Strengthening defences with a cool £0.5m

An East Anglian castle enters a new era after a £500,000 improvement package designed to give visitors a bit more magic for their money. Steven Russell had a sneak previewMARK Hayden doesn't need to think for more than a millisecond.

Steven Russell

An East Anglian castle enters a new era after a £500,000 improvement package designed to give visitors a bit more magic for their money. Steven Russell had a sneak preview

MARK Hayden doesn't need to think for more than a millisecond. The half-a-million pounds pumped in by English Heritage is the biggest investment in Framlingham Castle for how long? “Well . . . ever!”

With the exception of work at Audley End House in Essex, he's also pretty sure this is the heaviest commitment to an East Anglian property - in terms of money, time and planning - in the 15 years he's been with the organisation protecting England's historic treasures.

It was about four years ago, not long after he started looking after English Heritage sites in Suffolk and Norfolk, that Mark and his then boss put together a proposal to jazz things up somewhat. The blueprint has taken a while to come to fruition, with building work starting last November, but he says senior managers accepted it early on as a good project worth doing.

Framlingham Castle is one of English Heritage's top 25 tourist attractions, welcoming 60,000-70,000 visitors a year, but the challenge has always been that it's like Dr Who's Tardis in reverse: promising more from the outside than it can deliver on the inside.

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It's not like the castles at Dover or Arundel, for instance, where there are numerous stone rooms, passageways and dungeons across a wide site.

Through the 12th or 13th Century gatehouse tower lies a wide expanse of grass, known as the inner ward, and three connected buildings from a later period. There were more buildings here in ye olden days - a chapel and a hall, for instance - but they've long gone, leaving just a few reminders of where they used to stand.

The curtain wall is attractive and impressive on approach, but viewed from behind is a bit like the reverse of a film set - though walking the battlements is always fun and gives wonderful views across the countryside.

Even most of those quirky and ornate chimneys are fake: added by the Howards, dukes of Norfolk, in Tudor times to soften the military-like facade and create a warmer impression as an opulent country seat.

Today's improvements aim to make the most of what there is - bringing history to life by telling visitors the story of the castle and its important role in both local and national events.

At the centre is that collection of buildings nestling against the wall. The left-hand wing was the original poorhouse, built in 1664. The right-hand wing incorporates part of a hall built in the late 12th or early 13th Centuries. The central section, dating from 1729, became the main poorhouse building. It was constructed on the site of the medieval great hall and took in both adults and children.

Here is the heart of the improvement scheme: an introductory exhibition - an interpretation costing about £200,000 - with the slogan From Powerhouse to Poorhouse. It aims to show how the residence of the earls and dukes of Norfolk, a place whose independent mindedness and might was strong enough to worry London and the monarchy, changed over the years and became a poorhouse in the middle of the 17th Century.

“Mary Tudor's supporters rallied here, she was proclaimed Queen here, she gave her first instructions as queen here; and then people like one of (Newsnight presenter) Jeremy Paxman's ancestors” - a rural worker on his uppers - “would come along here every week to get his five shillings or whatever. That's a real contrast, and that's what we're trying to get across,” says Mark, the visitor operations manager.

“Framlingham was one of the first three English castles to have this marvellous curtain wall defence system” - with 13 towers - “and quite an elaborate system of arrow slots . . . and then becomes a place where people were eking out survival, really.”

An audio-visual display tells the story of the folk who lived here and what they did, and that's developed by well-lit display boards around the hall. There are replica clothes, contrasting the plain and practical attire of the poverty-stricken with the relative finery of those who dwelt in the castle years before. Visitors can run their fingers over swatches of fabric: calico shift, red flannel petticoat and brown wool, among others.

With the castle greeting about 6,000 schoolchildren a year, youngsters aren't forgotten: there's a big wooden box of games and a table of brass rubbing-type tiles, featuring symbols of food from the period, such as venison and roasted spiced apple.

As workmen apply the finishing touches ready for today's public opening, Mark admits: “Prior to the reinterpretation, it was a big hall which was empty and had lots of mixed messages. There were a few really-uninteresting panels on the wall which were dated and didn't really do the poorhouse justice.

“We had the fire engine - the old 18th Century fire engine - which was lovely but, again, it fought with the interpretation of the castle, of the poorhouse. We had a few games and things, but the whole thing didn't really work. It was a big empty void that was fighting with itself.”

There was also a 1980s-style pine-fronted shop with windows above, “which looked into what was an office space - and again that's quite unfortunate. When people come into a castle, they want to see a castle; they don't want to see me bashing away on a laptop!

“So, basically, we had to decide what we were going to do with this space. In some ways perhaps, if you're a purist, you'd say 'Let's just clear it out totally and show it in its entirety.' But the fact is the castle doesn't have a lot of rooms, so we have to use what we've got very well, and this is the major room in the castle.

“The other thing about the castle is that it looks fabulous from the outside - it really does look stunning - but I think from a visitor point of view, once you get inside, it certainly didn't meet the expectations of people.

“There wasn't a huge amount for people to do. The wall-walk is fabulous, the audio tour is interesting, but other than that it's a little bit lacking. We have a very large number of young families come to this site, so we've tried to get a good mixture of static objects and 'do-ey' things.”

About £300,000 has been spent on building work, including a much more attractive, and larger, glass-fronted shop at the southern end of the poorhouse.

