Pontefract Castle to open new doors to history

Ian Downes (Programmes a& events Officer) at Pontefract Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees
Ian Downes (Programmes a& events Officer) at Pontefract Castle. Picture Scott Merrylees

A forgotten chapter of history will be revealed with the reopening of Pontefract Castle.

Large sections of the castle site have been closed to the public for several years while conservation work was carried out.

Nino Vella (Museums & Castles Manager) at Pontefract Castle

Nino Vella (Museums & Castles Manager) at Pontefract Castle

And the project has now opened up previously-unseen sections of the castle and improved accessibility throughout the site.

From Sunday, visitors will also be able to visit the newly-restored Sally Port, a secure gateway which was once used as the castle’s emergency exit.

It will be the first time in 370 years that parts of the site have been open to the public.

Nino Vella, manager of Wakefield museums and castles, said: “We tried to make it sort of quite accessible and family friendly.

“We really wanted it to be a really pleasant place to visit. There’s a whole range of events going on, especially during the summer.

“It really looks beautiful now.”

A series of new paths will also make the castle more accessible for wheelchair users.

The conservation work was completed as part of the £4.5 million Key to the North project, which began in 2015.

It saw the opening of a new, state-of-the-art visitor centre, as well as a large scale conservation project.

More than 100 volunteers have been involved in the conservation project, offering more than 5,000 hours of time.

The project has unearthed a series of objects, including seven cannon balls, embedded a metre in the castle wall, which are believed to date back to January 1644.

Ian Downes, programme events officer for Wakefield museums and castles, said: “We know from a diary kept during the civil wars roughly what parts of the castle where attacked then.

“We know that the seven cannon balls were fired from somewhere near the top of Horsefair.”

Despite a number of cannon balls on display at the castle, to find the weapons embedded in the walls is unusual.

Ian said: “Most of the cannon balls in the collection are garden finds, that were donated by the people of Pontefract. The new finds have gone off for conservation.”

Human bone fragments, thought to be up to 1,000 years old, were also found at the site.

Tom Stannard, Corporate Director for Regeneration and Economic Growth at Wakefield Council, said: “It is fantastic that the project has been such a great success and has uncovered parts of the castle not seen in hundreds of years.

“Pontefract Castle has always been a very important part of the district’s heritage. The conservation work has revealed more about the story of this very important site, which will continue to be enjoyed by people now and in the future.

“The conservation work will help encourage even more people to come and visit and enjoy our important historic site.”

The Sally Port at Pontefract Castle will open to the public on Sunday, April 21.

In ruins

Though it was once a glorious site, much of Pontefract Castle is no longer standing, Ian Downes explained.

This was not the result of any siege or attack, but at the request of the people of Pontefract.

Mr Downes said: “After the civil war, the people of Pontefract had petitioned parliament for the castle’s destruction.

“They were fed up because they’d had the sieging forces attacking and on some occasions even the people in the castle raiding the town.”

Conservation and restoration projects have helped to give a better idea of where the castle once stood, including highlighting fallen towers and the royal apartments which would once have house Kings and Queens.