with some interesting stories and anecdotes, which often don’t make the pages of the guidebooks. It’s the tit-bits, scandal and human stories, which bring a building to life – and that’s just what you get when you walk around the compact Sutton Park, eight miles north of York, which is the home of Sir Reginald and Lady Sheffield.

Sir Reginald has lived there since 1963, when his mother and father moved from their Normandy Park home in Lincolnshire. In a warm welcome in the guidebooks introduction, Sir Reginald writes: “Today the house is a very much lived in home, echoing to the laughter of our children, family and friends.” You get that feeling when you walk into the house, it is not large but it is the sort of place you would want to spend Christmas day huddled up in front of the roaring fire looking over the well-manicured gardens.

Following the guide you learn a lot. The Porcelain Room is of particular interest because it contains some very valuable Meissen, Chelsea, Bow, and Sevres china, which can attract the light fingered and even the professional specialist thief. The guide invites us to look up at the chandelier, a copy of a Meissen original. He asks if we can spot anything wrong? The eagle-eyed see that one of the delicate porcelain clusters is missing. “Yes”, he says, “while the guide had his back turned one of the visitors unhooked it and popped it in his pocket. “If that wasn’t bad enough a very valuable piece of china was targeted by specialist thieves” continues the guide, “they broke in and removed just the one item, ignoring everything else. It was as if it was stolen to order, they certainly knew what they wanted”.

At the Tea Room, richly painted to represent tortoiseshell, we are served a story that makes everyone smile. The guide continues: “I was taking a group of visitors round when a door suddenly opened and out stepped David Cameron, the Prime Minster, telling his young daughter off for not wearing any shoes.” The cool Mr Cameron apparently said sorry, about faced and disappeared back through the door. Everyone couldn’t believe what they had seen. And why was our Prime Minister at Sutton Park? He was visiting the in-laws, who have a daughter called Samantha, David’s wife. You see why the place is so homely?

The best room in the house is probably The Boudoir, which has large ceiling to floor windows that look out on the immaculately kept garden complete with pond and fountain. The room is filled with sumptuous sofas, which cuddle up to a handsome fireplace that has a portrait hanging over it of Lady Sheffield dating back to 1770s.

Sutton Park is a place that you have to explore for yourself; it is a family home, the drinks trolley, the pictures of the Cameron’s with their children and a big flat-screen television, are clues. It is a place to step back in time, appreciate the pocketsize grandeur and remember that it is only open to the public due to the fact that Sir Reginald Sheffield is happy to invite the public into his house with the help and guidance of the Historic Houses Association.

For more information, including opening times, go to: www.statelyhome.co.uk or call 01347 810249.

The Historic House Association, 2 Chester St, London SW1× 7BB, Tel: 020 7259 5688

Mel Russ