IT is the defiantly modern-looking building at the base of the steps leading up to Clifford's Tower that will spark most debate. It will be a low, straight-sided structure that, on the evidence of the artist's impressions at least, seems oddly out of keeping with the ancient monument, which is all curves and gentle slopes.

The design might seem jarring to some, admits Jeremy Ashbee, English Heritage's head curator of properties. But a conscious decision was made not to try to create something that tried to look medieval when it wasn't. "So it will be a modern structure, most of it built of concrete."

But the new visitor centre will be kept as small as possible, he stresses. It will be partly recessed into the mound itself at ground level, to reduce its impact - and won't be visible at all from many angles.

The visitor centre itself is just part of a wider programme of proposals, expected to cost more than £2 million, which between them would see some fairly radical changes made to this ancient castle mound. Between them, Mr Ashbee believes, they will greatly improve the experience of visiting Clifford's Tower.

So, if the proposals go ahead, what might Clifford's Tower be like for a future visitor?

As the designs stand at the moment, the entrance to the new visitor centre will be through the side of the building nearest the car park. Inside, there will be a ticket office, displays illustrating and interpreting the history of the tower, toilets, a shop, and better facilities for English Heritage staff. And, up a short flight of steps, you'll be able to get out onto a viewing platform on the roof.

"You'll be able to take a breather, and look, from a slightly elevated viewpoint, across the Eye of York," says Mr Ashbee.

From there, there will be a completely new and easier-to-climb flight of steps leading up to the entrance of the tower at the top of the mound - with possibly a landing half way up where visitors can again pause to capture their breath.

As for the tower itself - well, that will be dramatically changed, Mr Ashbee says. Not the fabric of the building itself, of course - but the way visitors experience it.

York Press:

A view down into the inside of Clifford's Tower as it is today

A decision was made early on that it wouldn't be completely roofed over. It has been a ruin since 1684, when it was destroyed by fire - and a ruin it will remain. But the new lightweight wooden canopy that will cap the walls will act as both a walkway, providing stunning views over York, and a partial roof - with admittedly a very large hole in the centre - that will provide some shelter for the building itself.

York Press:

Artist's impression showing the inside of Clifford's Tower, with metal walkways suspended from a wooden canopy/ roof

The wooden walkway/ roof will be much wider than the existing stone walkway, so it will be much more pleasant and less crowded for visitors who want to linger at the top of the tower to gaze out over York. There will also be room for more interpretation, though exactly what that will be is yet to be decided.

"There is huge potential," Mr Ashbee says. "It could be 'this is York Minster, this is St Mary Bishophill'. Or it could be: "If you were here in Roman times, the Roman fort would have been up there'. Or it could be "Richard III, the local hero, met his death at Bosworth field 120 miles in that direction'."

Inside the tower, the old first floor is long gone. Modern visitors can, at present, only gaze yearningly at the openings in the thick walls which indicate where rooms used to be.

In future, metal walkways suspended from the overhead canopy to run across the inside of the tower at what used to be first floor level will open up some of these hidden rooms to visitors for the first time in many years.

On the ground floor, meanwhile, will be a series of 'sight and sound' displays telling stories of the tower's rich history: everything from the suicide and massacre of the Jews in 1190 to the hanging in chains from the tower of the rebel Robert Aske in 1537 - and, more recently, the tower's reincarnation as a romantic ruin in the early 1800s. Taken altogether, Mr Ashbee says, the proposals would allow English Heritage to illustrate the historic tower's 1,000-odd years of history much more richly.

York Press:

A 'romantic ruin': a not-entirely realistic painting of Clifford's Tower in 1838 by George Nicholson

But he accepts that Clifford's Tower is a uniquely important ancient site in central York - and that people feel very strongly about it.

That is why English Heritage wants local people to have every chance to make their views known before a formal planning application is lodged with the city council.

All day on Thursday January 21 a public consultation will be held at the National Centre for Early Music in Walmgate. Between 11am and 4pm, you'll be able to drop in at any time to view an exhibition about the proposals, ask questions, and complete feedback forms. Then, from 6pm-8pm, there will be a presentation by members of the Clifford's Tower Revealed project team, and you'll have a chance again to ask questions.

Anyon who cannot make the consultation tomorrow can make their views known by email, until the end of February, at "We're looking forward to getting people's comments and questions," Mr Ashbee says. "We've got the proposals to this stage - but there are still many t's to be crossed and i's to be dotted."

