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Blenheim Palace

Why heritage tours are key for travelers

Story by
postedAugust 30, 2019

They say you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. But curiously, it is sometimes only when you are committed to destroying something that you realize its true value. Take this tale from the U.S.-based National Trust for Historic Preservation, for example.

In 2005, a developer snapped up the opportunity to demolish the Daylight Building in Knoxville, Tennessee. After the demolition plans fell through, Dewhirst Properties bought the building in 2009 and started renovations. What they discovered was a wealth of opulent features, from heart pine drop ceilings to a vast glass clerestory, which allows sunlight to pour into the building’s core.

On a grander scale, in 2018, construction workers at England’s Blenheim Palace uncovered a series of mysterious, “lost” rooms while they were draining lakes on the estate. The UNESCO World Heritage site, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill and filming location for the iconic period drama “Downton Abbey,” contains more than 30 rooms and passageways that were said to have been flooded by the creation of the lakes in the 18th century.

Leeds Castle
Leeds Castle (Photo by CC Flickr/Karen Roe:

What else might we discover?

The lake drainage operation was part of a $15 million project for Blenheim Palace, and it’s not the only restoration effort in the U.K. In fact, in 2019 alone, we’ve seen many ancient properties being brought back to life, providing a much-needed boost for the local economy, as well as offering an enriching experience for groups.

In Kent, home to a number of royal residences, as well as landmarks such as Canterbury Cathedral, the team at the newly renovated Leeds Castle are keen to show off their $2.5 million stonework project. This comes in addition to the restoration of Lady Baillie’s drawing room and the castle library. Lord Conway famously called the 12th-century property the “loveliest castle in the world.”

Renovation at Achnagairn Castle
Renovation at Achnagairn Castle (Photo by The Group Company)

A labor of love

While these properties may have benefited from accolades, such as being designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, or from receiving enormous amounts of state funds, this is not always the case for castle restoration projects. For some, reviving ancient properties is a labor of love, a means of preserving hundreds of years of family traditions.

Take, for example, the Campbell family, owners of the Old Castle of Rowallan near Glasgow. In a bid to reconnect with their family and revive the 900-year-old property, the Campbells funded a restoration project. Family members say they have received inquiries from relatives living all over the world, and the castle is now open to the public for the first time in 70 years.

Opening the doors

Head almost 200 miles north to Inverness and you’ll find the Lacey-Solymar family, proud owners of the resplendent Achnagairn Castle. The 30-acre estate dates to 1663 and has undergone many transformations, from housing Charles “Bonnie Prince Charlie” Edward Stuart to serving as a hospital during World War II. An ornate ballroom was added in 1912, with the entire estate decked out in classic Scottish architecture.

When it fell into disrepair in the early 21st century, there was a danger of the castle becoming an apartment block. Thankfully, owners Gillian and Michael Lacey-Solymar snapped it up and spent two years restoring the castle with a modern twist.

Today, the property proudly displays its 5-star rating from VisitScotland, and it is open for exclusive rental to groups. With 24 rooms, each featuring its own individual decor, Achnagairn Castle is far from being a typical hotel experience. At The Group Company, we have been fortunate enough to secure exclusive group rates for those who want to learn a little more about Scottish customs.

Achnagairn Scottish Sun bedroom
Achnagairn Scottish Sun bedroom (Photo by Drew Cunningham)

Why heritage tours are so important (and unique)

In January 2019, a British financial firm used computer imaging technology to digitally restore six castle ruins across the United Kingdom, from the 16th-century Dunluce Castle in Northern Ireland to Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire.

These artists’ impressions served to highlight the enduring appeal of these captivating structures. However, nothing can compare to the immersive experience of setting foot on these ancient lands. Heritage tours go beyond simply walking around the grounds; they invite you into the estate’s culture. At Achnagairn, for example, travellers can enjoy Highland dancing or learn about the clans behind the traditional Scottish kilts.

At other sites, guests can meet with any lord or lady, and he or she will be happy to personally escort them around the land, giving an intimate overview of the property’s best-kept secrets. For teams working at heritage sites, this is not simply a day job. It could be the regeneration of a local area or the chance for a budding chef to win a coveted award. These people are all fiercely protective of their history, and they welcome the chance to share their story with others.

In an ever-developing world, cultural sustainability is becoming more and more important. These properties are not simply costly renovation projects; they are a part of a nation’s history and give younger generations an insight into the events that shaped the modern world.

What’s more, the culture and heritage tourism sector is also a hugely lucrative business. It is currently valued at more than $1 billion globally, with heritage and culture tourists spending as much as 38% more during their visits.

New chapters for old tales

Such is Britain’s passion for restoring its history, there are a multitude of organizations dedicated to keeping the memory alive. Scotland’s Castle Conservation Register, for example, supports ambitious projects, such as installing solar panels at Crichton Castle. That’s quite a leap from 14th-century roofing!

Meanwhile, the U.K.’s National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty currently protects 500 heritage properties and also invests heavily in wildlife preservation. With ample evidence indicating that sustainability is a key motivator for Generation Z, this suggests a positive trend for restoration and heritage tours.

Globally renowned television shows may help to put these properties on the map, but it is our own commitment to development that will see this kind of tourism thrive. When we step back in time, we grow, we develop and we learn—and ultimately, we enjoy a better future. 

Katie Thompson represents The Group Company, based in York, England; Boston; and Maastricht, Netherlands.

Top photo: Blenheim Palace
Photo by CC Flickr/Katherine:


Support for Courier articles provided by:
Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
Maid of the Mist
North Dakota Tourism Division
Tulalip Tribes/Quil Ceda Village