It's goodbye to the man who went from a steelworks to safeguarding York's heritage...

Peter Brown hasn't always been a conservationist. When he left school in the Northamptonshire steel town of Corby at the age of 16 he joined the local steelworks as a technical apprentice. It was what young men from Corby did.

It didn't take him long, however, to realise it wasn't the life he wanted. "I was working in a chemistry lab, and I decided I didn't want to do it," he says.

He left the steelworks, and went to Sheffield to do a degree in materials science. For a couple of years he worked as a metallurgist, before again deciding it wasn't for him. "It wasn't creative enough!"

He went to Leeds to do a postgraduate education diploma in art and design, then became a teacher. He rose to become head of art and design at a sixth form college in Hinkley - before deciding on yet another career change.

The National Trust was looking for an administrator for a beautiful manor house in Yorkshire: Nunnington Hall. "I thought: that sounds quite interesting," he says. He'd found his calling at last.

York Press:

Peter Brown

He ran the hall for five years. Before he started there, he says, it had had 7,000 visitors a year. By the time he left, that had grown to 52,000.

Little wonder that when York Civic Trust was looking around for someone to run the newly-restored Fairfax House, they decided Peter was their man.

The magnificent Georgian mansion had been 'created' by Viscount Fairfax. In 1762 he brought in architect John Carr to redesign an existing house on Castlegate as a fashionable home for entertaining and hosting balls during Georgian York's winter social season Two hundred years later, however, the house had fallen on hard times. After being used for nearly 50 years as a popular cinema and dance hall, it had become neglected and disused.

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Fairfax House

In 1982, the Civic Trust stepped in and began a major restoration project. The Trust brought in Bridlington-based architect Francis Johnson to restore the house inside and out. When Peter Brown arrived in 1984 as a young man of 36, most of the work had been finished, but there was still scaffolding everywhere.

It was an interesting time to come to York. Peter took lodgings at the Treasurer's House. And he remembers sitting there late one July evening, just a few months after arriving in the city.

"It was about 11.30 at night, and the atmosphere was absolutely electric, extraordinary," he recalls. "I went outside and the whole sky was alight, hellish, red and dark. My hair was standing up from the electric tension."

Then he saw what looked like a sheet of lightning striking across the roofs of buildings in Ogleforth, before shooting away into the distance.

He thought nothing more of it, and retired to bed. It was only when he set off to walk to work next morning that he realised what had happened. "I was walking past the south transept, and there was the building (the Minster) half burned down!" he says.

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Aftermath of the 1984 York Minster fire

He didn't let being (almost) a witness to one of the most extraordinary events in York's modern history divert himself from the task at hand: bringing Fairfax House to life.

The Noel Terry collection of furniture, paintings and clocks was moved into the house, giving it an almost 'lived in' feeling. Peter catalogued the collection and wrote the guidebook. Then the papers of the Fairfax Family themselves were discovered in a collection in Northallerton. They covered the period 1735-1772, and gave unique insights into the lives of a fashionable family at the height of Georgian York.

They provided the inspiration for a series of exhibitions down the years that have sought to shed light on what life in fashionable Georgian York was like.

Mr Brown has been at Fairfax House ever since, first running the museum, then taking on a wider role with the York Civic Trust itself. In 2010, he was appointed the trust's director, since when he has spearheaded - still from an office in Fairfax House - the fight against developments Trust members felt were inappropriate.

The Civic Trust has a long record of doing just that: most notably, in recent years, when it dug its heels in over the city council-backed plans for Coppergate Riverside in 1998. The proposals, which had been given planning permission, would have seen shops lapping around Clifford's Tower.

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Clifford's Tower: in 1998 the Civic Trust helped successfuly fight plans for development near the ancient castle

The Trust raised almost £90,000 to pay for legal representation, and, at a public inquiry, the scheme was rejected by a planning inspector.

The Civic Trust isn't opposed to all new development, however, Mr Brown stresses: it is important that modern-day York leaves its own legacy for the future.

That is why the Trust welcomed the new Hiscox building at Hungate. "It is an amazing 21st century building."