The expansion of the shop area means English Heritage has been able to give extra office space upstairs to the volunteers who run the Lanman Museum - essentially Framlingham's town museum - upstairs in the northern wing of the poorhouse.

A high-profile sign of change is the new reception and payment building next to the resurfaced car park. It's comfortable, accessible for wheelchair users, and has a loo for those of restricted mobility.

This new building replaces a little hut just inside the gatehouse. “It was horrible to work in and horrible for visitors,” concedes Mark. “So that's gone.”

Another objective in siting the reception area where it is is to make people realise the castle experience begin before the gatehouse. A leaflet points out trails that take folk around the outside of the castle and the nearby mere - more than 3,000 years old and fed by the River Ore - pointing out items of interest such as plants, trees and wildlife.

About £50,000 has gone on ground maintenance, to improve areas that had become scarred by use and improve the paths.

The inner ward, that green grass within the walls, now boasts a discrete number of information boards, explaining what's to be seen and linking with the spoken commentaries that visitors can enjoy.

The audio tours haven't escaped reform.

“A lot of people come to these sorts of places and want the story, but they're also here for an enjoyable day and they don't necessarily want to know every link for every king and queen from Arthur onwards. Unfortunately, the first audio tour we had was a bit boring; it was too much detail, and it was set at one level.”

Now there are two audio strands, including one for children.

“Now, while mum and dad are listening to the interesting bits they want to hear about, the kids can listen to the whacky facts and whacky characters” - Topsy and Turvey - “telling them about the castle. It's a bit more fun.”

Back inside, the northern part of the poorhouse has been tweaked, too.

“This is possibly one of the most historic parts of the castle. Before, it was very dark, very dingy, and as you walked around this lovely property and came down the wall staircase, bang, there was a door to the ladies' toilets!”

It's been blocked off, and the area - next to the ovens where bread used to be baked - has been turned into an area where children can play, rest and learn. There's a big table and things for them to look at, such as outsized books explaining what castle life was like.

The loos, by the way, have been updated to the kind of standard more in keeping with a modern visitor's expectations.

Overall, some of the changes are quite subtle, says Mark, but he believes people will notice the benefits.

Fram Facts

The castle is on the site of an earlier motte (an artificial mound of earth) and bailey (the space inside the walls) castle built by Roger Bigod I. He was a supporter of Henry I, who gave him the manor of Framlingham in 1101

Roger's son, Hugh, was by 1154 one of the most powerful lords in the country

He supported Henry II's claim to the throne but it wasn't long before they were at odds

Hugh had other castles, including those at Bungay and Walton, near Felixstowe, and set his sights on Norwich Castle, too

In 1156 he was a key figure in a local uprising. After it was quickly quelled by royal forces, Henry II confiscated Hugh's lands, including Framlingham

He gave back Framlingham and Bungay castles about a decade later, after Hugh paid a big fine

Henry also started building Orford Castle, to curb Hugh's power and serve as a reminder that the king was in charge

They had another spat in 1173, when Hugh backed Prince Henry's ill-fated bid to unseat his father

Henry II again took away land as punishment, and ordered that Framlingham Castle, or parts of it, be taken apart

It needed the arrival of Richard I in 1189 to see the land and titles returned - to Hugh's son Roger Bigod II

Roger II began work on the new castle - with the stone curtain wall we can see today - in the late 12th Century or early 13th Century

The fifth Earl of Norfolk - yet another Roger Bigod! - did not have any children. He died in 1306

When his widow died about three years later, the castle went to King Edward II, thence to his half-brother, and eventually to Thomas de Mowbray

In 1480 it passed to Sir John Howard, a descendant of the Mowbray dukes

Work was done on the castle: a new bridge and lodgings were built

The castle is thought to have been at its peak in the 1520s

A later Howard - Henry, Earl of Surrey - was executed in 1547 for treason: the last person to be hanged by Henry VIII

His father Thomas, the third Duke of Norfolk, was implicated in the scheming. He was jailed and his lands seized

The castle went to Edward VI and then his sister Mary

Following her accession, Thomas Howard was released and got back his estates, only to die the next year

The castle was now in the hands of the crown, and had become very neglected

James I returned Framlingham Castle to the Howards in 1613 but it was sold in 1635 to lawyer and politician Sir Robert Hitcham

He bequeathed the castle and land to Pembroke College, Cambridge, asking the castle be pulled down - apart from the stone building - and that a poorhouse be built

THE most famous historical character connected with Framlingham Castle is Mary Tudor: “Bloody Mary”.

The daughter of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon was viewed as illegitimate following her parents' divorce, though for many years she'd been the sole heir to the throne. When brother Edward VI died, she was determined to claim the crown.

Mary moved her base from Hertfordshire to Norfolk in the summer of 1553, contacting the key East Anglian families for support. Soon she moved again, to the bigger Framlingham Castle, and flew her flag while the issue of the succession was debated in London by the Privy Council: Edward's Protestant cousin and wished-for successor, Lady Jane Grey, or Mary.

The council grew worried at rumours that Mary's provincial forces would march on the capital if her claim was denied, and upheld her succession. On July 20, 1553, she issued her first royal commands from Framlingham Castle.

She died five years later. Her half-sister, Elizabeth I, came to the throne and restored Protestantism.

Framlingham Castle opening times until September 30: daily 10am-6pm

Admission: Adults £5.50/concessions £4.40/children £2.80/family tickets £13.80

(Lolita Dicks Syndication Ltd)

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