THEY are among Hampshire’s historic treasures – valued by both the people who live in the county and those who visit in their leisure time.

The fact that they are free is a huge bonus to residents and tourists.

Yet that access could be lost under a shake-up of English Heritage, according to a warning shot fired across the bows of Government ministers.

MPs have raised the alarm over plans to turn the much-loved body into an independent self-funding charity – which would mean the axing of its £103m annual grant from Whitehall.

They warned predictions of surges in visitor and membership numbers were wildly over-optimistic, threatening a future cash crisis.

They argue that this raises the danger of charges being introduced at 250 of those attractions that are currently free to enter.

They include:

  • Netley Abbey, near Southampton – the most complete surviving Cistercian monastery in southern England, from the 13th century.
  • Wolvesey Castle (Old Bishop’s Palace), Winchester – home to the wealthy and powerful Bishops of Winchester since Anglo-Saxon times.
  • The Grange at Northington, north of Winchester – like a “lakeside temple in a landscaped park”, in Greek Revival style.
  • Titchfield Abbey, west of Fareham – the ruins of a 13th century abbey, later converted into a Tudor mansion.
  • Southwick Priory, near Portchester – the remains of a wealthy Augustinian priory, once a famous place of pilgrimage.
  • St Catherine’s Oratory, Isle of Wight – a tall, medieval octagonal tower built in 1328, allegedly as a lighthouse.

Jenny Chapman, a Labour MP in the north-east, led a recent Commons debate, warning against adding “gates and a tea shop” to beautiful ruins.

She questioned whether English Heritage could treble visitor numbers and almost double membership to achieve self-sufficiency by the end of the decade.

She told ministers: “I’m not opposed in principle, but I have deep concerns about the practicalities. It would be a real disgrace if this was allowed to fail.

“People care a huge amount about our shared national heritage – and they care about the open access that they currently enjoy to many of these sites.”

The shake-up has also triggered stinging criticism from expert groups, which raised fears over the future of financially unviable sites.

The Council for British Archaeology said a Government consultation “has errors and does not provide the level of detail we would have expected to enable us to reach an informed decision”.

But culture minister Ed Vaisey brushed aside the protests insisting English Heritage would emerge a “more resilient organisation”.

The minister accused critics of “tilting at windmills”, saying: “They say ‘will it be able to do this, will it be able to do that’? It’s mildly galling that – when we found £80m to launch the new charity and clear the backlog of repairs – people are now muttering about resources.”