Pontefract Castle undergoes major restoration and set to open new visitor centre

PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 August 2016 | UPDATED: 09:46 23 August 2016

People are now talking more about the castle

People are now talking more about the castle

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How a £3.5m restoration project is bringing pride back to Pontefract. Jo Haywood reports

Work is under way to bring the castle off English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ registerWork is under way to bring the castle off English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register

Pontefract Castle played a key role in the history of the North. It was besieged three times during the civil wars and was the last remaining Royalist stronghold when it finally surrendered in 1649.

A vivid rendering of strength and grandeur in its heyday, it was completely destroyed on the orders of parliament, its remains lying dormant until 1882 when they were opened as a public park. Since then, it’s been a quiet reminder of Yorkshire’s pivotal role in national history. Perhaps a bit too quiet.

‘It got to the point where the people of Pontefract couldn’t remember the significance and importance of the castle and the rich history it represented,’ said Councillor Les Shaw. ‘One of the problems was that the history of the castle was no longer taught in our schools and, more practically, trees had grown up around it and people literally walked past it without really noticing it was there.’

But that’s all changing. The trees have been cut down, the castle’s back on the local curriculum, restoration work is under way to bring it off English Heritage’s ‘at risk’ register and a Victorian barn is being transformed into a visitor centre, café, shop and learning space.

Perfect for a picnic Photo Jill JenningsPerfect for a picnic Photo Jill Jennings

These are just some of the innovations in the pipeline as part of the £3.5m Key to the North restoration and regeneration project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic England, Wakefield Council, The Wolfson Foundation (a charity that awards grants to support excellence in education and humanities) and landfill charity Epac.

‘One of the first things we did was to tackle the surrounding trees,’ said Coun Shaw. ‘It might seem insignificant but it’s made a significant difference already.

‘Now, people can see the castle clearly from the town and the vistas from the castle itself are amazing. You can see for miles. Just by cutting down a few trees, people have started talking more about the castle and taking an interest in a largely forgotten part of their heritage.’

As a result of this and, of course, the boost any attraction gets when it invests in a good café and shop, the council expects visitor numbers will almost double when the work is complete.

Ruins of Pontefract Castle Photo Joan RussellRuins of Pontefract Castle Photo Joan Russell

For Coun Shaw, however, re-engaging with local schools is the most important part of the project: ‘I’m most excited by the prospect of the flexible learning space. It’s important because children represent the future of the area and of the castle. If they’re proud of it and know it’s history, the castle won’t be forgotten again.’

The scheme will also open up parts of the castle not seen by the public since the 17th century, including the Sally Port and Swillington Tower, which have not been accessible since the castle was destroyed in 1649.

‘These areas haven’t seen the light of day for hundreds of years,’ said Coun Shaw. ‘We actually uncovered five cannon balls embedded in the keep. That caused a bit of a health and safety nightmare because no one could be sure if they were still contaminated with gunpowder (thankfully, they weren’t). And we’ve also found artefacts like rings and pottery that will eventually go on display.’

The Friends of Pontefract Castle, a small group of volunteers who’ve worked tirelessly for years with very few resources to keep the fabric of the castle from falling into complete dereliction, have enjoyed a positive bump in numbers as a result of the Key to the North programme. And 20 local people have been recruited to act as guides.

‘As they talk to their friends about the work they’re doing, the numbers will continue to grow,’ said Coun Shaw. ‘People want to be involved because it’s not just about restoring a building; it’s about restoring a community.

‘Visitor numbers are obviously a good way of measuring the success of the project because you’re dealing with concrete figures but, for me, it’s about the rising tide of community pride.’

It’s also about promoting the wider area as a key Yorkshire destination for regional, national and international visitors by developing links with other visitor attractions and events like Yorkshire Sculpture Park, The Hepworth Wakefield, Pontefract Liquorice Festival, Wakefield Rhubarb Festival and Sandal Castle.

‘We’re creating a rich heritage route in and around Wakefield so visitors don’t just pop in for a day; they stay for two or three days so they can see all the sights,’ Coun Shaw explained.

‘Visitors come once and then come back again, usually with some friends in tow. Then when visitors start to increase, local people will really start to appreciate what they’ve got on their doorstep.’

Pontefract Castle’s new visitor centre is due to open this September with the remainder of the restoration work scheduled to finish in spring 2017. To keep up to date with progress, visit wakefield.gov.uk

Making history

Brick by brick, fact by fact – how Pontefract Castle was built, destroyed and reinstated.

:: The original Pontefract Castle was built in the late 1080s by Ilbert de Lacy and went on to act as a fortress, temporary home for lords and kings, a centre of local administration, a prison and an armoury.

:: Richard II was imprisoned and died at Pontefract. It isn’t known if he starved himself to death or was left to starve by his captors. Either way, it wasn’t pleasant.

:: Other famous prisoners included James I of Scotland and Charles Duc d’Orleans, who was captured at the battle of Agincourt in 1415.

:: The Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, used Pontefract as one of his official residences. In 1483, during his usurpation of the throne, he had three of his political opponents executed there.

:: The castle was demolished in 1649. But its remains were excavated in 1882 by Pontefract Corporation and opened as a public park.

: It is now a scheduled ancient monument in the guardianship of Wakefield Council, although it’s actually still the property of Her Majesty the Queen in right of her Duchy of Lancaster.

:: For a concise history of Pontefract Castle, you can buy Pontefract Castle: Key to the North from the visitor centre for just £4.50.

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