Presentation of the Annual Report.
CHAIR’S ADDRESS FONC AGM 2021.
Friends of Northampton Castle – a decade of making our history part of our future.
The year 2020 has been unlike any other for a voluntary history group such as ours. It provides me with an excuse to review not just 2020 but our decade of existence.
The Friends of Northampton Castle had its formal beginnings in 2011. Since its inception FONC members have participated every year (till 2020) in National Heritage week and other popular events, and conducted many walking tours around the castle site and surrounds. But in 2020 we have been forced to focus only on our virtual reality products, online educational packages – above all though on securing our long-awaited Heritage Park.
It is now a decade since the group produced a proposal for the town to recover the lost history of Northampton Castle (this proposal still features on the website). The origins of the group are even earlier in the government funded Neighbourhood Renewal (2006 to 2010) in Spring Boroughs, when the estate received support as an area of high deprivation nationally. Young people in the challenged and run-down housing estate, plagued by crime and prostitution, set out to rediscover the history of the area. They were partnered with professionals at Northampton Museum and assisted to make a You tube video (X Marks the Spot) chronicling the way in which the 12th century castle had been built, its role in significant events and finally its decay and demolition. It was this youthful enthusiasm for the Castle and its history which encouraged local historians and archaeologists, teachers, and volunteers to join together in the new – Friends of Northampton Castle – a Northamptonshire wide voluntary group. In parallel the Churches Conservation Trust began the renovation of the neighbouring St Peters Church, a magnificent example of Norman architecture and applied for Heritage Lottery funding to create visitor centre facilities. By 2013 there was a significant partnership which included Northamptonshire County Council, Northampton Borough Council, CCT and Friends of Northampton Castle with a project aimed at providing a Heritage Gateway to Northampton via the railway station and Marefair.
The early success of the project is visible now at the railway station where the Speed Map of Northampton is etched into the glass of the ticket hall and a mural of the history of Northampton leads pedestrians from the front of the station to the lift access.
By 2015 Spring Boroughs residents had taken advantage of the Government’s offer of Neighbourhood Planning and created a plan which included a Heritage Park, spanning the two public car parks and vacant site on Marefair. The residents of this heavily populated estate were strongly in favour of rebalancing use in the area from high rise and other flat developments toward family housing, but recognised that public open space would still be needed in order to give many families access to exercise and fresh air. There was evidence too of a desire for the estate to be seen as somewhere people could be proud to live, an aspiration supported by the creation of a heritage park. The Spring Boroughs Neighbourhood Plan is now part of planning law and is a considerable restraint on any development on the North side of Marefair.
The partnership has, however, been under pressure without any dedicated funding and actions to bring together the landholdings necessary have occasionally faltered. Nonetheless the land necessary to create a heritage park (from Marefair through to Castle Mound and North) is now in public ownership. Plans by CCT to create a visitor centre environment next to St Peters are also being revived. The Castle Implementation Board (now Heritage Board) led by NBC has now been expanded to enable it to take account of potential development at the railway station and Waterside. The Heritage Impact Assessment created for the new Northampton Development Plan encourages this wider area to be seen as a whole. There is also scope to significantly enhance the Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM89) on the West side of St Andrews Road overlooking the station, removing an unsightly and derelict building from the site.
Despite the pandemic the Friends of Northampton Castle have continued to popularise the Castle’s importance to Northampton history. With over 1600 followers on Twitter and 800 on Facebook, as well as regular visitors to its Youtube tours of the Castle it can demonstrate that it still represents a strong and continuing interest from the public. The Friends educational package has been a resource for Northamptonshire teachers during lockdown. In the recent past the group have experimented with bringing museum artefacts onto the site, with short well attended exhibitions and community digs. The group has also worked alongside the Looking Glass Arts & Heritage Company, to dramatise a history which begins with the Anglo Saxons and continues to be relevant to Northampton today. We look forward to resuming our popular tours of the castle site and other similar activities. While the last year has been so unlike any other, we may now be looking to a future in which the proposals we made in 2011 can be finally realised. We continue to urge local authorities to make Northampton’s past part of its future. In the months and years to come Northampton will need that extraordinary resource.
Dr Marie Dickie OBE
Chair of FONC.