Chair’s address to Friends of Northampton Castle AGM 3rd February 2017 (Covering the year 2016)
Probably the most significant event of 2016 was driven not by us but by the people of Spring Boroughs. This was the Neighbourhood Plan for Spring Boroughs, it took near enough 2 years to create and consult upon, but in March 2016 it went to referendum and was subsequently approved and published by Northampton Borough Council. The plan must be considered by Northampton Borough whenever it receives a planning application for the area. As a group we have been motivated by a love of local history, but we have also been concerned to give local children and indeed, local people the advantages which historic pride and sense of identity can bring. It was extra ordinarily heartening therefore to see that the Neighbourhood Plan specifically described their hopes for the creation of a conservation area, their wish to protect and enhance local historic buildings and archaeology as well as a for a local park, providing a much needed open space for them and their children. One of the few urban based neighbourhood plans, it shows that history can bind us together however diverse our backgrounds and experience.
Gaps and hiatus
What has been less satisfactory is the way in which hoped for institutional co-operation has failed to materialise. The Churches Conservation Trust received an HLF feasibility grant in December 2013 which was meant to be spent on preparing for a larger funding bid (£1.7 million) to refurbish the Old Black Lion (Grade 11) and provide a heritage centre linked to St Peters Church. Despite requests for updates, nothing has been forthcoming and the lack of community consultation has become a yawning chasm of non-communication. The continued lack of progress on the part of CCT, is echoed by the failure of the County Council to re engage, either with ourselves, with the Borough Council or Spring Boroughs Voice. During the course of the year, we have repeatedly sought to bridge the gap without much success. In more recent months we have forced the pace by launching a change.org petition.
Potential for success
The ready response to our petition on line ( now standing at 589 signatories) and in the Market square on one very wet day ( bringing the petition numbers up to over 750) convinces me that our work to popularise and inform about the Castle is beginning to bear fruit. In 2015 we were able to measure our support in the 900 visits to Hazelrigg’s temporary Castle Exhibition, in 2016 our VR app – A Christmas Feast at Northampton Castle- had 1000plus installs. Alongside these indicators of interest and support – we must not forget what are becoming the FONC traditions of participation in local events such as the Spring Boroughs Festival, regular holiday children’s activities at the museum, as well as the town wide Heritage Open days. We rely on our willing and cheerful volunteers to risk the weather, worn out feet, occasional splodges of paint – but all in a good cause!
In 2016 we introduced a new activity for children. Our ‘Castles in the Air’ benefited some happy youngsters and the bird population. While we struggled with the logistics of getting the bird boxes erected safely as versus the desire of the makers to see their creative work in place, this is nonetheless something we might want to do again.
Behind the Scenes
We have continued to make a strong contribution to the information available to tourists and locals about the history of Northampton Castle, through speaking engagements by our individual members, by well produced leaflets and on line information sharing. In 2016 our leaflets appeared in local venues, hotels and TIC. Our logo has featured on other websites, for example, for cyclists. Meantime we have intervened in consultation processes – about the creation of a County wide heritage strategy and about the next stage of the Local Plan.
We have also been able to use our VR app and headsets to support the growing activity at Hazelrigg house. Looking Glass Theatre has proved a willing partner in running schools based tours of the Castle site, and our VR Christmas Feast was also featured in their Christmas Santa Claus event in 2016.
Our partnership with Northampton Borough Council has been slow to develop, with the wooden knights for a long time seeming to be the only indication of their intent to help. But I hope we are now on the cusp of a more visible commitment to the Castle Mound area, which I hope to report on soon. This alongside the promised academic review of the Castle’s archaeology from Brian Giggins due out later this year and a new history featuring Northampton’s Earls by Mike Ingram gives me cause to look forward to a good year ahead.
Finally I would like to thank FONC members for the way you have exemplified the virtues of volunteering in 2016. It would be invidious to pick out individuals, but some of you have had to go well outside your comfort zone and develop skills you did not know you had. You have been willing to try, willing to support, willing to give your skills and learn new ones. With this kind of spirit we can look forward to 2017 with confidence.
Dr Marie Dickie OBE