Hastings Borough Council is undertaking a project to transform Hastings Castle into a must-see attraction. This project sits at the heart of the Hastings Town Investment Plan and aims to bolster the borough’s visitor economy offer by adding to a critical mass of attractions in the town and boost visitor numbers.
Transforming Hastings Castle into a world heritage destination is the flagship, signature project for the whole of the £24.3 million Hastings Town Deal. This was agreed on the basis of the Town Investment Plan which was developed and submitted to government. There are a number of challenges in terms of realising this ambition, including:
- developing a tired unloved ruin into a must-see world-class destination
- creating an offer and experience that has the potential to quadruple existing visitor numbers
- developing a heritage attraction that generates local pride
- addressing accessibility issues
- adding to the critical mass of visitor attractions to the town.
Hastings Castle is recognised as a nationally important monument and archaeological site, being designated as a Scheduled Ancient Monument and listed building. It features on the Bayeux Tapestry and was the first Norman-built castle in this country. Clearly, any development works to the castle would need to apply for Scheduled Monument Consent (SMC) and the scope and scale of the proposals for Hastings Castle mean that a strong justification and rationale for change will need to be included within the SMC process. One of the biggest challenges is how to balance the conservation requirements of a Scheduled Ancient Monument with the tourism development and investment requirements to create a ‘must-see’ attraction.
Rubicon Regeneration Ltd, in partnership with Planning Solutions Consulting, were commissioned as part of the LGA’s Economic Growth Advisers programme to undertake a ‘groundwork’ study to enable the council to prepare a robust business case for the Hastings Castle project, specifically through:
- an analysis of what attracts visitors to existing heritage destinations
- qualitative research on what visitors like/dislike about the current offer
- engagement with heritage organisations from across 1066 Country
- how the castle could feed into the national curriculum
- understanding the development ‘red lines’.
The study report sets out a series of technical papers to address these questions together with a summary section and recommendations on next steps.
The technical papers included:
- A look-book which was developed to outline the core project components, using heritage developments from across the UK to articulate the project concept:
- Making the West Hill Lift (cliff/funicular railway) the main visitor approach for the castle, and making this fully accessible
- Creating a new (off-site) heritage hub
- Providing a new footbridge from the Ladies’ Parlour to the castle and gateway entrance via the castle’s East Gate
- Developing a permanent all-weather visitor facility within the castle
- Animating the whole experience through world class storytelling and interpretation
- A best practice review of eight case study examples to identify the ingredients of what makes a ‘must-see’ heritage attraction.
- An extensive programme of primary research, which generated just under 1,000 completed responses, which represents a strong sample base. A survey was set up online and promoted via the Council’s communications channels as well as providing hard copies at key visitor ‘hubs’ in the vicinity including the Visitor Information Centre, Smugglers’ Adventure (a popular attraction close to Hastings Castle and managed by the same company) and Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. The research confirmed:
- The current status and appeal of the castle is poor and generates relatively low visitor satisfaction ratings
- The castle fosters considerable goodwill and attachment among residents which currently is couched with feelings of an underutilised asset in a poor state of repair and the visitor experience does not do justice to its siting and heritage importance
- Improvements to the exhibition and interpretive media are considered the highest priorities but there is broad support for a wide ‘package’ of interventions
- There is a positive level of support for incorporating virtual reality technology mechanisms as part of the visitor experience offer, preferably alongside ‘live person to person’ guided tours
- Generating community buy-in to the project will be key. It will be important that mechanisms are put in place to inform and involve the local community in the design, development and delivery of the castle project.
- An assessment of education and the National Curriculum links, which confirmed:
- The education market is competitive and challenging; it is a changing market, and the consequences of COVID-19 continues to have a significant impact.
- In terms of outreach provision, there may be potential to work with the educational resource team at English Heritage at Battle Abbey to enhance the education offer. The quality of interpretation in visitor attractions, particularly interactive technology, is a key component for the education and school visits’ market.
