A bright future for our precious Norfolk heritage

Norfolk Archaeological Trust's 10 sites, such as Binham Priory, are havens for nature too. Photo: Da

Norfolk Archaeological Trust's 10 sites, such as Binham Priory, are havens for nature too. Photo: David Brooker - Credit: citizenside.com

One of Norfolk's least-known heritage organisations has launched an ambitious plan to put it right at the heart of local life. Trevor Heaton reports.

Lime-rich Roman walls which survive at Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich have been de

Lime-rich Roman walls which survive at Venta Icenorum at Caistor St Edmund near Norwich have been designated nature reserves. - Credit: Eastern Counties Newspapers

The times they are a-changing for our heritage, not only from the uncertain eddies that Brexit is creating, but also from general Government belt-tightening.

And alongside all this there is much soul-searching going on among our heritage bodies, including the likes of the National Trust. Many are asking themselves how they can both reflect and appeal to fast-changing 21st-century communities.

Middleton Mount Castle, one of the Trust's smaller sites.

Middleton Mount Castle, one of the Trust's smaller sites. - Credit: IAN BURT

At a county level, we are being affected too. Hands up how many of you have heard of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust? Not many, I'd guess – and yet it looks after 10 historic (and beautiful) sites round here, led by the 'big three' iconic locations of Caistor St Edmund Roman Town, Burgh Castle Roman fort and St Benet's Abbey, but also ones at Middleton (castle mound), Burnham Norton (medieval friary), South Creake (Iron Age fort), Binham Priory, Fiddler's Hill near Warham (prehistoric burial mound), Filby (Unitarian chapel) and Tasburgh (earthwork fort).

Now trust director Caroline Davison is hoping that public awareness of the organisation and the wonderful work it does will be revolutionised, thanks to a £178,500 Heritage Lottery Fund project, 'Onwards and Upwards'.

The money will give the trust the chance to develop a 10-year plan, encourage and train more volunteers and trustees, look at ways of attracting more day-to-day income, and – most important of all – put it right at the heart of Norfolk life.

When news of the 18-month project was released earlier this year, trust chairman Peter Griffiths said: 'We're extremely grateful to the National Lottery for supporting the Trust during this important transitional phase in our mission to care for some of Norfolk's most significant heritage sites.'

Most Read

It's not a pipe-dream. Caroline, who took over as director in 2014, can already point to where one community has radically changed its view of a trust site in its midst.

The 'Imagined Land' community project – a separate venture - is blending archaeology, history, art and drama at Tasburgh and Burnham Norton. The Tasburgh part of the programme has been completed, to huge acclaim.

'It has absolutely worked there,' she said. 'People have had their minds changed. Before, it was just 'that field in the middle of the village' where people walked their dogs, and now it's become a site with heart-felt connections for them. They can point to it and say 'that's where the Saxon village was…'

'Onwards and Upwards is more of a strategic project,' she continued. 'And one of the main things we are looking at [is to explore] more diverse sources of income.'

Entry to all its sites is free, something which Caroline is very keen to continue (although the trust may have to charge for parking at some sites at some point in the future). At the moment more than half the trust's income comes from 'agri-grants', ultimately funded via the EU and so – yes, you've guessed it – one of the many things that might be affected by the referendum result. 'We knew that we needed to be widening our sources if income even before Brexit – but it certainly concentrated our minds!'

Onwards and Upward will also expand the number of volunteers who help out at its sites with everything from basic maintenance to leading tours, improving public access to its sites, welcoming visitors or just reporting any repair work that needs doing.

Two posts have been created under the funding. One is Katie Phillips, who began work in April as the trust's first-ever volunteer coordinator. Over the next 18 months she will be not only increasing the numbers from the current 50 or so but also to encourage and support them, developing and exploring how their skills might give our heritage a brighter future.

The trust will also aim to increase its membership, link up with other organisations and businesses, and encourage more donations and legacies. 'One thing I have realised is that our profile isn't very high,' Caroline said.

'People who come to visit our sites don't realise they are run by a small charity – they think they are run by the local council or government.'

The second new member of staff is Neil Featherstone, who will be bringing in fresh eyes to looking at such aspects as the farming side of the sites. These are the sort of things that Caroline has had to juggle with her many other roles as the trust's only paid member of staff. 'Suddenly, I've got two members of staff and it's fantastic!'

Caroline is also keen to find more about the people who visit the trust's 10 sites. 'We know that thousands of people visit us, but we don't know who they are or why they visit,' she explained.

'Equally interesting is to find out why people don't go there. It's all about understanding our audience.'

One way this information could be useful is to give the trust ideas for running more visitor-friendly events at its sites.

It's all part of what the Heritage Lottery Fund calls its 'resilient heritage' policy, which it defines as 'to strengthen and build capacity to better manage our heritage in the long term.'

It would be understandable, too, if the trust casts an envious eye or two in the direction of another local organisation with 'Norfolk' and 'Trust' in its title. The Norfolk Wildlife Trust was founded around the same time as its archaeological counterpart, but far outstrips it in terms of members, staff, revenue and much else besides.

So why should this be? 'I think that more people visit the wildlife trust sites because they change so much from month to month. But our sites change from month to month too - I've seen swallowtails and barn owls there.'

In fact many of the NAT sites are havens for nature too. 'Two walls of Caistor Roman Town are a county nature reserve because of the chalk-loving plants attracted by its lime mortar. I love that – I love these connections. I want to help people understand how beautiful these sites are.

'We need a clear vision on how we maintain our sites too.

We have been very successful at attracting capital funding, but it's money for the long-term maintenance that we have not been so successful at.

'It's all the stuff like repairing fences, doing tree surveys, hay harvesting, cutting hedges – we have miles of those – as well as preserving the remains themselves.'

The trust's ambition from day one was to take over and protect heritage sites for future generations to enjoy.

That process is continuing, as Caroline revealed that discussions are currently under way for bringing a couple more sites under its wing. 'We haven't stopped.'

Thanks to the grant she can also call on the expertise of Norfolk-based Dr Simon Thurley, former Chief Executive of English Heritage.

So where does she want the trust to be in, say, 10 years' time?

'I want us to be embedded at the heart of our communities. I want people to love our sites.

'I want people, when they think about the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, to say 'Oh yes, that's the trust that looks after some of the most iconic places in Norfolk.''

The work has already begun, and the trust needs your help. Could you give up a couple of hours here-and-there this summer to help with visitor surveys?

Full training will be given. Find out more by calling Caroline on 01603 462987 or via info@norfarchtrust.org.uk

…and you can do your bit to give a bright future for Norfolk's amazing heritage.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter