Lancaster’s Listed Landmark

Head of heritage, architect, Alan Davies explains how the sensitive refurbishment of one of the UK’s most important cultural buildings has finally returned the Castle to the people of Lancaster.

Lancaster Castle has welcomed countless Royal visitors, held many notable trials, including the prosecution of witches, been the scene of hundreds of executions and has housed prisoners until as recently as 2011. Owned by the Duchy of Lancaster – also the monarch – it dates from the 11th century, contains Roman remains and has been in continuous use since mediaeval times. This grade I listed building has been described by English Heritage as “not only the North-West’s most important historic and archaeological monument but also of international importance”.

When it ceased to be a prison, councillors, civic and business leaders, neighbour representatives, planners and conservation agencies and experts in heritage and tourism were invited to the Governor’s House in the castle to discuss key issues and opportunities to determine its future. There was widespread support for the castle to be returned as an asset to the city and its people and to aid the city centre’s regeneration but concerns were voiced about intensive re-use and over development. Our design proposals for this beloved building with such a compelling history – part of the DNA of the city – had to tread a very fine balance.
The restoration and re-modelling of the historic structure presented many challenges, not least accessibility, sustainability and integrating flexibility to accommodate a wide variety of new users, namely museum, retail and education; all with the aim of creating a new attraction for the region and maintaining financial viability. The first step was to remove ad hoc additions from the central courtyard, which was remodelled and repaved to enable step-free access to all external areas and the ground floor of all the buildings. A soft green play area was also created for younger visitors. Further buildings were repaired and creatively adapted for a diverse range of occupiers including Lancashire County Council Museums Service, Lancaster University, a local artisan coffee and food outlet, a stone carver, together with offices and a boardroom for the client, the Duchy of Lancaster. A base for tours of the castle, museum exhibition areas, meeting rooms, teaching space for Lancaster University, retail units and a new café have been created.
A section of the castle curtain wall was reduced in height to make a stronger visual connection with the adjacent priory church. To date seven buildings have been brought back into new uses, with a further seven repaired to make them ‘wind and weather-tight’. Restoration ensures the continued use of the buildings and provides income for the client to assist with their upkeep. The castle is also actively marketed as a film location.
The building construction constitutes a large amount of embodied carbon, built with massive masonry, its walls, floors and ceilings are typically more than 600mm thick. Conversely this provides mass – beyond what is possible in modern buildings – for retaining heat, balancing temperature and creating comfort. Every opportunity was taken to improve energy efficiency, with the installation of highly efficient heating plant, roof insulation and refurbishment of historic windows and doors to increase weather-tightness and reduce energy loss. Lead roof coverings were renewed and the old lead recycled. Stone from the 19th century building was dismantled, retained and re-used for masonry repairs. The remainder was transformed into paving slabs for the courtyard, retaining as much historic material as possible on site and reducing use of new materials. The constructive collaboration with heritage bodies and interested stakeholders throughout the design process and implementation, together with early engagement with building control were key elements in determining the building fabric’s ability to meet the demands of public use. Since opening to the public, it has fulfilled the Duchy’s aspiration to make the Castle a centre of learning and hub for historic and cultural activities across the city. In the words of the client, the castle has been given back to the people of Lancaster.