The inside story of how £9.1m will transform Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle as Royal Palace: An artist's impression of the Castle Keep with the reinstated Norman

Norwich Castle as Royal Palace: An artist's impression of the Castle Keep with the reinstated Norman layout. - Credit: Archant

As Norwich Castle prepares for its most exciting changes for 122 years, Trevor Heaton hears the inside story of the multi-million pound dream project.

The Project Team inside Norwich Castle Keep which will now be transformed. From left, Dan Robertson

The Project Team inside Norwich Castle Keep which will now be transformed. From left, Dan Robertson (teaching museum trainee), Dr John Davies (project leader), Angela Riley (project officer) Dr Tim Pestell (senior curator of archaeology) and Paris Agar (assistant curator), pictured with the mass of documents which formed the Heritage Lottery Fund bid. Picture: Norfolk Museums Service - Credit: Archant

Norwich Castle. It's been there for centuries, dominating the city; a massive statement - shaped in hundreds of tons of stone and earth - of royal, military and political power.

Since 1894, in its latest and visitor-friendly reincarnation, it has served as the county's best-loved museum, a treasure-house of artifacts of which the largest and most spectacular is the castle itself.

Well, we're all going to get to know it a lot better in the near future when the fruits of years of hard work, determination and vision begin to pay off.

A couple of weeks ago came the hoped-for news that the Heritage Lottery Fund had agreed to give £462,400 to kick-start a hugely-ambitious project to transform the castle into one of East Anglia's premier tourist attractions by 2020.

Norwich Castle. Picture: Antony Kelly

Norwich Castle. Picture: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

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The 'Gateway to Medieval England' project - for which a further £8.7m has been earmarked - will take Norwich Castle 'back to the future', putting back its main floor and re-creating its Norman heyday when it was not just a castle, but a royal palace. Visitors will be able to have a real flavour of what life was like in the time of Henry I in the early 12th century by exploring the re-created Great Hall.

It will have a banqueting table and minstrels' gallery, King's chamber and chapel to explore, plus newly-exposed Norman archaeology and architecture and a unique battlements tour. The British Museum will bring nationally-important medieval treasures to Norfolk in a new 'British Museum Gallery of the Medieval Period'.

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By any standards this is big news. You might not realise quite how big though: it will put Norwich Castle - already one of Britain's best regional museums - into a whole new league. By the time the development takes place, it's estimated that visitor numbers will rocket from the present 215,000 per year to 300,000 (including 315,000 in the first year). It will support at least 357 jobs during the first five years after it re-opens, and pump an extra £8.6 million into the local economy. And that's just the start.

These things never 'just happen', of course. The decision was the culmination of years of work behind the scenes by museum staff, determined not only to do the best by the castle they love but also to do the best by Norfolk and its people too. And the project is tribute not only to their hard work and superb research, but also for those who dared to dream.

When the keep was improved at the turn of the Millennium, there was some talk then of putting back the main floor, but that idea was quickly shelved. Dr Davies, project leader and chief curator at Norfolk Museums Service, recalled: 'I was told in 2000 that it was too complicated - but then we saw Falaise and we thought, well, it really IS possible.'

Angela Riley, project officer for the castle plan, agrees. 'That was when we saw the 'bar had been raised.'

Falaise in Normandy is one of Norwich's 'sister' castles, built by the remarkable Normans, Europe's most accomplished builders in stone since the Romans. It had been given a brilliant makeover in recent years to bring its medieval past to life.

John and Angela were there as part of Norman Connections, a cross-Channel project which started in 2008 and brought together bringing together castles (and those who run them) in the UK and Normandy. 'Essentially it started with specialists who work at sites of similar early medieval castles - Colchester, Rochester, Hastings,' Dr Davies said. 'We put out feelers to the continent to see if we could pull together an ambitious project to promote our wonderful Norman castles.'

