OPINION. Clifford’s Tower reopens today. What’s the past, present and future hold?

The new walkways at Clifford’s Tower. Picture: Christopher Ison for English Heritage

CLIFFORD’S Tower reopens today, re-roofed, its interior transformed, its story to be told anew by English Heritage after a £5 million conservation project that hopefully turns into conversation.

Regularly, the empty shell of the last remains of York Castle, had been voted York’s most disappointing tourist attraction, one that you came, you, saw, you concurred with everyone else after 15 minutes that you would not be going back.

Up against York Minster, the National Railway Museum, the Yorkshire Museum, York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery, let alone York Dungeon, York’s Chocolate Story and myriad ghost walks, Clifford’s Tower was “living with history”, to borrow the city’s former slogan, but not alive with history.

It amounted to 55 steps to what? Awkward, cramped walkways; awkward anti-Semitic associations with the darkest day in York’s past (the Jewish massacre and suicide of March 16 1190 on this site); the awkward misfire of hosting York’s Bonfire Night firework display, thankfully consigned to history.

Then awkward discussions about what to do with the tower, when initial redevelopment plans met with opprobrium, even derision, being deemed a commercially driven act of heresy, rather than heritage, as Councillor Johnny Hayes led the successful 2018 campaign against the English Heritage (and City of York Council approved) plans for a visitor centre on the mound, so out of keeping with LS Lowry’s famous painting.

Roll on to April 2 2022 and welcome to the new but old Clifford’s Tower, the 800-year-old landmark with its new roof deck to provide the best 360-degree views of York – better than York Minster because it takes in York Minster – and hidden rooms, newly revealed and refreshed for the first time since the tower was gutted by fire in 1684.

No visitor centre, no shop, no lift for the disabled, no palatial revamp, only history, unlocked secrets, aerial walkways, stopping points to catch breath when climbing the steps, that breathtaking panoramic rooftop view…oh, and a loo.

Clifford’s Tower, by L.S. Lowry, from the York Museums Trust collection at York Art Gallery

Not for public use, and no ordinary loo but the garderobe for Henry the Third (don’t say that with an Irish accent), a rather flash Royal flush from long before the likes of Thomas Crapper got to work on waterworks. All that is missing is the seat for this alternative throne, but the toiletries cupboard is still there.

What is this fascination with ablutions in York’s past? First the olfactory unpleasantries of the JORVIK Viking Centre, now Henry III’s state-of-the-(f)art lavatory, newly given the reverence of a cistern chapel. Read all about it, how radical it was, and the excitement may well be merited.

After Coun Hayes kicked up a stink, English Heritage went back to the drawing board, the focus solely on the tower itself, or “protecting Clifford’s Tower for future generations and inspiring more people to discover its histories,” as the charity’s chief executive, Kate Mavor, put it.

Jeremy Ashbee, head properties curator at English Heritage, calls Clifford’s Tower “one of England’s most important buildings”. “It is almost all that remains of York Castle, the centre of government for the north throughout the Middle Ages up to the 17th century – the place where the whole of the North of England was ruled from,” he says.

“We not only wanted to preserve this incredible building but also to do justice to its fascinating and multi-faceted history.”

The challenge has been to give Clifford’s Tower a future, one that truthfully can never match its past. What £5 million has done is to tell that past much better, in a city where history is often in the re-making.  

Clifford’s Tower is not alone in making the historic headlines at present in York, what with the investigations into whether any part of the ornate street light in Minster Gates can be salvaged after a delivery driver reversed into it on March 21, and the rejection of the second set of York Archaeological Trust, Rougier Street Developments and North Star plans for the Roman Quarter and its Eboracum visitor attraction.

The question now is will visitors make return visits to Clifford’s Tower in such a competitive tourist market? Only time will tell, but for definite, no parties or weddings will be held there. Theatre on the new first floor; concerts on the rooftop? Not ruled out, apparently.