Late September saw some dramatic developments at Wakefield’s important Wars of the Roses and English Civil War site, Sandal Castle. It’s been making the news for all the wrong reasons: increasing levels of abuse and misuse from littering to anti-social behaviour, joyriding, and damage to the monument culminating in a load of horrible graffiti in purple paint being sprayed on the stones of the Great Hall.
Why has this happened? Ultimately, it’s down to national government starving local authorities of the funds to support quality-of-life amenities including heritage. Having done a good job of looking after and developing the site, over several years Wakefield Council was forced to cut back staffing and opening times for its Visitor Centre until it finally closed altogether. This was very sad, not to mention sorely inconvenient for visitors deprived of its facilities (information, loos, refreshments, educational space and gift shop); it also threatened the castle’s wellbeing by removing the staff who discouraged inappropriate use by their very presence.
Nonetheless, the Council continued to maintain the grounds and people continued to come and enjoy Sandal Castle until the rot set in – literally – in March 2016, when the timber walkways and steps giving access to the inner bailey and keep were pronounced structurally unsound and closed for safety reasons. Denying access for grounds maintenance crews means that the motte is now overgrown with weeds and bushes; this unkempt appearance encourages a ‘don’t care’ mentality and contributes to the littering problem – and the lack of safe access makes it impossible for the Friends group to get in and clean up. Worse, many people don’t give a hoot that the walkways are closed, and risk life and limb by scrambling up and down the steep earthworks. Some are teenagers, who congregate in the inner bailey to drink or whatever, secure in the knowledge that adults, including the police, would have a hard job reaching them before they could scarper.
Wakefield Council’s response is too little, too late. The recent graffiti incident led to local press coverage, (87 people including costumed re-enactors turned out for a Wakefield Express photo-call last week), a substantial feature on BBC Radio Leeds on Friday 30th September, masses of public interest and support, and (hurrah!) the subsequent arrest of one of the culprits. Now the Council has issued a statement promising CCTV coverage and more security presence at the site, and they’re also seeking a new tenant for the Visitor Centre so that it can re-open in some form (perhaps as a café). This is all welcome news – albeit no solution to the core problem. Until the walkways are reinstated, people determined to access the monument will continue to climb the earthworks, doing considerable damage in the process and risking serious injury to themselves.
I wish the Council had acted more vigorously to protect Sandal Castle – especially in view of the millions being spent on conservation and new visitor facilities just a few miles away at Pontefract Castle. I can’t understand why the officers responsible for heritage haven’t capitalised on the upsurge of interest in medieval history thanks to Richard III, and put Sandal firmly on the Wars of the Roses tourism map. I can’t understand why a major appeal to raise £175,000 to replace the walkways and steps wasn’t launched back in the spring – if it had been, this monument of national historical significance might not have suffered such harm. But as it is, such works cannot be undertaken over the winter months – so this unhappy situation will persist well into 2017, and the final repair bills will be even higher than they are at the moment.
Meanwhile some of the unauthorised access and attendant damage to the site is being caused by folk out hunting ruddy Pokémon – so if you’d like to join the campaign to get Pokémon removed from Sandal Castle, please visit the Friends of Sandal Castle Facebook page for information and instructions!