See inside the £15m revamp breathing new life into Norwich Castle
- Credit: Lauren De Boise
Breathing new life into Norwich Castle through a multi-million pound project was always going to be challenging, as DAN GRIMMER reports
Norwich Castle has long presented a paradox. Dominating the city on a man-made mound, it is one of the finest Norman keeps in Europe.
Yet, as bizarre as it sounds, some visitors to the beloved museum have come away from a visit having somehow not even entered the glorious 900-year-old keep.
And a significant number of those who did make it were left baffled about what the keep actually was - and how it would have looked.
Yet the Grade I listed building is one of the most important across Europe and one of the finest examples of medieval-era Romanesque keeps.
The best part of £15m of National Heritage Lottery money is being spent on the ambitious Royal Palace Reborn project - to recreate the keep's original 12th century layout.
The aim is to better tell the story of the keep and the other remarkable buildings at the castle - which has also served as a gaol and as a ground-breaking prison.
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Changes to the entrance will mean visitors can instantly see the walls of the keep - which have, for years, been hidden from view.
And a realignment of a staircase put in by architect Edward Boardman, when he turned the building into a museum in the late 19th century, will mean visitors can walk straight in and up to access the keep via the Bigod Tower - the original 12th century entrance.
A new glass bridge and lift will enable access to all floors of the castle, including the battlements.
Dr Robin Hanley, assistant head of Norfolk Museums Service, said: "It all means that when visitors arrive, as soon as they come in, they will see something extraordinary.
"We know from some of the feedback we had received that some visitors had come, been round the fantastic galleries we have, but hadn't actually gone into the keep."
Dr Tim Pestell, curator of archaeology, said: "We have really tried to tell the keep's story, but we have struggled in the past.
"We have 20 years of feedback and we've really been underselling the castle's keep and its stories. That's why we're doing this work - to change that."
That work, which started in August 2020, will see the keep transformed, with a new medieval gallery featuring objects on long-term loan from the British Museum.
The original floor levels, from 1121, when King Henry visited the castle, are being recreated - a task which will require the knitting together of hundreds of tonnes of steel frame to bear the load of the new floors.
Some of that steel is currently being fabricated in Yorkshire and contractors Morgan Sindall have worked hard to ensure supplies are available, at a volatile time for the construction industry.
The work had been due for completion in spring next year, but it is now likely to be Easter 2024 before the official grand reopening.
The piling required, not just in the keep, but in other parts of the castle, has, along with the impact of Covid, contributed to delays in the project.
For instance, in the current entrance, ground penetrating radar was used to establish what was beneath the area where piling was to be driven in.
What it failed to spot was just how extensive the remains of the 1780s gatehouse of the gaol which Sir John Soane constructed at the site were - which have now been uncovered.
A nearby spot where a pilling was meant to go would have gone directly through a brick wall - all precious archaeology which needs to be protected.
While ways to get round these issues have been identified, Dr Hanley said every tweak to the original plans needed to be approved and signed off by Historic England and by Norwich City Council.
In another section, on the outside wall of the keep, every individual flint has had to be mapped, so they can be put back in the exact same place, once fins to support a glass ceiling are inserted between them.
Dr Hanley said: "At every step of the way we have to liaise with Historic England and with the city council as landlords.
"This is not a normal construction project. At every point it is about how can we do what we need to do without threatening the integrity of it?"
The revamp will also see a new cafe, shop and toilets, including a Changing Places one for those who cannot use standard accessible toilets.