- The education offer will need to have strong links to the national curriculum, particularly history and societal development for Key Stages 1 and 3.
- The national curriculum does change, and a careful watching brief will be required to ensure that the education offer meets the needs of education providers.
- A review of the feedback from Historic England about the proposals. This resulted in a recommendation to commission an appropriate heritage consultant to prepare a Statement of Significance for the castle and surrounding area as the first step in securing Scheduled Monument Consent for the preferred development programme.
The case study delivered through the commission has proved invaluable to the council’s project team in developing a project framework for the castle scheme. The town deal timetable is tight, particularly for the castle project which was only at concept stage when the town deal was agreed. The scheduled ancient monument nature of the site means that a huge amount of preparatory work is needed to get the necessary permissions. The case study allowed the council to do a lot of work in a short period of time, validating a number of the assumptions that had been made but also identifying areas that they had not previously considered in detail. The latter included the need to provide and mark an alternative route to the castle in case of lift breakdown, or at times of congestion; the need to carefully consider pricing as currently school groups appear to avoid the lift because of its cost; and to explore other options for providing an all-weather visitor facility within the castle grounds.
The case study also identified a number of projects that had similarities with the Hastings Castle scheme and showed how these had been developed/enhanced to improve the visitor offer. These included recognised best practice examples in heritage attractions and destinations, including Scarborough Castle, Old Sarum Castle, Corfe Castle, Caerphilly Castle, Dover Castle, and Warwick Castle. These showed:
- an ambitious conservation plan is vital to ensure that the site is protected for the future whilst unlocking the heritage assets to secure maximum visitor impact
- the importance of the narrative of the site to be carefully researched and written
- the need to make the interpretation consistent with the spirit of the place
- the importance of developing a visitor proposition based on it
- the need to remember to put visitors first
- remembering that families will always be the most important visitor segment
- the value of regular events; the need for excellent catering and retailing
- the importance of building support from the local community
- the need for brilliant and sustained marketing
- the need to set challenging but achievable targets.
The primary research carried out is extremely useful, as it confirms that there is strong support for improving the offer at the castle, including modern interpretation techniques such as augmented reality. The stakeholder consultation also validated the council’s wish to provide covered facilities within the castle if allowed.
The education assessment demonstrated the importance of this area. Hastings Borough Council has close links with a local charity, the Education Futures Trust, and following a presentation on the project, links have been made to a local academy who are keen to work with the council as the project is developed, to ensure that the education potential is maximised. These links, and this work, will be developed as the project progresses.
The facilitated meeting with Historic England was critical in understanding the process required to obtain the necessary permissions, notably Scheduled Monument Consent. This has led to a re-ordering of the project plan and engaging additional support to help the council with the Statement of Significance for the castle.
How is the new approach being sustained?
The project plan has been revisited and significant changes made to it, particularly its initial stages, as a result of this case study. Reordering the early stages of the project will help de-risk it in terms of consents. In particular, the meeting with Historic England demonstrated the importance of the heritage statement. What was thought to be a simple question – ‘could we build inside the castle’ – will actually take several months to answer, as Historic England will only make a decision once they have seen the heritage statement. There is insufficient time before the project completion deadline to wait for this so, effectively, two schemes will be pursued in parallel :- the preferred one, with a shelter and interpretation inside the castle grounds, but an alternative, with no shelter inside the grounds, so that can be proceeded with if the shelter option is not permitted.
- No matter how well you think you know the project, extra pairs of eyes are invaluable. The case studies of other castles identified valuable learning points that the council simply would not have been aware of otherwise.
- Listen to consultation feedback – the council will now be looking at alternative options for providing shelter/interpretation space within the castle and also identify alternative access routes in addition to the funicular railway.
- Be flexible in your approach to a project plan, if things need changing make those changes. The Historic England discussion showed the need to build in the possibility of significant changes from the outset.
- Kevin Boorman, Marketing and Major Projects Manager, Hastings Borough Council
- David Howells, Managing Director, Rubicon Regeneration Ltd