As the web of connections grew, so did confidence that Norwich Castle could be on the cusp of something really special.

Norman Connections resulted in a major two-day conference on castles, which has now led in turn to an important new book. It also led to another meeting of castle experts which suddenly thrust the 'back to the future' idea for Norwich back on the agenda. Angela said: 'We suddenly realised that there was a lot of support out there. The idea started to grow.'

And John recalled: 'At the meeting Philip Dixon (one of Britain's leading castle researchers) stood up and said: 'The floor should go back!'

'The next stage was to take the idea to Vanessa Trevelyan, the head of the museums service, who was keen. When her successor Steve Miller started in 2013 we discussed the plan with him and he was very enthusiastic.'

But the idea had to be put on the back burner while the closing stages of the Norman Connections project were being put in place, including some of the improved Norman displays you will have noticed at the castle in recent years.

'It wasn't until 2014 that we started to look at possible funders and the scope of the project, what we might do,' Angela said.

The Castle Development Project Team at that time consisted of just John and Angela. But it began to grow in April 2015 to eventually include Dr Tim Pestell (senior curator of archaeology), Paris Agar (assistant curator), and Dan Robertson (teaching museum trainee).

It was soon clear that making the project happen was going to call for a huge investment - £9 million-plus. That meant an application to the Heritage Lottery Fund at a national level. 'Time pressed on us immediately,' John said. 'There was a massive amount of work - surveys, architectural work and more - which need doing. All that work had to be done.

'The HLF bidding process is every December, so we had to decide whether to go for 2015 or wait a year.'

As we journalists say, there's nothing like a deadline: and so December 1 2015 it was.

The team needed every minute of time. 'We worked right up until the last 24 hours,' he said. 'It wasn't that we were behind schedule - it's that it was always designed to be that way. We wanted to make use of all the time to make our bid the best it could possibly be.'

They commandeered a small building next to Shire Hall and worked virtually round the clock, especially as 'Bid Day' drew near. For not only did they need to polish and polish the basic 9,000-word 'pitch' to the Fund, but that in turn had to be supported by a massive file of other reports. The end result of all this is a masterpiece of research, setting out the case for the castle past, present and future.

'It's like 18 MAs in there,' said John, nodding towards the three large box files which contain the fruits of the team's many labours.

In fact, the research was so good that it is already being consulted by scholars in its own right.

Angela said: 'The Fund has three priorities for funding: the benefits for people, heritage and the communities. As well as selling a vision, we had to demonstrate how we were going to achieve all those. Everything we did was towards those aims.'

The public played their part. Focus groups were set up, bringing together the thoughts of young and old, local people and not, regular visitors or non-visitors - all backgrounds, all views.

Every one of you who took the trouble to give your views added another reason why this huge grant should be given.

Dr Davies speaks with immense, and understandable, pride about what the team has achieved. 'It is such a fine example of teamwork. Everyone was enthusiastic. I don't think we had a single cross word during the whole process.'

Finally, on the morning of November 30, the submission was finished. 'We were so excited,' said John. 'We had been working all hours on it. Every time I said to people 'you should go home now' they would say, 'I'll just do a little bit more...'

Submission day saw John and Tim personally take the weighty application to the Heritage Lottery Fund's regional office in Cambridge. The deadline had been met. It was hard to say goodbye to all that work, John confesses.

And now, here we are months later, with the castle facing a bright and exciting future. It really is a dream come true.

'When we announced the decision to staff they knew we were going to say something special. When we told them we had several rounds of applause.'

Talking of which, great Norfolk public, give yourself a round of applause too. Your unwavering support helped make all this happen.

For whenever the public has been asked what they would most like to see at the keep, the answer is 'a medieval castle'. Dr Davies explained: 'The public has been telling us this since the 1990s. What they asked for then, they have been asking for now.'

And now you're going to get it, with building work scheduled to begin in 2018. So prepare for something magical: The Normans are coming back.

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