The Southeast's Best Historic Houses

Touring the Southeast's historic houses isn’t just a procession of beautiful photo ops; it’s a living history lesson. From modest manor houses to the sprawling stately homes of the aristocracy, each building has something to tell about private life or the history of the nation, and often the story is presented in an entertaining way.

Historic houses reveal the evolution of the country, from medieval fortresses planned for defense to architectural wonders that displayed the owner's power. In time, gardens and grounds became another way to display status. Times, however, changed. And the aristocratic rewards of owning tracts of countryside, art, and family treasures encountered reality in the 20th century, as cash flow and death taxes presented huge challenges. Private owners opened homes to the public for a fee, some with marketing flair. Hundreds of other homes and castles are now owned by the National Trust or English Heritage, organizations that raise part of the money needed to maintain them through entrance fees.

Beyond the House

The idea of exploring historic houses may inspire joy—or, frankly, boredom. If the latter, please don't give up: many houses have gardens and extensive grounds that make a great day out for garden lovers or walkers. You may be able to purchase a ticket that includes only the grounds. Some houses have so many activities aimed at kids that the whole family will find something to do.

Choosing a House

We admit it: there are almost too many houses to visit in the Southeast, but they’re conveniently close to each other. Here are the prime characteristics of some top spots to help you decide.

Arundel Castle: Still a family home for the duke of Norfolk, Arundel has its Norman-era keep and Barons' Hall, as well as magnificent examples of Gothic-style domestic remodeling by the Victorians.

Bodiam Castle: This place is what most of us picture when we think of a medieval castle, complete with turrets and an exquisite moat. However, the inside is mostly a ruin.

Chartwell: The National Trust owns this Victorian mansion, the former home of Winston Churchill. There's plenty of memorabilia, plus good woodland walks. Tours are by timed ticket.

Herstmonceux Castle: This romantic, moated 15th-century brick castle was saved by a 20th-century rehab. Only a few rooms are open (it's now a school), but they and the extensive gardens and grounds are evocative.

Hever Castle: Turrets, battlements, and a moat set the mood: Hever dates to the 13th century but has a Tudor link as the childhood home of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second wife. The American Astors restored it after 1903. Gardens and activities—jousting, fairs—keep things entertaining.

Ightham Mote: Ideal for lovers of romantic antiquity, this 14th-century manor house also has a moat. The Great Hall is ancient, but there are Tudor and Victorian sections, too.

Knole: Home of the Sackvilles and now a National Trust property, this sprawling Tudor house resembles a village. Furnishings are dark and florid, and include a set of 17th-century silver furniture. Writer Vita Sackville-West grew up here.

Leeds Castle: The setting of this castle on two islands on a lake is amazing. The inside reflects a 20th-century refurbishing by the last owner, and family activities are plentiful. You can eat and spend the night here, too, at themed events.

Penshurst Place: For more than 500 years this medieval manor house has been the family home of the Sidneys. The medieval hall is famous, and the interior is Elizabethan. An 11-acre Italian garden and a toy museum are other interests.

Petworth House: Art lovers, take note: This sprawling 17th-century mansion has the National Trust's richest collection of paintings, including treasures by J. M. W. Turner, who visited here. Capability Brown's park is also a big draw.

Polesden Lacey: This National Trust property dates to the early 19th century but is famous for its lavish early 20th-century interiors.

Tips for Visiting

Keep in mind that houses and castles are unique. You may be free to wander at will, or you may be organized into groups like prisoners behind enemy lines. Sometimes the exterior of a building may be spectacular, but the interior dull. And the gardens and grounds may be just as interesting as (or more so than) the house. Our individual reviews alert you to these instances, but you should study websites. You can often pay separately for the house and grounds.

Consider the kids. Some houses have activities or special events aimed at kids, especially in summer; some even have playgrounds.

Look into money-saving passes. If you plan to see lots of historic houses and castles, it might be cheaper to buy a pass, such as the ones from the National Trust or English Heritage, or to join an organization such as the National Trust and thus get free entry. Check entrance fees against your itinerary to be sure what you’ll save.

Check seasonal opening hours. Hours can change abruptly, so call the day before or check online. Many houses are open only from April to October, and they may have unpredictable hours. In other cases the houses have celebrated parks and gardens that are open much of the year. Consider a trip in shoulder seasons if you can't take the crowds that pack the most popular houses. Some places are open during December.

Plan your transportation. Some places are very hard to reach without a car. Plan your transportation in advance—and remember that rural bus and train services can finish early!

Consider a stay at a property. You can rent a cottage from the National Trust (www.nationaltrustholidays.org.uk) or English Heritage (www.english-heritage.org.uk/book-and-buy/holiday-cottages). The Landmark Trust (www.landmarktrust.org.uk) and Vivat Trust (www.vivat-trust.org) also have properties for rent.

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