Debate: country house & garden entry fees: what do I expect for £12.50?

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Following my visit to Levens Hall, I was reading some reviews of others’ visits on Tripadvisor and was intrigued by one review which stated that the (current) £12.50 entry fee (£11.50 when the reviewer visited) was too much.  I couldn’t understand the comment: the gardens and house clearly require a lot of work.  Is £12.50 too much despite that?

It got me thinking, because I am conscious that I rarely pay cash to visit somewhere.  I have National Trust, Art Fund & HHA cards, occasionally an RHS card.  For Harewood House we use the 50 per cent off ‘Treasure House’ vouchers we pick up at Woburn Abbey (a ‘free to friends’ HHA member house).

The last UK visit which I wrote up and for which I paid full price was Lytham Hall, but only because I was amazed that I hadn’t heard of this house before, despite visiting Lytham for over 30 years.

Actually, this month I finally visited Penshurst Place (£10 entry during 2014), a HHA member house that doesn’t offer free entry to friends.  I had been waiting nearly six years to visit because I didn’t want to spend “all that money” if it wasn’t a beautiful day.  Had I just wanted a day out, I wouldn’t have visited Penshurst at all, given its proximity to Riverhill & Hever Castle, both of which offer free entry to HHA members.  However, Penshurst boasts a USP of still having the original central fire in its great hall and that was something I wanted to see.

There are also other ways of obtaining free entry outside the obvious routes. For example, for Althrop House and Hampton Court I used Tesco Vouchers to obtain free entry.

In addition, there are the annual events of Open House and Open Gardens in London.  Open House is free and Open Gardens usually costs about £5 for the whole weekend (for National Trust members, who get 50% off).  “Heritage Open Days” also exist, where free entry is offered by a multitude of venues.

I generally take the view that with so many houses and gardens that I can visit for free, I’ll only start visiting the remaining ones when I’ve visited all the free ones (but will I ever visit them all)?

I have paid to join a Georgian Group visit (e.g. Queen Anne’s Gate), but only when I think something is truly special and I couldn’t gain access any other way, but generally I recoil at the prices topping £50+ for a tour + lunch, taking in one or two houses.  Transport is usually only provided “from a nearby train station”, so to the Georgian Group tour cost one must also add travel costs.

For the record, I do pay to visit the occasional “Yellow Book” garden: the entry price goes to charity in that case.

Sure, I’m a cheapskate, but I also love visiting houses and gardens and don’t want to bankrupt myself.  I don’t want to feel obliged that because I’ve spent a lot on the admission fee, I must stay for the whole day.

I looked at some current entry prices and wondered what others think

 

House 2014 Adult Price (whole property) What do I get?
Blenheim Palace (HHA) £21.50 (one year’s access – upgrade day ticket on-site) House, extensive gardens, maze, animals, miniature railway, animated exhibition, playground
Hever Castle (HHA) £15.50 Castle, two mazes, often jousting/medieval events, boating lake, extensive gardens, shops, playground
Kensington Palace (Art Fund) £15.00 (£16.50 if you pay an extra “voluntary donation”) House (usually also two exhibitions)
Levens Hall (HHA) £12.50 House & topiary gardens, occasional events, e.g. car rally, playground
Osterley Park (NT) £10.25 House, extensive gardens, lake
Sizergh Castle (NT) £9.45 (£10.50 Gift Aid) Castle, Japanese garden, walled garden, terrace
Leeds Castle £19.00 Castle, maze, grounds, lake, playground
Muncaster Castle (HHA) £13.00 House (free audio guide), maze, owl centre, extensive gardens & hill walks, shops
Dumfries House (HHA) £9.00 (£13 for “Grand Tour”) House, walled garden
Broughton Castle (HHA) £9.00 Castle, small walled gardens
Keats House (Art Fund) £5.50 Domestic house with gardens
Kenwood House (EH) Free Large house with parkland
Kew Gardens £14.50 Extensive formal gardens, Kew Palace, numerous greenhouses, playgrounds
Beth Chatto’s Gardens £6.95 http://www.bethchatto.co.uk/planning-a-visit/ Gardens & nursery
Sand, Devon (HHA) £7.00 Guided tour of the house, formal (smallish) garden – the best tour I’ve ever had
Althrop (I went in free with Tesco vouchers) £18.50 House (free audio guide), gardens, lake with burial plot of Lady Diana, Lady Diana exhibitions
Hampton Court (I went in free with Tesco vouchers) £18.20 House (really 2 houses – Tudor and William & Mary), extensive formal gardens, maze, kitchen reenactments, actors reenacting Tudor scenes throughout the day
Villa Necchi Campiglio, Italy (FAI/NT) €9.00 (free to visit gardens only) 1930s house, guided tour, domestic gardens
Homewood (NT) £9 + £3.80 shuttle bus fee (payable also by NT members) Guided tour of house, bus from nearby NT gardens, domestic gardens

