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National Trust vs English Heritage vs Historic Houses: Which one should you join?

For those of us that thrive on getting out and about exploring historical places, Membership to either English Heritage, National Trust or Historic Houses might well be on the cards.

But, with so many incredible heritage sites to explore, which organisation should you join? this article I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of each organisation, and Ill be sharing my experiences from being a member of all three. So if you been thinking about joining up for some time, but your still not entirely convinced which one is right for you, read on because his article is for you!

The National Trust

A short history of the National Trust

Founded in 1895 by three forward thinking philanthropists, the National Trust is a charity that aims to preserve the nations places of historic interest and natural beauty. The Trust claims to be Europe’s largest conservation Charity and in addition to its 5.6 million members, enjoys around 8 million visitors a year.

The National Trust is responsible for 750 miles of coastline, 248,000 hectares of land and over 500 properties, including Historic Houses, Castles, ancient monuments, gardens, parks and nature reserves.

Popular properties include the likes of the Victorian marvel Cragside in Northumberland, the gorgeous Studley Royal in North Yorkshire, and the stunning Palladian neo-classical masterpiece that is Lyme in the Peak District.

Lyme Park House

How much does it cost to join the National Trust?

The National Trust has a range of membership options to suit different circumstances. The are built around four membership types: Joint, Family, Individual and Life membership.

Joint membership is designed for two adults living at the same address, and costs around £120 a year or £10 a month. As under 5’s are free, this could be a popular membership package if you have young children.

Family membership has two tiers and is suitable for either a single adult at a cost of £78 a year and £6.50 a month, or two adults at £126 a year or £10.50 a month. With either of these packages you get free access for children or grand children, so again it appears to offer good value for money.

Individual membership is just £72 a year or £6 a month for an adult, £36 a year for 18 – 25 year olds and just £10 a year for under 18’s.

Another excellent option is the ability to purchase a lifetime membership for as little as £1730 for an individual, £2160 for a couple and £2265 for a family.

In my experience, the National Trust rarely, if ever offers discounts on memberships, so if your holding on for a deal then I certainly wouldn’t hold your breath. There is sometimes a sweetener gift however, such as free binoculars if you sign up to a Direct Debit.

Fountains Abbey

What do I get with National Trust membership?

As part of your membership you will get free entry and parking, at all 500 of the Trust’s properties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This also includes car parks owned or operated by the National Trust at outdoor sites such as nature reserves, gardens and costal destinations.

Membership also gives you free access to around 130 properties managed by the National Trust of Scotland. So if you are UK based, or happy to travel, National Trust membership pretty much has you covered.

Another reciprocal agreement, means members also get free access to properties over seas that are part of the International National Trusts Organisation.

In addition to free access to properties, members will also receive a property guidebook each year (which is useful for planning where you want to go), and three National Trust magazines throughout the year. Another nice little touch is an events leaflet that gets delivered with the magazine. This details local events so is really useful if you want to know what’s happening near to you.

The Trust will tell you that membership gives you exclusive access to the membership area of its website. This really isn’t anything to shout home about however, and essentially just gives you the ability to view your membership. You can also view bookmarks of places you want to visit but, this members area is certainly something that could do with some improvement.

Another interesting perk is that as a member of the National Trust, you will get the opportunity to vote in the Annual General Meeting. This might not be particularly exciting, but it is good that the Trust involves it’s members in decision making process.

Nunnington Hall

Why you might want to join the National Trust

In my opinion the National Trust’s Membership options are some of the best out there, and genuinely offer fantastic value for money. The family membership options are also really good and could save you a small fortune if you visit heritage sites often.

Unlike English Heritage and Historic Houses, the National Trust cares for large swathes of the English countryside, including large sections of coastline. If you do a lot of walking and outdoor activities then the free parking at National Trust car parks will certainly come in handy.

If food and drink is important to you then this is something the National Trust does well. They have some of the best cafes and restaurants going and the coffee is absolutely excellent. I often eat with my family at National Trust properties, and I can certainly attest to the quality of the food.

Why the National Trust might not be for you

The National Trust cares for far more Country Houses than any other type of property. This might suit you fine, but if you really enjoy ancient history, and exploring castles and the like, you might be a bit disappointed with the range of properties on offer.

The membership packages are genuinely pretty good, but if you are on a really tight budget, you might find membership of English Heritage or Historic Houses a bit cheaper (in certain circumstances).

I really wish the National Trust would improve the members section of their website. This is truly a missed opportunity, and unfortunately presently serves no real purpose.

Cragside – Photo by Allan Harris

English Heritage

A brief history of English Heritage

English Heritage is a government sponsored charity that whilst originally formed in 1983, was rebranded as the English Heritage Trust when the organisation was split into two separate entities in 2015, with the formation of Historic England. Whilst the Trust is responsible for the places and collections, Historic England is the public body that aims to preserve and champion England’s historical environment.

