A brief history of York’s Red Tower

Imelda Havers, left, and Karen Boardman, of the Red Tower team, at the building in York.
Imelda Havers, left, and Karen Boardman, of the Red Tower team, at the building in York.
  • It was designed to help keep people out of the city, but now a new project plans to transform York’s Red Tower into a thriving community kitchen.
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IT IS the only brick-built section of York’s ancient city walls, and its construction in 1490 is said to have triggered a grisly murder for which no one was ever brought to justice.

Originally built as part of a programme of improvements aimed at bolstering York’s defences, which were agreed by Richard III and continued by his successor, Henry VII, The Red Tower was designed to keep people out of the city.

But now, more than 500 years on, this Grade I Listed Building and Scheduled Ancient Monument is throwing open its doors, with the 
aim of becoming a thriving community hub right in the heart of the city 
centre.

Ambitious plans are underway to transform the building into a community kitchen, café and meeting space, thanks to a project spearheaded by The Incredible Movement (TIM).

Inspired by the success of Incredible Edible Todmorden, which attracted widespread acclaim for growing vegetables in public spaces across the West Yorkshire town, the York-based project has hatched an equally ground-breaking plan.

It all began when York-based urban regeneration expert Imelda Havers met the founders of Incredible Edible Todmorden through her role as a fellow with the Yorkshire and Humber Royal Society of Arts, a think tank committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges.

“Through my involvement with the RSA, I got to know one of its founders, Pamela Warhurst, and was asked to pull together a group in York,” says Imelda.

“The idea was that TIM in York would be loosely connected to food but also much broader. It’s about adopting a new approach and saying ‘let’s just get on with it’. Our motto is that any projects we get involved with have to be fast, fun, cheap and local”.

In contrast to the traditional idea of organising events and planning projects by committee, York’s TIM is much less formal and its members come together sporadically with the aim of having fun and making a positive change.

“The idea of developing a community kitchen stemmed from a shared desire to have a building that could act as a focus for our activities, but we couldn’t find a building,” she said.

Their quest came to an end when she visited the Red Tower in September last year when the Friends of York Walls opened it up to visitors for only the second time in its history. Imelda immediately spotted the building’s potential and spoke to City Archaeologist John Oxley about her ideas.

“John, who works for City of York Council, is responsible for the Red Tower because it’s a Scheduled Ancient Monument. He was very encouraging and so were English Heritage. Our plans are not set in stone, but the idea is that there would be a kitchen at one end and trestle tables. We like the idea of having a ‘pay as you feel’ café, where people pay what they can afford for food.

“The kitchen could also offer training in healthy eating and be available for use by a wide range of community groups. The upstairs could be a meeting space for community use or rented out for corporate events to provide revenue,” she says.

“There’s the potential of creating vegetable beds in the garden area to grow produce for use in the kitchen. Ideally, we’d like to see a symbiotic relationship between the garden, upstairs and downstairs.”

John is keen to see the project work. “City of York Council is very interested in encouraging use and access to the gates and towers on York city walls,” he says.

“We already have a singing school at Marygate Tower; cafés at Barker Tower and Walmgate Bar; museums at Monk Bar and Micklegate Bar; and an office at Postern Tower on the City Walls. We’re also leasing Fishergate Postern Tower to Friends of York Walls so they can use it as an exhibition and community space.

“I was very pleased when Imelda approached me with a view to what they might be able to do with the Red Tower. It requires a significant amount of investment in order to make it a usable space. 

“I believe that working with community groups and commercial partners is one way of bringing in this investment, opening up and letting many more people enjoy these underused spaces. We are very keen to work with groups like TIM and Friends of York Walls so that places like the Red Tower can be opened up and enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.”

Chris Rainger, a leading member of Friends of York Walls, is equally supportive: “Imelda came to us and said ‘we’ve got an idea – is it possible?’ Everyone liked what she was saying and we wish them every success. We’re anxious to preserve the historic integrity of the building, but think what’s being proposed can be made to work.”

In January, TIM held an open weekend at the Red Tower to share their ideas with residents and visitors, and get some feedback. More than 600 people turned up and Imelda says it seemed to capture people’s imagination.

“Everyone was really positive and excited. It brought together an even more diverse group of people, which is what makes The Incredible Movement so unique.

“There are a lot of young people involved, who wouldn’t necessarily engage with the traditional committee approach. I think the idea of just picking something up and running with it really appeals to younger people, although it can be a little harder to convince people of my generation to just go ahead and do it.”

The project is part of a growing trend right across the country to make towns and cities more self-sustaining and environmentally friendly, and in York there are already schemes operating.

In 2011, Edible York was set up to help make the city greener and to make local food and food-growing skills accessible to everyone. The city’s first public vegetable patch was created to give passers-by access to a free supply of fresh food in the hope of improving diets and reducing obesity.

Since then schools have become involved by helping to plant fruit trees in local communities and the hope is this latest plan will keep the momentum going.

The Red Tower Project Group – an offshoot of TIM – is currently in the process of applying for funding to progress its plans, but will continue hosting events in the Red Tower as its ideas take shape.

“The council has indicated that it would be happy for us to have a long-term lease so things are moving quite quickly now. The more people see things going on there, the more our plans become tangible.

“I see this project as being quite radical, it’s a completely new way of doing things but in a building 
that’s more than 500 years old,” says Imelda.

She is confident it will succeed. “I’d like to think we’ll be in the Red Tower this year; we just need to keep the momentum up. If we hesitate, it could fall over.”

There will be another open event at the Red Tower in York, this coming Sunday from 11am until 2pm.