The public can take guided tours of interesting NHS buildings -both old and new - on heritage open days in September. Barbara Millar explains

There is a flurry of unusual activity in the NHS right now. Pictures of benefactors are being dusted, silver is being polished and artefacts are being labelled in preparation for the fifth year of annual heritage open days. Members of the public will be able to inspect the nooks and crannies of hundreds of NHS properties over the weekend of 12-13 September.

The event, which celebrates England's cultural and architectural heritage, is co-ordinated by the Civic Trust, with funding from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. More than 2,000 properties, many of which are normally closed to the public, will be open free of charge. They include lighthouses, windmills, courtrooms, factories, private houses and government establishments.

'The buildings have to have some sort of architectural, cultural or historical interest,' explains Civic Trust spokeswoman Diane Clements. 'This doesn't mean that only old buildings will be open but also new ones, such as the NHS Executive's headquarters at Quarry House in Leeds. The buildings of today are the heritage of tomorrow.'

Giving people the opportunity to look round these buildings allows them to lobby in a more informed way about the sort of environment they wish to live in, Ms Clements believes. 'There is always a great response. This year we expect more than 750,000 visitors.'

Heritage open days are England's contribution to European heritage days, a Council of Europe initiative, which sees similar events taking place in 44 countries on or around the same weekend. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland also hold 'open day' events during September and Open House '98 in London will take place on 19-20 September. Information is available by calling 0891-800603. Calls cost 50p a minute.

The NHS is one of the largest contributors of properties for this event, with a range of different buildings across the country.

Winchester

The Barter Memorial Chapel at the Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester has never been opened to the public before. It is situated 'deep within the finance department' at the hospital and is used for meetings, explains Brenda Goddard, library and information services manager with Winchester and Eastleigh Healthcare trust.

Staff volunteers, including chaplains and the archivist, will act as guides from 2pm onwards, on the hour, on both Saturday 12 and Sunday 13 September. Hospital artefacts, including a lamp reputedly once belonging to Florence Nightingale, pictures and altar cloths, will be displayed.

The chapel, which dates from the 1860s, has a beautiful stained-glass window, carved wooden font and wall decorations. 'We did think about displaying all the silver,' says Ms Goddard, 'but we decided we couldn't face the security problems.'

Oxford

A woman in a crinoline dress will greet visitors to the Radcliffe Infirmary's boardroom. She is Valerie Thompson, personal assistant to the chair and chief executive, who has been in costume on past heritage open days 'to add a sense of history', she says.

The boardroom has been in continual use since the 1770s. It has black panelled walls, with hospital benefactors' names in gold lettering. Copies of old hospital documents, pictures and some medical artefacts will be on display. Visitors will also be able to see the hospital chapel, in early English gothic style, which was consecrated in 1865.

The Radcliffe Infirmary has opened the boardroom for the past three heritage open days. 'The first year we had 20 visitors, the next year 40, but last year we had 600,' says Ms Thompson. 'We have no idea how many to expect this year.'

Most visitors are from in and around Oxford. 'People here are very fond of the hospital - many have been patients here over the years,' she adds.

Doncaster

George Banks, a wealthy Leeds cloth merchant, had St Catherine's House, Balby, near Doncaster, built in neo-gothic style as his private residence in 1827. It has been through various guises since then, including a time as an asylum and a nurse training school, and is now the headquarters of Doncaster Healthcare trust.

The trust boardroom is impressive, says Ian Carpenter, trust head of communications, as are the grounds, with their walled garden. The old plate pantry and the cellars will also be open. Rumour has it that the house is haunted by a grey lady. 'Our Unison rep, Tony Bryan, claims to have had an 'experience' with this ghost early one morning,' says Mr Carpenter.

Mr Bryan will be on hand to guide visitors, with other staff volunteers, and refreshments will be served in the staff canteen. Mr Carpenter anticipates even more visitors than the 250 who came last year.

Derby

Not all buildings open on heritage open days will be old or of architectural significance. The Derbyshire Ambulance Service control room 'is not particularly interesting architecturally', admits spokeswoman Jane Phillips. 'But visitors have come from as far as Lincoln and Staffordshire to see what goes on inside.

Most people are interested in seeing, at first hand, the European pioneers of the emergency medical despatch system, says Ms Phillips.

The reason why the service first got involved with heritage open days was to meet the public directly, to talk about the prioritisation system while it was still being piloted. 'People find it very reassuring to see the system in action,' she says, 'and we have always found it an excellent PR opportunity.'

Around 30-40 visitors a day are expected, as in previous years. Control room staff work normally, and staff volunteers are on hand to talk about the system. Games for children and refreshments are provided. No special insurance is needed, 'but we keep our risk manager well informed about what is going on', Ms Phillips adds.

Exeter

An early 18th century country house, which 'ended up as a hospital' and is now the Exeter and District Community trust headquarters, will be open on Sunday 13 September for tours at 2pm and 3.30pm.

Newcourt House in Old Rydon Lane, Exeter, also has seven acres of gardens, which are being restored to their original splendour. 'We have particularly notable trees and rhododendrons,' says Ian Cann, the trust's deputy director of estates.

Inside the house, the main attractions are the boardroom, hall and staircase - and the Egyptian bathroom, now used as a store cupboard. The grade II listed building has been included in heritage open days for three years and visitor numbers have increased from 100 in the first year to 500 last year.

This year, before the 90-minute tour of house and grounds, an audio-visual display will give a taste of what is to come.

'We like to have enough time to give the place proper justice,' says Mr Cann. Volunteer staff will guide the tours. Potted plants, grown by Hillcrest Growers, a local care in the community rehabilitation programme, will be on sale.

Last year sales of plants raised 100 for the growers, he said.

The first year's visitors included a cousin of the original owner of the house, who had stayed there when he was a child. 'He has an old cine film of the house in the 1930s which he plans to make available to us,' says Mr Cann. 'Maybe next year we will be able to show visitors what it was like back then.'

Chichester

The chapel of Chichester's former St Bartholomew's Hospital, also known as the Workhouse Chapel - was built and consecrated in 1625, a year after the hospital. Most of its wooden panels and furnishings, such as the pews and minister's desk, are original, says Maureen Ward, communications officer for the Royal West Sussex trust. '

The pew seats are particularly narrow - the inmates were not supposed to be comfortable.'

At the end of the 17th century, the hospital ran out of money and was bailed out by Chichester City Corporation, which took it over as the city poorhouse.

When workhouses were set up, its role changed again until the county council took over the administration in the 1920s.

During the second world war the building was used as a bath house for the forces, until it was taken over as a chapel by the NHS in 1948. 'It is a lovely chapel which is rarely open,' says Ms Ward.

'It is very tiny - we can only take a maximum of 20 people at any one time.' The chapel will only be open on Saturday 12 September from 10am until 4.30pm.

Northern Ireland

Among the health service buildings included in European heritage days in Northern Ireland is the former Princess Alexandra Hospital in Ballymena, now the headquarters of the Homefirst Community Health and Social Services trust. Built in 1885, it closed as a cottage hospital in 1996.

For further information and a brochure on European Heritage days (Northern Ireland), telephone 01232-543078.