The doors to Britain’s great country houses are locked. Or they might as well be for most American visitors this year. Touring Buckingham Palace? Visiting Highclere Castle? Impractical, if not impossible, during a pandemic that has crippled transatlantic tourism. What to do?
Our friends at the Royal Oak Foundation are ready to help. Royal Oak is the American affiliate of the National Trust of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Normally, our Royal Oak membership cards are packed right next to our passports. And once on the ground in Britain, we almost wear out our cards—presenting them for free admission to great houses and fascinating properties where Royal Oak members are warmly welcomed.
Although that won’t happen this year, Royal Oak still opens manor house doors for us. Their expanded online programs continue this autumn and promise to Zoom us to some of the great houses and history that we’ve been missing. This autumn you can get to know Lady Jane Grey, detect art forgeries, hang out in the gentlemen’s clubs of St. James, and be a witness to the Great Fire of London. And Royal Oak also dabbles in Americana—letting us stroll through historic Hudson, New York or dine with Edith Wharton. The Royal Oak online programs continue through December. Most programs are $15 for members and $20 for non-members. Royal Oak also offers audio podcasts and National Trust short videos.
Another organization that offers programs for armchair tourists is American Ancestors—part of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. In October they’ll host something right on target for great house affectionadoes: An Explosion of Beauty: The Art, Architecture, and Collections of British Country Houses.
Historic Royal Palaces operates iconic British sites—the Tower of London, Banqueting House, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, Kew Palace, and Hillsborough Castle. HRP ran a series of online programs and virtual tours while their properties were closed due to pandemic restrictions. As of this writing, Historic Royal Palaces sites are open for in-person visitors and the online events have ended. That doesn’t do much for Americans seeking virtual visits. Of course, as the COVID situation changes in Britain, online programming may need to restart.
Scrolling through your Amazon Prime Video account, you’re likely to find a variety of documentaries under the loose topic of “Britain.” Quality varies, to say the least. But if you already have an account, there are some gems here. If you want to open up a world of online courses, then membership to The Great Courses is one place to go—albeit for a fee. We enjoyed The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales by Emory University professor Patrick Allitt. Note that some Great Courses offerings occasionally appear on Amazon Prime Video, too.
But you don’t have to pay to “audit” courses offered by FutureLearn. There are a handful of British and Irish themed courses in their catalog. We were fascinated by Hadrian’s Wall: Life on the Roman Frontier (Newcastle University) and The Book of Kells (Trinity College Dublin).
Although we won’t be grabbing our passports and flying through Heathrow Airport much this year, we’re still visiting…virtually.