They will be dong that quite quickly, however. The hope is that, with a 'fair wind', work will begin on site as soon as this autumn, Mr Ashbee says - with the new visitor centre open in time for summer 2017.

So if you want to have your say on the future of this iconic ancient heart of York, do so quickly...


What they say

David Fraser, chief executive of York civic trust

York Press:

David Fraser

Ideally, any improvements to Clifford's Tower should be considered as part of a wider plan for the whole area, including the Eye of York, the three prison buildings, and the Foss riverbanks. "But English Heritage are still to be applauded for making a start and their proposal may act as a catalyst for a wider solution."

As to the details: the wooden roof/ walkway would mean more people could appreciate the building, Mr Fraser said, while the visitor centre was an 'interesting concept'. "Key considerations in accepting its design are its precise location; and the effect a new building in this position will have on the character of this precious historic area."

Reyahn King, chief executive of York Museums Trust

York Press:

Reyahn King

“The development will allow Clifford’s Tower to adapt and change so it can continue to meet its visitors’ needs and tell its stories in different ways. We hope this investment will help to kick start renewal of adjoining sites."

Cllr. Janet Looker, leader of the labour group on City of York council: “I’m perfectly comfortable with the idea of extra space to explain the attraction. Whether or not the proposal is right for its setting I will reserve judgment on until I have attended the public consultation, which I encourage the public to attend."

Cllr Keith Aspden, leader of the Liberal Democrat group: “Clifford’s Tower is an iconic part of York’s landscape and therefore any new development needs to be carefully considered. I am very keen to hear what residents make of the proposals and would encourage everyone to take part in the public consultation on Thursday.”

Cllr. Keith Myers, Conservative leisure & culture spokesman: “Clifford’s Tower is a very sensitive site. The existing temporary structures within the tower could be improved. But we all have an interest in ensuring that any changes do not detract from the appealing aspect of a magnificent lone tower on a hill. As a party we would question whether additional bells and whistles are absolutely needed.”

Kate McMullen, Make It York:

York Press:

Kate McMullen

"Clifford’s Tower is a very popular visitor attraction and it’s exciting to hear there are plans to better interpret the stories behind this fabulous and iconic York building. This multi-million pound investment will help ensure the long term future of one of York’s most treasured assets."


REBECCA ELMER asked people in York what they thought: “I think aesthetically it’s not in-keeping”, said Mike Josh, 57 from Kirk Hammerton. “I don’t see why there couldn’t be a visitor centre next to the York Castle Museum, rather than right next to Clifford’s Tower.”

Monica, a youth worker from Durham: “The information is going to help, and you’re never really going to get a building that’s going to fit in with the Castle - you may as well have a modern one.”

Tracy Doors from Cannock Chase in Staffordshire: “I don’t think it needs it. If people come here they want the castle. It depends what the centre is going to provide. If it’s just selling trinkets and gifts, it will be a waste of money. It would spoil the view as well.”

Ray from York:: “If it’s built with stones which match Clifford’s tower it’s not going to look ugly, but if not it could be put somewhere else.”


A brief history of Clifford's Tower

Summer 1068: William I installs a garrison at York and founds a castle

March 1190: During anti-Jewish riots, the York Jewish community is placed under protective custody in the tower. Trust breaks down, the castle is stormed and the Jews commit mass suicide, burning the tower. The few survivors are massacred

March 1245: Henry III begins the construction of the present Clifford’s Tower in advance of wars in Scotland.

April 1298: The tower is fitted up for the Exchequer Treasury of Receipt: wars in Scotland have caused the royal government to relocate to the North

July 1537: Robert Aske, leader of a rebellion against King Henry VIII known as the 'Pilgrimage of Grace', is hanged in chains from ‘the height of the castle dungeon’

1643: a ruined Clifford’s Tower is brought back into use as a magazine and gun-emplacement

July 1644: A siege of York by Parliamentarians sees fire exchanged between Clifford’s Tower and a battery outside Walmgate. The Royalists in the city eventually surrender.

April 1684: The interior of the tower is destroyed by fire during a gun salute for the King’s birthday

1826: Clifford’s Tower is enclosed inside a new County Gaol. A new road from the main gate requires the mound of Clifford’s Tower to be cut back on all sides and revetted in stone.

1935: The 19th-century prison buildings are demolished. The Office of Works reconstructs the lower slopes of the motte, burying the stone retaining wall.