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Nottingham Castle Revamp

17 March 15 words: Mark Patterson
illustrations: Raph Achache

Here’s the news: our Castle’s having a revamp. The new-look Nottingham Castle should have lower ticket prices and bigger art exhibitions, and the gardens will be stripped back to expose more of the original castle. Robin Hood will take a more prominent role, also. But is this bad news? It all depends on how ‘da Hood’ is presented – and in what kind of castle...

There are issues of taste, character and expectation which Nottingham has been struggling with for years, and it’s a struggle which, until now, has led to decidedly limp and lukewarm presentations of both Nottingham’s most famous legend and the Castle itself. The two are bound together and, after years of indecision, the city’s best offer to visitors is still a small statue of the hooded one and half a castle. As former city director of planning, Adrian Jones remarks in his blog Jones the Planner, “Bloody Robin Hood has a lot to answer for - or at least Basil Rathbone and Alan Rickman camping it up as the Sheriff of Nottingham do. Of course this is impossible to live up to. The merest tarted up fragments of the medieval town remain.”

The expectation of disappointment was best summed up by the banner reading “Where’s the Castle?” which greeted visitors at the gatehouse until a few years ago. Where is the Castle? And where, you might as well ask, is Nottingham’s beating heart? The man behind the £24m revamp, and former city council chief, Ted Cantle, admits he was unsure of the Castle’s original purpose. “I think the fundamental thing was that I didn’t know what I was coming to,” he says. “Was it a castle? Was it a park? Was it a garden? Was it a flower show? Was it an art gallery? Was it the story of Nottingham? What was here was just so unclear.”

As of today, though, the fundraising part of the revamp campaign is almost over. Last year, the Heritage Lottery Fund stumped £12.9m of the required cash, while the rest has come from the city council, EU, trusts, foundations and the private sector. There’s three to four million left to raise, and for that, the Nottingham Castle Trust, chaired by Cantle, is targeting local businesses and ‘high net-worth individuals’ - wealthy folk, to you and me. There might even be some crowd-funding.

“Crowd-funding could add up to 10% of the total,” says Cantle. “But it rather depends. Nobody had done it on this basis and because Robin Hood has international appeal, it is possible that crowd-funding might take off on a bigger level.”

So Robin’s in, but how? This has been a charged issue since opinions about how the connection should best serve Nottingham can come down to personal tastes. Would you prefer a restrained and sensitive interpretation of the medieval castle which was mostly blown up after the English Civil War, or a fantasy Robin Hood’s castle where Maid Marian and the Sheriff wave at you from false towers and crenellations? The latter isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds, since a few years ago it was suggested that a Robin Hood theme park, connected to Nottingham by a tram line, could be a significant money-spinner for a city which lacks a main physical, cultural attraction.

Some LeftLion readers who responded to our recent survey on the issue said they would welcome a completely new castle. “Spend the money going into partnership with someone like the Tussauds group who run Warwick Castle, knock it down and build a decent castle, a Robin Hood experience and a huge tourist pleaser,” said one reader. “Build a proper massive castle, Minecraft stylee!” said another.

Cantle makes it clear that nothing like this is on the cards. “We’ve always known we were never going to have a Disney-type approach to the Castle, with plastic turrets and cable cars and so on, because it’s a Grade I listed building - a historic monument - and there’s absolutely no way in this world that English Heritage and all the other agencies would ever allow that to happen.” So, wave goodbye to thoughts of shooting arrows at an animatronic Sheriff while you slide down Little John’s water chute.

All the same, technology - mobile phone stuff, animations and other ‘immersive’ digital gizmos - is set to play a big role in the new Castle, in particular, a Rebellion Gallery tracing the history of protest in Nottingham, and newly opened up caves underneath Castle Rock, fully equipped with a glass lift. An animated Robin Hood will be your guide through the Rebellion Gallery as you soak up the history and democracy of the Civil War, Luddites, Chartists and Reform Act - all movements and events with strong Nottingham connections. “The actions that took place here, more than in any other English city, led to the creation of the democratic system,” says Cantle. Meanwhile, the Castle grounds will be ‘decluttered’ to expose more of the castle, including part of the moat surrounding the original motte-and-bailey castle, and a new entrance will be developed along Castle Road.

That just leaves the museum and art gallery within the Duke of Newcastle’s old mansion, which was burned down by protesters in 1831 when the Reform Bill was voted down in Parliament. “Ineptly restored by the ubiquitous Victorian hack, T.C. Hine, as the dreariest museum and art gallery you can imagine,” says Jones the Planner. Perhaps this is too harsh, as the old place is looked on with fondness by the wine glass-clinking crowd who attend every opening there.

The museum component of the building has long been in need of new inspiration: it’s tired, dull and confused. While the Long Gallery benefited from its ‘salon hang’ a few years back, the Castle, like all art galleries, has space to show only a fraction of its holdings at any one time. This is a shame, given that it owns a better collection of paintings than its size and municipal status would suggest. It also possesses Notts-made medieval alabaster sculptures and a collection of Roman artefacts from the ancient shrine of Diana at Nemi, Italy. It’s inability or unwillingness to relieve these from storage more than once a decade, verges on the criminal.

“Apparently, an awful lot of art is stored and has never seen the light of day,” said one LeftLion reader in our survey. Cantle assures us that both the Nemi pieces and the alabasters will have a place in the new museum. So too will large scale national and international touring art shows, since the Long Gallery’s environmental conditions will be improved. “At the moment we can’t display watercolours, so we’re installing new air handling and moisture controls in the gallery. There won’t be an exhibition in the world we won’t be able to handle. We’ve got to cater for different audiences.”

So far, so good. But it all sounds very high-minded - what about creating a fun, exciting and memorable experience? Cantle insists the Castle will press those buttons too. “When visitors arrive they will pass through an atmospheric, historical experience. We are using technology to its full and we’re absolutely convinced that visitors will leave saying, ‘Wow, that was fantastic.’  We’re working with designers for the Rebellion Gallery and we are sure it will be one of the best in the world. We’re creating an immersive experience in the cave system. We’ve begun to experiment with animation and I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else. It will be second to none.”

As with the building of Nottingham Contemporary, all this effort and expenditure is ultimately part of an economic strategy to improve Nottingham’s cultural image and put the city firmly on the tourist trail. The aim is to persuade visitors to stay for a weekend rather than a day. With the Castle playing an ‘anchoring’ role in this strategy, there is the potential to generate 4,000 new service sector jobs, says Cantle. Similar optimism was expressed in official circles to justify Contemporary, though, and the few cafes which opened up nearby have since closed down. As did the business which provided the lace motif concrete on the exterior.    

Most that took part in our survey thought that prices for the Castle were far too high - £5.50 for an adult ticket. One disgruntled reader said, “Entrance fees are too high. Citycard holders get in for free on weekdays, but most of us are at work. Most of the displays are very outdated - I’d prefer quality, not quantity.” Another former Castle-lover said, “We used to go there all the time and felt it was our place. We rarely go now because of the cost of getting the family in.” An out-of-towner said, “It’s far too expensive to visit, especially if you don't live in the city. Other towns manage free entry to far more exciting museums, so goodness only knows why Nottingham charges so much.”

In reply, Cantle explains, “We are hoping to give free access to city residents for parts of the grounds and possibly parts of the ‘experience’ as well, so we’re hoping we can do better than it is at present.” Does that mean lower ticket prices when the new Castle opens in 2019? “That’s our aim.”

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