Is there anywhere that you think is overpriced?

Personally, I think that while Blenheim Palace, Hampton Court, Kew Gardens and Hever Castle are expensive, they do offer a whole package for a full day’s entertainment.  For £15+ I would hope to be able to stay somewhere for the whole day.

In my view, Althrop is massively overpriced, but house visitors are offered a “free” audio guide and of course most people visit because of the Diana connection, rather than to see the house (although the long gallery is worth visiting for).  Another case of USP.

I also think that Leeds Castle has some cheek to ask the prices it does.  I haven’t been since it stopped offering free entry to HHA members.  Now they no longer have their bird garden.  There is in effect a house with 20th century interiors and a maze.  It is no better than Polesden Lacey, which charges £11.35 (2014 prices) to visit the house and garden.

Thinking about it then, in my opinion £10 or under is about right for the likes of Levens Hall, Sizergh Castle and Hidcote (actually £10 for 2014).   The National Trust seem to have their pricing spot on.

I would price Levens Hall at £8 for the garden and £10 for both house and garden, although I understand that it is tempting for the family/organisers to put prices up by £1 annually as if their running costs increase they will wish to cover this, in order to maintain profit margins.

Interestingly, last week I found a 1987 National Trust Handbook and so I looked up the prices of a few properties:

Osterley Park: £1.60

Hardwick Hall: £2.80

Sizergh Castle: £1.50

Smallhythe Place: £1.20

Knole: £2

Blickling: £2

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What do you think?

If you are a house owner reading this and you are about to criticise me for going somewhere, putting mud on your carpet and leaving without paying a penny, bear this in mind: we usually spent £10 per property we visit, either in the cafe or the shop.  Now, bearing in mind the mark-up available on food, would you rather have more people through the door who also spend in the cafe, or fewer people who pay more for entry (well, heck, you have the house anyway), but who might not be tempted to go in the cafe and who might leave negative reviews on social media websites, which we all know is a horrible thing to happen?

I also don’t understand HHA member properties who don’t offer free-to-friends entry: given how little the HHA is known (compared to the NT) and how I would imagine that the HHA members are “just the type of people I’d like to visit my house“, it’s almost inevitable that for the few extra visitors who come in free via the HHA card, revenue will go up: faced with a choice, I will go somewhere that offers free entry and then spend my money on tea, cake, gifts & ice creams at the house with free entry.  I will leave happy and feeling that I got value for money.  I will even go back often, simply perhaps for the cafe or because we are passing the door (which is what happened at Levens Hall, where I spent £10 on a cup and D £6 on plants).

I know what decision Leeds Castle have made.

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2 thoughts on “Debate: country house & garden entry fees: what do I expect for £12.50?

  1. This is an interesting post posing an interesting question. I also like to visit houses and gardens and am a member of the NT, but usually pay the day entry for other properties. I read with interest your comment about Penshurst Place, as we went there last year for the first time on a beautiful summer day mid week and had a fantastic day there with lunch and tea and cake in the tea room. I do feel that sometimes the ‘independants’ (non-NT/EH et al) make for a better visit, that said the reverse can also be true! For example, Arundel Castle near here charges a whopping £18.50 per person for access to all areas, this can be reduced by sliding scale to £9.50 per head if you just want to see the gardens and visit the tea room. Truthfully the gardens (apart from the Collector Earl’s Garden) aren’t that great, and the rooms open in the castle are only really OK. This makes some of the places you have listed look like remarkably good value for money, and I am now going to look into some of the other organisations you belong to, so I can visit some more lovely houses and gardens!

    1. Hi Jill

      Thanks for your comment. We also prefer the independants, loving our HHA membership as a result. Do look into that as it gives access to many beautiful places.

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