Fears for the future of King's Lynn's Guildhall of St George
Concerns are growing for the future of Britain's largest-surviving medieval guildhall.
The 15th Century Guildhall of St George housed the King’s Lynn Arts Centre until it closed in early 2016.
Since then the theatre and galleries that stretch from King Street towards the river have operated on a for hire basis.
MORE - King’s Lynn Arts Centre announces closure
The complex is owned by the National Trust, which leased it to West Norfolk Council for 99 years in 1951.
Late last year, West Norfolk council submitted a bid for £2.7m in lottery funding to regenerate the site. It wanted to enlarge the theatre and modernise the galleries to attract major touring exhibitions. But lottery officials turned it down, saying it wasn’t sustainable.
MORE - Lottery bid for Guildhall turned down
Today the trust’s website says: “The Arts Centre is now being run as a hire venue, supporting a year round programme of theatre, dance, music, lectures and film.
“If you want to look around the Guildhall, there are volunteers who offer a guided tour if you ring the number provided, but this cannot always be guaranteed. We apologise for any inconvenience caused while the future of the site is under consideration by the leaseholder.”
The council is preparing another funding bid. Elizabeth Nockolds, its cabinet member for culture, heritage and health, said: “I have had several meetings with officers and at the moment we are working on a cultural positioning statement. This will help align our future plans with the strategies of relevant organisations, including the Arts Council, HLF and LEP, who we are likely to be approaching for funding.”
Shortly after the Arts Centre closed, the National Trust e-mailed the council, asking for “reassurances in terms of future plans”, reveal documents obtained by a freedom of information request.
Official Teresa Squires wrote: “The National Trust has been getting a lot of concerned comments about the recent closure of the Arts Centre and what this means for the guildhall and associated building context.”
She added as owner, the trust needed to ensure the council continued to maintain the buildings. The trust supported the lottery bid saying it was “delighted” the council was looking to rejuvenate the site.
Other organisations including King’s Lynn Festival and King’s Lynn Civic Society wrote letters of support.
MORE - support for lottery bid to reopen Guildhall of St George
But the lottery bid was criticised privately in a letter to Mrs Nockolds prior to submission, signed by users of the building. They requested that the bid be delayed for three months.
They wrote: “We are concerned that what we envisage as the current draft HLF bid has been developed without the full and timely involvement of the current users. As a consequence we find ourselves in the difficult position of being consulted on the fine details of proposals that are parts of a bid that appears to approach the heritage arts and cultural aspects of the Guildhall complex in a piecemeal and narrow manner.”
Minor amendments were made to the bid after meetings with some users, including increasing the number of seats proposed for the theatre. But the bid was not delayed.
Ivor Rowlands, from Lynn Arts, Culture and Heritage (LArCH), said: “The key concern was that the bid was going to be rushed through. It was unstrategic, it didn’t have a clear strategy, it was a bid to get some money to help with repairs. What we said was born out by the Heritage Lottery Fund in the rejection letter.”
In its bid, the council stated: “The Guildhall is at risk physically but also as a vital community theatre resource. There is a risk that this valuable heritage asset will no longer be accessible to the public, and its connection to the development of historic King’s Lynn lost.”
Mr Rowlands tabled a question about the Guildhall at the National Trust’s AGM last weekend. It stated: “It is mostly closed to the public and NT members, neglected, under-used and in desperate need of maintenance and repair.
“In the light of the continued and repeated failure of your tenant, West Norfolk council, to update and maintain the buildings for regular use, please can the trustees explain why this unique heritage asset is not a greater priority for the National Trust and what they intend to do about it.”
The question was not answered at the meeting. Mr Rowlands said: “There is a real long-term concern because the fabric of the building is not in good shape. On the wall at the front all the paint’s flaking off and there’s signs of damp in there.
“The upholstery is patched together with sticking tape, it’s a disgrace. It’s undoubtedly deteriorating.”
Why lottery bid was turned down
The council was told its £2.7m Heritage Lottery funding bid was being turned down in a letter dated March 23.
It said: “We recognised the importance of site, the need for repair and reconfiguration, and the desire to maximise public use of the space. However the separate functions proposed did not appear to represent a coherent package with a clear identity.
“The bid provided insufficient evidence of a rethink and fresh approach, repeating previous patterns of use as a theatre and art gallery.
“Overall therefore sustainability was considered high risk and the case for investment in this scheme was unconvincing. The tight project timetable also increased risk. If you wish to reapply, we would be happy to discuss your proposals with you.”
It adds any amended application would be “subject to the same competitive assessment process as new applications”.
The Trust’s position
The building is owned by the National Trust. Teresa Squires, its general manager for West Norfolk, said: “Recognising the significance of St George’s Guildhall and protecting the long-term future of the building are a clear priority for the National Trust.
“The guildhall and associated buildings are leased to West Norfolk council and the council and the National Trust have sought to find the right balance of how such an important and historic building can be both used and maintained.
“We have been pleased to learn that the Kings Lynn Festival has recently moved their offices into the Guildhall and will be looking at opportunities to offer rental of the galleries and encouraging more use of these spaces.
“We are in regular contact with the council and were disappointed to hear their bid for a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant was unsuccessful earlier this year.
“This grant would have allowed them to rejuvenate the site and we had offered the support of some of our own specialists to help develop the plans had the bid been successful.
“We will stay in contact with the council and continue provide support and advice. It is our charitable mission to ensure that special places like the Guildhall are looked after for ever, for everyone, and we will always ensure that this wonderful building has a protected future.”
Guildhall’s history entwined with King’s Lynn Festival
Built in the early 15th Century, the Guildhall of St George is said to house the oldest theatre in Europe where Shakespeare himself is said to have performed.
By the 1940s, it was dilapidated and under threat of demolition to make way for a garage.
But the then Lynn MP Lord Fermoy and his wife Ruth teamed up with friends to raise funds to restore it. Well-wishers from around the world gave them donations.
A week-long arts festival - the first King’s Lynn Festival - was staged to celebrate its reopening in 1951.
The event was broadcast by the BBC World Service. It was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, who remained its patron until she died.
As part of the arrangement the festival will also manage bookings for gallery spaces in the Guildhall complex.