Deal lifts hopes for boom in castle visitors

YEARS of wrangling over the management of Conisbrough Castle has finally produced a resolution – and hopes are high that visitors will come flocking back.

English Heritage has announced it is to take over the day-to-day management of the 800-year-old monument from the Ivanhoe Trust, which currently runs the castle on behalf of Doncaster Council, owner of the site freehold.

As a result, a new visitor centre is set to be built and an extensive events programme introduced, which English Heritage hopes will benefit the local economy.

A spokesman for English Heritage said: "The intention is to improve the strategic management of the site and increase visitor numbers to make the best of one of Doncaster's most important historical assets.

"In time, English Heritage's direct management is intended to lead to increased visitor numbers, through an extensive events programme which will have a positive impact upon the local economy.

"Over the past few years, visitor numbers have been in slow decline, and struggled to meet the projection set out in the Ivanhoe Trust's business plan."

The last major investment in the castle was in the 1990s, when English Heritage used European funding to install a new roof and floors to the keep.

At that time it was hoped that the castle would attract up to 80,000 visitors a year, but the reality was disappointing.

Visitor numbers settled down to about 30,000 a year, of a which a third were schoolchildren on educational trips.

As a result, income from ticket sales was vastly below anticipated figures, although the running costs were barely reduced by the lower visitor numbers.

English Heritage and Doncaster Council say they are now committing to a development plan which will mean the removal of the current visitor centre and its replacement with a long-term sustainable building.

Conisbrough Castle's opening during the winter months will be reduced from seven days a week to six under the new management, although opening times will remain the same and it will still remain open seven days a week between 1 April and 30 September.

English Heritage says it currently has no plans to either increase entrance prices or change staffing levels.

There have been years of wrangles between English Heritage, Doncaster Council and the Ivanhoe Trust over the building.

In 1986 the Ivanhoe Trust, named after the famous Sir Walter Scott novel which was set at the castle, was founded as a joint venture between Doncaster Council and the Dartington Trust of north Devon to assist in the economic, social and environmental regeneration of the Dearne Valley communities.

The Ivanhoe Trust, which saw the castle as a major opportunity to help regeneration into the Dearne Valley, reached an agreement with English Heritage and the council to handle the day-to-day running of the castle. At first the trust was successful, bringing about a massive increase in visitor numbers and being instrumental in the construction of a 100,000 visitor centre in the style of a medieval jousting tent – its architecture was later crticised by Prince Charles.

But after visitor numbers declined, in 2006 Doncaster Council made moves to withdraw funding from the trust.

This would almost certainly have rendered it insolvent, had the decision not been blocked by the authority's ruling cabinet committee.

Instead, councillors opted to continue funding the trust for the next three years, but now English Heritage has stepped in to take over.