Many people in York have been inspired over the years – and in response to the My Castle Gateway project – to develop their own ideas for the Castle Gateway. As the Castle Gateway Masterplan Ideas are open for discussion, in the first of a series of blogs we share Castle Gateway: Alternative Visions.
David W Barratt MRTPI
This scheme was prepared in response to York Civic Trust’s invitation to members to put forward ideas for the future development of the York Castle area, this initiative following on from York City Council’s York Castle Gateway project. They contain a strong aesthetic element due mainly to the somewhat dowdy and unkempt features in and around the castle – notably extensive hardstanding and car parking sites, and excessive growth of trees which screen important historic parts of the city walls from view, and unsightly and poorly maintained grassed areas such as the Foss embankment immediately below the castle walls. The triangular spit of land formed by the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Foss is also visually untidy and, notwithstanding the urgent need for the new pumping station currently under construction there, the site is most important as a green setting to the ancient Minster and church towers of the city centre. The need to protect these views as part of the Castle Gateway is central to the attached planning schemes which advocate judicious plantings of hard deciduous trees, shrubs and the removal of vehicular hardstandings.
At a rough estimate seventy percent of the schemes are landscaping measures, fifteen percent restoration and cleaning of historic structures and a further fifteen percent new buildings. In itself this kind of development will serve to reduce costs although the vital need for alternative parking and transportation measures remains. Given their central importance to tourism and business to the economic wellbeing of York’s population, these highway considerations cannot be ignored. But, in my opinion, the need to protect and enhance the landscape approach into the city from Skeldergate and Blue Bridges is overwhelming and should prompt the city authorities to make special provision of parking elsewhere. With car parking relocated from the Castle area the attached plans show what great scope there is for creating a most attractive southern entrance into the city. York Castle is already a major attraction to the city’s many millions of visitors from all over the world. Its present visual condition, however, is poor and in need of restoration and visual improvement. The works proposed would certainly greatly enhance the appeal of the area and, like the Micklegate and Monk Bar exhibition centres, new museums in a repaired Clifford’s Tower would bring more of York’s long history to the public. In addition the amenities of the proposed new wooded landscaped areas would be major attractions and facilities for residents and tourists alike, possibly comparable with the Museum Gardens. With my new Castle Gateway the city would acquire a new centre of gravity for leisure and social life.
To conclude with a strong reservation, the proposed visitor centre on the banks of Clifford’s Tower is proving most unpopular and should be resisted at all costs. I would argue that major parking schemes should also be resisted with equal vigour. York’s city centre is most special and rightly world-renowned for its urban and historic charm and character. The Castle Gateway makes a major contribution towards the city’s charming appearance and should only be enhanced, not developed.
With towns and cities becoming the settings in which an increasing majority of people live their lives, beauty as well as functionality are important to their form and appearance. Like the Minster and City Walls, the Castle area makes a vital and central contribution to the city’s beauty and historic character, these being key elements in York’s national and worldwide image and the main reason why growing millions of tourists visit the city each year. Given that some twenty percent of livelihoods in York depend on the annual arrival of seven million visitors it is not overstating the case to say that York’s face is its fortune. How well the city maintains and presents its urban fabric has a direct bearing on the economic wellbeing of a substantial proportion of its residents. These are the principal concepts behind these proposed development projects.
When enhancing and developing the castle site, regard should be had for those adjoining areas which set off the castle area. They too need to be improved both for themselves and for the visual impact they have on the castle, the most visually damaging site being the unsightly buildings in Piccadilly. With this in mind, these proposals include St.George’s Field, all buildings to the west and north of Clifford’s Tower, all buildings throughout the length of Castlegate, the land and buildings bounded by the River Foss and the west side of Piccadilly between the bridge over The Foss and Weatherspoons Hotel and with Skeldergate Bridge and Tower Street forming a southern boundary. The site recently cleared near Piccadilly’s junction with Merchantgate and 23 Piccadilly is also included. These areas together would form something of a General Improvement Area, where as appropriate, all buildings should be sandblast cleaned and repairs and refurbishments carried out. The aim of these schemes is to enhance the beauty and visitor appeal of the Castle site for which the general upgrading of its immediate hinterland would make an immense contribution. In achieving this aim several important considerations need to be stressed.
Trees, Shrubs and Plants
Trees, shrubs and plants are much loved for their beauty and for bringing nature into the urban environment. However, locating them should not be undertaken willy-nilly but with regard to their impact on the city, especially historic buildings where they can be visually damaging. By way of example, in summer the avenue of trees on the side of Lord Mayor’s Walk next to the city walls completely obscures views of the city walls and the Minster beyond for much of its length. Beautiful though the trees are, their presence so close to the city walls is rather like an avenue of mature trees running the length of the courtyard of Buckingham Palace; their beauty would be no compensation for loss of views onto what is a national icon which is what tourists and residents want to see, not the trees. Trees weaken the austere defensive and power base aesthetic of castles and city walls, an aesthetic in which York’s historic defensive buildings should be seen and appreciated. Trees, shrubs and plants are universally abundant throughout the country whereas medieval city walls are very rare indeed. Since natural vegetation can be planted and re-grown and medieval buildings definitely cannot, York’s castle and city walls should always be given precedence before trees. Their role in this context is to set off the historic structures at a distance of no closer than, say, thirty metres.
Parts and materials for pastiche or historic replica buildings such as the half-timbered Wealden houses proposed for the Castle Car Park and the cleared site at the junction of Merchantgate with Piccadilly are now available from suppliers. Also possible are processes for treating their constituent parts so as to suggest and resemble original medieval buildings.
There should be no problem or objections to borrowing from the past, at least since there are several instances of this having been done. The ancient Romans replicated and amended Greek buildings; Georgian houses were heavily influenced by ancient Greek designs whilst the Victorians, in the absence of an architectural style of their own, imported a wide variety of building designs from all over the world. Perhaps the best example of pastiche construction is the so-called Gothic Revival in the nineteenth century which left us with a rich heritage of buildings, most notably the superb Houses of Parliament.
The key to the map: To see the Map Key in more detail, download this PDF
Refurbishment of old houses and buildings, especially sandblast cleaning would immensely enhance the tourist’s delight when visiting York Castle, quite apart from raising property values.
Chapter 1: Ch1_Carpark
Chapter 2: Ch2_Clifford
Chapter 3 : Ch3_TowerGardens
Chapter 4 Ch4_Piccadilly
Chapter 5: Ch5_Confluence