Go Behind The Scenes At Prisons, Factories, Museums And Courts For Heritage Open Days

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 56 months ago

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Go Behind The Scenes At Prisons, Factories, Museums And Courts For Heritage Open Days
See inside Stowe's Gothic Temple

While London has Open House, the rest of the country has Heritage Open Days, a nine-day event in September. Venues across the country open their doors, often for free, and invite the public to look inside. We've wheedled out a few behind the scenes and one-off experiences close to London.

Ship model stores, Chatham, Kent

© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

Did you know that the National Maritime Museum and Imperial War Museum store some of their collections out on the Kent coast? Go behind the scenes at the ship model stores in Chatham Historic Dockyard, see some of the highlights, and learn how they are preserved. Free (there's a charge if you want to visit the rest of the Historic Dockyard afterwards), booking required, 13 September.

Grand Shaft Staircase and North Entrance Tunnel, Dover, Kent

© Dover Museum

Western Heights in Dover is a clifftop fortification occasionally open for tours. Rarer is the chance to visit the grand shaft staircase, which spirals down 250ft into the cliffs below the fortress. Free, just turn up, 21-22 September. The North Entrance Road Tunnel, which provided vehicle access to the fortification, is also open for Heritage Open Days, offering a chance to cross the drawbridge and see inside the gun rooms. Free, book ahead, 21-22 September.

Network Rail Training Centre, Paddock Wood, Kent

© Justin Linch

Here's one for all you train fans — visit the usually off-limits Network Rail Training Centre, near Tonbridge. See the technology used for training purposes, including stretches of track set aside to teach people how to install and maintain the tracks. Free, just turn up, 19-20 September.

Van Gogh's bedroom, Ramsgate, Kent

London's not the only place in the south-east to have Van Gogh connections. The Dutch artist spent time staying in a boarding house in Ramsgate in 1876, and Heritage Open Days offers a chance to see the room he stayed in. Texts from letters he wrote during his stay are on display too. Free, just turn up, 14-15 September.

Tunbridge Wells Wetherspoons, Kent

Inside the Opera House. Photo: Wetherspoons

Bear with us here. The Opera House, aka 'Tunbridge Wells 'Spoons' is a building of beauty, and a Grade-II listed one at that, with the galleried seating from its previous life still installed above drinkers' heads. Take a tour visiting the upper and dress circles, normally off-limits to the public. Free, booking essential, 16-19 September.

Cold War bunker, Whitstable, Kent

© Royal Observer Corps Association Heritage

Victory Wood Nature Reserve, between Whitstable and Faversham, has a hidden underground bunker, used to monitor nuclear attacks during the Cold War. It only opens once a year, and a team of local historians are on hand to tell its story. Free, booking essential, 21 September.

Essex Police Museum and HQ, Chelmsford, Essex

Essex Police Museum is often open to the public, but these special tours visit behind-the-scenes areas which are usually off-limits. Take a tour around Essex Police HQ, then go behind the scenes in the museum's stores to see items not on display, and learn how police officers use them for research and cold case reviews. Free, booking required, 14 and 21 September.

Meet the Mayor of Chelmsford, Essex

The Mayor of Chelmsford opens up the Mayoral Parlour (fancy!) to give the public a chance to learn more about his role. See special mayoral robes, and letters from the Queen, before meeting the Mayor himself and putting your questions to him. Free, booking required (10.30am/1.30pm), 16 September.

Colne Valley Postal History Museum, Essex

We'd never heard of this place until we stumbled across it on the Heritage Open Days website, but now we really want to visit. The usually-private Colne Valley Postal History Museum opens its doors for one day, showcasing its collection of 150+ post boxes, phone kiosks, stamp machines and postal worker uniforms. The same venue is also home to the National AA Village Signs Collection, with more than 50 signs collected (legally, we assume) from 35 counties. Free, just turn up, 22 September.

Marconi Wireless Factory, Essex

The outskirts of Chelmsford are home to both the world’s first wireless factory, where the radio equipment for the RMS Titanic was made, and the world's first radio factory, where radar, radio and television equipment was mass produced. This guided walk covers both, finishing up inside the 1912 radio factory building. £5, booking required, 13 September.

Lewes Prison, East Sussex

Get inside Lewes Prison (and, unlike many, leave again), on a tour of the original Victorian features of the 1853 building. Prison staff lead the tour and talk about how the building has changed over the years. Note the strict security requirements for this one. Free, booking required, 12-13 September.

Sussex County Cricket Club, Hove, East Sussex

Visit the home of the oldest professional sports team in the world — Sussex County Cricket Club. See the ground where the team has played since the 1870s, take a behind the scenes tour of areas normally off-limits, and finish in the Sussex Cricket Museum. Free, booking required, 20 September.

The Village Gaol, Aldermaston, Berkshire

The smallest building in Aldermaston, near Reading, is the Village Gaol, a 7.5ft x 6ft space previously used to house prisoners. Heritage Open Days offers a rare chance to see inside it. Free entry, just turn up, 14-15 September.

Wind turbine, Reading, Berkshire

Book ahead for information tours around the base of the wind turbine located on Green Park Industrial Estate, just outside Reading. Not the most inspiring of locations, we'll admit, but it should be interesting to hear from an expert about the turbine, including how it works and why this location was chosen. Free, book ahead, 15 and 19 September.

Reading Crown Court, Berkshire,

See the workings of a crown court on this open day. Activities include mock trials, and tours of the cells. Free, just turn up, 21 September.

The Gothic Temple, Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Stowe is a National Trust property, but its Gothic temple is rarely open to the public. The folly was built in 1741, and contains circular rooms, usually rented out as holiday lets these days. Worth climbing the turrets to take in the views. Temple access is free, but you'll need to pay normal National Trust admission, just turn up, 21-22 September.

BFI National Archives, Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire


South Bank institution BFI has a whole archive centre located out in Hertfordshire. It's usually off-limits to the public, but for one day only hosts talks, tours and demos about how film and TV heritage is preserved. See the technology used to handle older formats, and get a peek at the vaults where much of the material is stored. Free, just turn up, 15 September.

See the Heritage Open Days website for the full, impressive list of events.

Last Updated 23 August 2019