Free English Heritage Open Days
Discover the history and heritage of Kent with free English Heritage Open Days taking place this month....
What can we do today? Can there possibly be a better answer for parents at the end of a busy, and perhaps expensive, summer than the prospect of a whole weekend of family activities, all completely free of charge?
Heritage Open Days, happening across Kent and countrywide between Thursday 9 and Sunday 13 September, have plenty on offer for all ages.
Ideal for any child whose ambition in life is to be the king or queen of the castle would be a visit to one of the county’s splendid fortresses. In Canterbury Castle grounds visitors will be transported back to experience life in Norman times. This living history event gives an insight into domestic life, with demonstrations of leather working, net making, drop spinning, weaving and cookery.
For those with a taste for military rather than domestic life, the Norman soldiers will make a show of arms. Moving to the 13th-century, Tonbridge Castle welcomes visitors to a medieval fair in the castle grounds that follows a fine historic tradition.
Back in 1571, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin, Henry Carey (who held extensive lands in the Tonbridge area) obtained permission to hold several three-day long fairs in Tonbridge. One was around the ‘feast of the Nativity’ (evidently a Christmas fair), another around ‘Ashwensdaye’ (perhaps the Tudor equivalent of a Pancake Party) and the third to mark the feast of St Luke the Evangelist, in mid October.
Inside the castle gatehouse, children can enjoy the audio-visual presentations, with a vivid recreation of the sights and sounds of medieval life and at the end of the afternoon, surplus energy can be burnt off with a brisk climb up the grass motte: Tonbridge is the oldest motte and bailey castle in Kent.
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Children often love to learn about what life would have been like for a schoolchild in days gone by and Chartham Hatch Village Hall was originally built to provide a local school. For Heritage Open Days, there will be displays explaining the building of the school and schoolhouse and what life was like for the pupils.
Another display will focus on hop picking, a major local industry in the late 19th century when the school first opened. Chartham Hatch, like almost every Kent school in those days, would certainly have been affected by pupil absences in the autumn, while parents and children all headed off to find employment in the hop fields.
A West Kent venue with fascinating insights into life as a school pupil is Cranbrook Museum, a town where there has been a grammar school since Tudor times. The museum has many attractions for families, including the village lock-up in the museum garden.
Junior-age children with an interest in science and engineering will enjoy exploring the stations and engine sheds at the Spa Valley Railway in Tunbridge Wells. Here steam and diesel locomotives are taken apart and put back together again, as the volunteers work on various renovation projects.
A downloadable voucher for the special offer half-price train tickets between Tunbridge Wells and Groombridge – on sale throughout the Heritage Open Days weekend – is on their local website (see end of article).
Families with a love for drama and theatre will relish the prospect of several behind-the-scenes theatre tours on the Heritage Open Days programme, including Whitstable Playhouse, Trinity Arts Centre in Tunbridge Wells (a converted Decimus Burton church) and the Oast Theatre in Tonbridge.
At the Oast, there will be the chance for young visitors to join a workshop with the youth drama group, while ladies whose fashion heyday was the 1970s are sure to enjoy the exhibition ‘Laura Ashley, her fashions and fabrics’ and learn how the theatre wardrobe department makes use of that iconic style.
This outing is a must for grandmothers, mothers and daughters and photographers will be on hand for those wanting to strike a dramatic pose in their favourite period costume.
The smallest in the family might enjoy activities involving animals. Possible destinations could be Ightham Mote, with its Grade I listed dog kennel or our cover star Knole, set in a beautiful deer park.
Children are warmly welcome to meet the pigs, sheep, hens and geese at the Pilsdon at Malling Christian Community, while those who prefer cuddly animals to the real thing will enjoy the toys and teddies at Edenbridge Museum, where a Michaelmas Fayre will be in full swing.
Browse the national website to discover other venues welcoming children: William Morris’s Red House with its children’s garden trail, Cranbrook Windmill with the chance to grind flour, bell ringing at St Mary’s Church in Dover, St George’s RAF chapel at Biggin Hill for the Battle of Britain anniversary year, and many more.
Heritage Open Days
Taking place from 9-12 September, Heritage Open Days has plenty on offer for all ages, welcoming groups, families and individuals to a range of around 200 venues and events across Kent. Buildings – public, private and religious – from across a millennium of history will be opening their doors; communities will be guiding visitors to discover Kent's history and heritage. Visit for all supporting links and to check opening hours, and do take up this opportunity to explore your heritage.
Discover the history and heritage of Kent with free
English Heritage Open Days taking place this month.
Words by Fiona Woodfield pictures by Manu Palomeque