The Real Appeal of a National Trust Membership
I finally caved and bought a National Trust membership. We’ve had an English Heritage membership for two years and I plan on renewing it up until the day we leave. My castle obsession knows no limits and there are still tons of castles I intend to explore. But I’ve finally realized the true benefit of a National Trust membership as a mother of young kids. It took me two years to come to this realization. For us, the appeal of NT properties isn’t the gorgeous, meticulously preserved 16th and 17th century manor houses. It’s the grounds. The grounds are spectacular and particularly perfect in the summer months for helping my little ones release their boundless energy. We’re not just talking pristine gardens reminiscent of Jane Austen era high society, National Trust has added walking trails, hiking paths, and playgrounds to many of their estates. My kids and I will be spending our summer days exploring them. And since I’m cheap, I bought the one adult + kids family membership. Daddy will be at work, he doesn’t get a membership.
This is what summer is supposed to look like.
After spending over four hours at Belton House this week, my children were filthy. Seriously filthy. Dried mud still caked to their feet and shoes. Legs and arms covered with dirt. And I’m still not sure if the brown all of their faces was the remnants of their chocolate ice cream cones or more mud that had splattered all over their faces and clothes. If I hadn’t been in a mad rush to start dinner once we arrived home, I would have taken them out back and hosed them off before letting them set foot in the house. They were that dirty. And that’s exactly what summer play should look like. They played hard. Relentlessly hard. Rolling down hills, emptying every muddy puddle they came upon with their jumps and kicks. Digging in the dirt and pebble piles. Climbing everything. And chasing each other up and down slides, across rope bridges, and down zip lines. They barely stayed awake until 8PM tonight. I’d call today a roaring success. And that is why we now have a National Trust membership.
Britain abounds with outdoor play opportunities for kids. Their playgrounds are creative and challenging and we stumble upon them everywhere. There are endless woods, nature preserves, and hiking trails to explore. But there’s something special about spending our summers outdoors on the grounds of amazing manor houses and ruins of 14th century castles. Our time in Britain is finite. It’ll only be a matter of time before we move back to something more “normal” and our playdates will return to super-safe-nearly-impossible-to-hurt-yourself playgrounds and swimming pools. We can do playgrounds and swimming pools anywhere. But playing with Downton Abbey and its lookalikes in the background and climbing on castles where Bloody Mary once stayed are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.
The Truth About British Summers
The thing about British summers is they are completely unpredictable. Summer starts and it rains for a straight week and never gets above 55°. And then there’s finally a day of partly cloudy skies and the temperature peaks at 65° and we’re outside in shorts and tank tops celebrating like its 85 and there’s not a cloud in the sky.
Britain makes you appreciate the decent days and learn to take full advantage of them when they do materialize. It’s not raining and there’s less than a 40% chance of rain all afternoon? Hurry! Get your shoes on! We’re going to the beach! That’s how you do British summers.
Explore Local or Bust
But honestly, this isn’t how we’d planned to spend our third summer in England. Summer is the best, or at least my favorite, time to explore Europe. Our big trip of the year—to Iceland—that we’d actually planned well in advance was to kick-off our summer. Plus a quick trip to southern Portugal before I popped out baby #4. But sometimes we have to be adults, and a suddenly empty house in the US that won’t sell itself requires making the tough decisions. Iceland and Portugal may have been put on hold indefinitely, but it’s given us the opportunity to spend the summer finding new gems near us. And have we ever. I feared my children would have tired of castles by now, but they haven’t. They regularly inquire if I’ve found any new castles for us to explore. And while the draw of National Trust properties for us is their grounds, some of the manor houses themselves have enthralled my kids. We toured Oxburgh Hall twice in one morning because my kids wanted to go in the Priest Hole a second time and show their new friends the hidden “magic” doors.
Since our kids aren’t yet in regular school, our summer started a bit earlier than most. Since May, we’ve been to all of the following places: Anglesey Abbey (NT), Kenilworth Castle (EH), Stratford-upon-Avon, Shell Grotto in Margate, Canterbury Cathedral, Castle Acre Priory and Castle (EH), the Abbey at Bury St Edmunds (EH), Rochester Castle (EH), Upnor Castle (EH), Rochester Cathedral, Belton House (NT), and Oxburgh Hall (NT). And we’re nowhere near done. The best part? The kids are eating it up. “What are we doing today, mommy?” “How about exploring a new playground with a cool mansion house in the background?” Followed by giddily happy, unanimous consent. The list makes it sound like we’re always on the go, when in reality, our “outings” typically make up only 2-3 days of each week. The rest are spent playing in our own backyard, ransacking the house with endless games of sword fighting, knights and princesses, and more imaginary play than I can keep up with, and running the dreaded errands.
We’re having an amazing summer. It’s not jam-packed with activities. But when we do go out and explore, they’re challenged, they try new things, they make new friends, they see new places.