Prior to 1983, the responsibilities of protecting and championing England’s heritage all fell within the remit of the government. Unfortunately, the government were more interested in England’s medieval and prehistoric past, with the prospect of running and maintaining large country houses seen as a daunting task.

Although this attitude changed in later years, the result is that English Heritage cares for far more ancient monuments than country piles and grand Stately Homes.

Today, English Heritage is responsible for the upkeep of over 400 historic properties in England, and the organisation has nearly 1.5 million members. Additionally, over 10 million people visit English Heritage properties annually, and it is very popular with families and history buffs alike.

Popular properties include the likes of the internationally important Stonehenge, the mighty Dover Castle and the dramatic gothic ruins of Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey

How much does it cost to join English Heritage?

Like the National Trust, English heritage offer 4 main types of membership and are similarly well priced.

Joint membership differs slightly in that you can opt for either joint adult, adult and senior or joint senior. For joint adult membership, expect to pay around £111 for the year or just over £9 per month. The senior memberships are a bit cheaper so make sure you check the website for the latest prices.

Family membership with one adult costs just £64 a year or £5.33 a month, and for two adults £111 a year or £9.25 a month. These memberships include free access for up to 12 children so they are all good value for money.

Individual memberships are available for adults, seniors and young adults and students, and cost £64, £57 and £51 respectively. Monthly prices are also available.

Lifetime memberships are also available, and range from £1170 for a senior, to £2130 for joint adult. Like with the National Trust, if you are really serious about saving money in the long run then this could be the option for you.

A shot of Middleham Castle, taken from just in front of the original castle – known as ‘William’s Hill’.

What do I get with English Heritage membership?

As a member you will enjoy free access to over 400 properties in England, and free parking. There are also currently some excellent reciprocal agreements in place, so English Heritage members

will also get half price entry to Historic Scotland properties (during the first year of membership), and free access if you renew your membership. The same agreement applies in Wales, and in the Isle of Man members get free access at all times.

Members also get free access to over 40 properties in Ireland from the first year of membership, and 43 heritage sites in New Zealand.

Similar to the National Trust, English Heritage members also get a free annual property guide and several magazines delivered throughout the year.

There are other benefits included in English Heritage membership, and these include free or discounted entry to English Heritage events, and exclusive access to special member only events.

The glowing ruins of byland abbey with some rocks in the foreground

Byland Abbey

Why you might want to join English Heritage

If you are really keen on history, and like nothing more than exploring castles, abbeys and ancient monuments, then English Heritage really delivers.

English Heritage Membership is slightly cheaper than the National Trust, and in my experience you are far likely to get discounted membership than you are with the National Trust.

All of English Heritage’s 400 properties are based in England so if you aren’t able to travel, this might be a key benefit.

Why English Heritage might not be for you

As mentioned earlier, English Heritage is more synonymous with ancient monuments, castles and abbeys. So if you prefer exploring grand Stately Homes, your options here are going to be a bit more limited.

English Heritage only care for properties in England, unlike the National Trust that has properties throughout the UK.

Although cheaper to join than the National Trust, I think the Trust is better value for money as it has more properties and offers more variety.

Cliffords Tower in York

Historic Houses Association

A brief history of Historic Houses

Historic Houses differs from English Heritage and the National Trust, in that it does not own or control any of its member properties. Rather, Historic Houses is an association of independently owned houses, castles and museums, whom in return for representation by the organisation, give its members free access.

The Historic Houses Association dates back to 1973 and was formed from a sub-committee of the British Tourism Authority. The organisation prides itself on its ability to influence government policy, and in its early years campaigned not only against the destruction of Country Houses, but also the heavy taxation that was contributing to the problem.

The association recognises that these independently owned sites form a vital part of our history and heritage, and very rarely receive any kind of public funding. The Association then then can offer its member sites not only financial grants, but also also much needed advice and support.

Historic Houses then incorporates around 1500 member properties, making it the country’s largest collection of historic houses and gardens. And unlike the other two organisations, many of its member properties are still ‘lived in’ and thus offer a very different visitor experience.

Popular properties include Downton Abbey’s Highclere Castle, Leeds Castle in Kent, and the colossal Burghley House – one of England’s finest Elizabethan Prodigy House.

Burghley House

How much does it cost to join Historic Houses?

Like the National Trust and English Heritage, Historic Houses offer a range of membership options. These are not quite as comprehensive as the other two however, and sadly do not offer a specific family membership. Instead you have to add each person individually to your membership to get a quote.

Membership for a single adult then, will cost around £56 per year, with two adults costing £89. Whilst under 3’s are free, if you add two children to your membership this will come out at around £139 per year. You can basically add as many children as you like but you will have to pay for each one.

I can’t help but to feel that a family subscription would be a very worthy addition. Membership to Historic Houses then if you have several children could cost you quite a bit of money.

Longleat House

What do I get with Historic Houses membership?

As a member of Historic Houses you will get access to around 1500 diverse and interesting properties.

Additionally, membership will bring you an annual guide book and several member magazines.

There are also other exclusive member benefits, such as members only lectures and online articles.