The Castle and Eye of York: Big Heritage Ideas

A place of authority and resistance; of enclosure and connection between York and the world: how can we work with the big heritage ideas to shape the future of the Castle and Eye of York?

You’ve read about the pretty incredible things that happened in the Castle Gateway area, here are the big heritage ideas to take forward into our discussions about what the area means and what makes it matter. Read the final blog in this series to explore what questions this raised for the Gathering Place discussions about the new public space.

A place of transformation
City Archaeology John Oxley argues that the big story of the Castle Gateway area is of ‘transformational episodes’ defined by periods of ‘intense activity’ – whether the Romans, Vikings, Normans, Georgians or Victorians. In each case, ‘there was a concept behind what they wanted to achieve’. In each case, they ‘autocratic, elite interventions, with no concept of consultation or democratic debate’. The difference today, John Oxley says, is ‘we have a framework where people can have a say and decision-makers need to reflect and incorporate what people want from a place. This marks out this transformation episode as fundamentally different from anything that’s happened before.’ (John Oxley)

York’s link to the world
For the Angles, this part of York was a seat of learning. For the Vikings, this part of York was the gateway to the world; the rivers would have brought people to York and allowed for goods and ideas to be exchanged.

Ian Milsted, York Archaeology Trust, argues, the Castle and Eye of York area, for the Vikings, represented a ‘launch point to the rest of the world and where the rest of the world would have entered the city of York’.

A place of authority and of resistance

This part of York has repeatedly been used to assert royal and judicial authority. It was because of it’s the areas association with the crown that York’s Jewish community sought refuge in the Castle in 1190. It is because of this symbolism that the area became a site for the election of Yorkshire MPs as well as a site of resistance and protest.

Neil Redfern, Historic England, argues: ‘This was a place that controlled your life and for many people it was a place that controlled your death. York Gallows were situated behind the Assizes Court and the last drop was at the end of the female prison’.

A place of enclosure and openness
For some of its history, Clifford’s Tower and the Eye of York have been closed off from the rest of the city. At other times, it has been a place of arrival and connection to the world, public walking, political assembly and protest, being socially visibility and coming together to have fun. The significance of the area lies in this past of borders, boundaries (including rivers as boundaries), walls and power. The area’s significance also lies in its equally strong tradition of pulling down walls that divide, of enshrining public rights of way, of seeking rights and redress, of turning prisons into public museums and of using the city’s two rivers as routes between York and the world.

A place of very specific personal stories
Due to the records held about the prisons, really personal and really specific stories can be told about the people imprisoned here. Both famous political prisoners or adjustors for workers or political rights or ordinary people convicted of small crimes and sentence to transportation to Australia.

As Malcolm Chase, University of Leeds, puts it, ‘This is a site of rich, complex and contested histories – Dick Turpin the one person everyone can named as imprisoned in York Castle Gaol, is the least interesting and important person ever to be gaoled here!’

What heritage means in 21st century York
‘York is not just a historic city and it is not just a museum. We need to create a feeling of hope, of York regenerating and evolving, of things getting better’ (from a discussion documented by a walk leader on Opening Up Castle Gateway, 22nd July 2017)
The contested nature of the Castle Gateway area defines it. This is an area where ‘significance’ is not simple and cannot be settled. It is an area where heritage needs to be explored from many perspectives through an ongoing and open discussion which makes the future as much as it interprets the past.

Heritage is often seen as ‘a constraint, this negative’, John Oxley as York’s City Archeaologist takes ‘the opposite view’. Conservation is not about preservation, stopping change, rather it can be the ‘positive management of change’. Heritage is about ‘managing change, making sure that change happens. We’ve got to put what we want in this place. Put in our page in the book’. Heritage is a form of change ‘carried out in such a way you don’t throw away all of the things you value away as you move forward’.

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