Why York’s heritage attractions don’t have to rely on the grey-haired and the middle class

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Bill Hill is on a mission. Along with other members of the Friends of York Walls he wants to prove that heritage isn’t just the preserve of the grey-haired or the middle class.

The first step was securing £10,000 of funding. The money was used to promote and run a two-day festival last summer celebrating the two-mile stretch of walls, which date back to Roman times.

Bill Hill, a member of the Friends of York Walls by the  walls  near to Fishergate Tower. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Bill Hill, a member of the Friends of York Walls by the walls near to Fishergate Tower. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

More than 2,000 people passed through Fishergate Postern Gate to see the newly installed display of archaeological finds and the event was, by any measure, a success.

However, going forward the team now wants to widen the reach of the festival and raise awareness of the walls - and the various historic towers - among a more diverse group of people, including the city’s ethinic minority communities and its younger generation.

Mr Hill said: “Twenty years ago, the towers were either empty or used for storage. Now Red Tower has been turned into a community hub, Monkgate and Micklegate are home to museums, and thanks to a new app, a dedicated map and a greater number of events, the festival has proved a great success.

“We have come a long way, but there is more that needs to be done. As an industry, heritage’s client base tends to be either grey-haired or nice middle class families, but we want people of all backgrounds and all ages to see the city walls as something that they can relate to.”

York's walls are among the most impressive in the UK.

York's walls are among the most impressive in the UK.

The Friends group, which was formed eight years ago, has now developed a teaching pack, which will be piloted at St George’s RC Primary School in the city early next year. Linking to the National Curriculum, the initiative will see pupils complete a number of projects inspired by the history of the walls, which will hopefully culminate in an event on the historic defences.

Mr Hill added: “Teachers are incredibly busy, but if you give them ready-made resources which are cheap, easy to use and which have a direct link to the curriculum they will embrace them.”

The education pack was borne out of work Mr Hill did for the border town of Berwick, which has impressive ramparts dating back to Elizabethan times.

He said: “They were keen to make better use of the walls and the first thing they did was to ask the people of the town what the walls meant to them and what they thought they should be used for.

“We all have our own ideas about how to best develop and use the walls, but really good public engagement sets hares running and I have no doubt that if we can do the same it will lead us to more interesting places.”

The Friends also hope to draft in the expertise York Minster stonemasons to help build a scaled down version of Fishergate Postern Tower. The idea is to explore how the original portcullis, long-since removed, operated, but the project also has other, more ambitious, aims.

If funding can be secured through the Swire Charitable Trust, the project would be delivered in partnership with the York homeless charity the Good Organisation and would give skills based training to vulnerable adults.

Mr Hill, who is already planning next year’s York Walls Festival, added: “That would be a really practical way of using the walls to support people living in York today and I do hope it’s something we can organise.

“The walls are a major asset. Ninety per cent of the walls are still intact, compared to somewhere like Hull which has none due to successive decades of demolition and rebuilding to modernise the city.

“Here, every time there was a proposal to get rid of a section the people resisted. It means we have both impressive city walls and terrible congestion, but I think the latter is a price worth paying.”

And if Mr Hill gets his way, so too will the future generations who get to call York home.