Who left that tower in a car park?

When William the Conqueror marched north in 1068, he decided to establish a castle in York. And the first thought in his head was: that car park has got to go. And people have been grumbling about this corner of the city ever since.

The Norman motte-and-bailey castle was built largely of earth and timber and, after suffering violent indignities early in its life, “probably survived largely unaltered through most of the 12th century”.

This is what it says on the English Heritage website, where you will find an interesting history of the castle written by Jeremy Ashbee. The original tower burnt down in 1190, when 150 Jews from York were given protected custody in the royal castle, thought to be where Clifford’s Tower now stands, but ended up committing suicide together rather than face the hostile mob outside.

The medieval castle was built not long afterwards. The history is there to read on the website should you wish to. Something I didn’t know was that in 1596-7, a public scandal arose when the aldermen of York accused the gaoler, Robert Redhead, of trying to demolish the tower, which had become derelict, so that he could sell the stone for lime-burning. It was at that time, Ashbee’s account reveals, that the first recorded use of the name ‘Clifford’s Tower’ was seen.

The genesis of the name is uncertain, with competing theories pointing to the Clifford family claiming the post of constable to be hereditary; or to the hanging in 1322 of the rebel Roger de Clifford who body was displayed on a gibbet at the castle following his execution after the Battle of Boroughbridge.

In the 18th century, the tower was seen as a garden folly and may also have been used a shed for cattle, while the former bailey was turned into a prison. The tower was taken into state guardianship in 1915 and the surviving prison buildings were demolished in 1935. A story I have always liked is that stones from the prison ended up being used for garden walls on some of the grander house along Stockton Lane.

What this slightest of skims reminds us is that there is always a lot of history in York. The modern history of Clifford’s Tower is not particularly happy. From some angles, this medieval tower perched on its steep mound is as striking a sight as you could wish to see. From others, it seems neglected and almost abandoned to an ignoble fate. This is especially so where that car park is concerned. The poor tower sometimes looks as if it has been left in a used-car lot.

Two schemes to redevelop the area have been proposed and the latest was launched in 2001 but later collapsed amid much acrimony.

There are two new twists to this very long tale.

The first is that English Heritage has been granted permission to build a new visitor centre at the foot of the mound; this has not gone down well with many in York and a crowd-funding campaign led by the independent councillor Johnny Hayes is trying to block this development (often described as looking like a branch of McDonald’s).

The second twist is that now City of York Council has announced further plans for the castle area. These are much needed in that visitors to York can quickly wander from the lovely streets to grotty areas. A few steps in the wrong direction and they will wonder what happened to that lovely city they were in a moment ago.

At a glance, the plans look grand and encouraging. This is especially so with the proposal to move the car park. This won’t be popular with some drivers and I do park there myself sometimes. But the wishes of drivers shouldn’t be allowed to dictate how a city is designed for the greater good.

Whether any of this will ever come off is another matter, as progress tends to be sclerotic in York with such big plans.

A final point is this: if the whole area is being redeveloped, perhaps English Heritage should wait and tie its redevelopment into the greater plan. Incidentally, the plans for inside the tower, with a new viewing deck and so on, are welcomed by many. It’s just that visitor centre that has got people’s backs up.

I guess the argument against holding back is that English Heritage could be waiting a long time. But then Clifford’s Tower has been there for centuries.

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