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The Hiscox offices: an 'amazing new 21st century building'

After more than 30 year in York, Peter Brown is now passing on the baton. Aged 67, he officially retires on Saturday, handing over to Scottish archaeologist Dr David Fraser. But his love affair with Georgian York will continue. He's in the middle of writing a book. It begins in 1660 with John Etty, the architect thought to have designed The Red House on Duncombe Place, now home to an antiques centre.

Etty was commissioned by the city of York to build a house on the site of the old mint in York. The house was to be 12 yards deep - and Peter is convinced The Red House is it. It is in the right place, he says - and is the right size. He knows that because, in typical Peter Brown fashion, he has done the research.

"I paced it out the other day," he says. "It is 12 yards deep!"


...and it's hello to the Scottish archaeologist who'll be taking over at the Civic Trust

A CITY is like a garden, says David Fraser. It is designed, laid out, planted, and then, over the generations, it slowly grows and matures. Some buildings thrive: others don't, and gradually fall into disrepair or are demolished. But the city continues to grow and evolve, a living urban landscape.

There's no 'head gardener' for a city like York: the nearest might be the city council, which is essentially the city's steward. But in a way, everyone who lives here is a gardener, he says.

York Press:

David Fraser

"We're all wandering around the city doing things: picking up sweet wrappers, visiting Clifford's Tower, going into a shop to buy something." All those small day-to-day actions by all the people living here help to make York the city it is - and determine how it will develop in the future. "This city has 100,000 gardeners," he says.

He strongly believes that we all, collectively, share the responsibility for ensuring the York of the future is the kind of city we want it to be. The Civic Trust is just a part of that: it reflects the 'collective voice' of those who actively think and care about York's future.

But its 1,300 members between them have a wealth of experience and knowledge that can be a powerful force, Dr Fraser says. They include architects, town planners, archaeologists, craftspeople, accountants, project managers - and hundreds of ordinary local people who love and know York.

His job as chief executive will be to harness that wealth of knowledge and experience, and apply it to the job of ensuring that the garden which is York continues to flourish into the future.

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York: a garden we're all responsible for looking after

The 59-year-old married father of two is well placed to do just that.

After growing up in Scotland, he did a geography degree at Aberdeen, then a Ph.D in landscape archaeology at the University of Glasgow. That involved several years studying the neolithic (new stone age) landscapes of the Orkney islands.

Ph.D over, he moved to England ("I became an economic migrant!") to work for Somerset County Council as a sites and monuments officer. Before long, he joined English Heritage, rising through the ranks and ultimately setting up the organisation's regional office in York, which he headed for eight years.

He then moved to the Landmark Trust - a charity which restores historic buildings such as castles, forts, follies and towers, then lets them out as holiday destinations so as to pay for their upkeep - before taking up his new job as the York Civic Trust's chief executive.

His challenge will be to help "make sure that York's wonderful history is conserved and the future development of the city matches the quality of its illustrious past," he says.

It's a job that will require plenty of diplomacy and tact, as well as powers of persuasion. To be effective, he'll need to work with planning officers, councillors, and developers, to try to ensure that new buildings going up now are right for York.

ITo a certain extent, it's all about timescale, he says. "Lots of one-bed studio flats might be profitable over the next 3-5 years, but is it the right sort of development for York over a longer timescale? Almost certainly no..."


York Civic Trust - a brief history

York Civic Trust was founded in 1946 to try to ensure historic York wasn't destroyed in a wave of post-war redevelopment.

Almost 70 years on, it has 1,300 members and is run by a board of unpaid trustees drawn from the membership.

It would be immodest to describe the Civic Trust as the guardian of York, says outgoing director Peter Brown. But in many ways that it what it tries to be, marshalling the expertise of its membership to engage with planners and developers and try to ensure that York grows and develops in a way that respects its history and heritage.

It has played a part in many of the key developments in York over the last 70 years, including:

  • the foundation of the University of York
  • the restoration of Fairfax House
  • opposition to the Coppergate Riverside plans in 1998
  • opposition to the proposed city council headquarters in Hungate in 2008
  • restoration of the Mansion House in 1998
  • commissioning the statue of the Roman emperor Constantine, which now stands outside York Minster.

To find out more about York Civic Trust, visit