“Normally when we walk around a place like this, it’s ‘don’t touch this, don’t touch that, keep your hands to yourself’,” said Dominique Lyle as her two sons, six-year-old Joel and two-year-old Jack, raced around the portrait gallery of Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire.
They were among the first families to explore the Children’s Country House, a first-of-its-kind heritage experience by the National Trust where young visitors are invited to touch objects and explore every corner of the space.
Instead of roped-off rooms, children can dress up and dance in the saloon, curl up with a book in the library, make clay cookie creations in the kitchen and pose for portraits in the long gallery.
“It’s really refreshing. We do a lot of National Trust [properties] and normally we’re constantly on child management, making sure they don’t jump on the beds,” said Jack and Joel’s father, John Lyle. “Normally they can’t wait to leave. But here they’re actually learning.”
“At one point we said we just weren’t going to do the houses for a while. We just can’t because for our two-year-old it’s just not a fun time. We tried taking them to Calke Abbey and abandoned it halfway through,” added Dominique.
National Trust staff worked with 100 young ambassadors, aged up to 12, to devise and test ideas for the hall, which was already home to the trust’s Museum of Childhood.
One ambassador, 11-year-old Mahnoor, said the house was a “free place”. “If you go to normal museums there’s lots of signs saying ‘don’t touch, stay away, it could break’,” he said. “Whereas with this, most of the things you can interact with, and you don’t have to worry about if you’re going to drop something or knock into something.”
The house is split into three zones, including an escape room-style area where families complete challenges and riddles inspired by the hall’s use as an evacuation centre for children during the blitz.
Jodie Lees, the general manager of the hall, said staff had worked hard to balance the conservation of the property with new interactive play areas.
“It’s been really important for us to be working alongside our conservation experts,” she said. “There was quite a lot of ropes before, but actually we’ve just protected things in different ways. We’ve trialled and tested it in lots of ways but we will continue to have conversations and make sure everything is working.”
In the library, historic books are protected with conservation-grade acrylic book bars, items are colour-coded to show which things can be handled, and hedgehog pictures are placed on items not to be touched.
“It’s important for us to try and spark that lifelong love of heritage, and for that to be in a space where everybody can come and have a really positive experience,” Leeds said.
The house, which was donated to the National Trust by the Vernon family in 1967, is famous for its Jacobean-style interiors and collections, and the Great Staircase, which has recently undergone a £70,000 restoration.
Lucy Armstrong-Blair, a cultural heritage curator, said the property had largely remained untouched and everything that had been added was removable, but they had “overlaid a different interpretation on it”.
“The National Trust was the progenitor of opening the country house in the 1950s, or even earlier, and we instituted the ropes where everyone went along in a visitor route, because that was public demand and what we thought people would want,” she said.
“But things have evolved. We’re not about making drastic changes but we want people to love these spaces and dwell in them, rather than speeding through them in a channel.”
The Children’s Country House opens to the public on Saturday 22 October.