Sandal Castle: Ruination of a Famous Ruin

dscn3857Sandal Castle near Wakefield is well-known to Wars of the Roses history buffs as a favourite residence of Richard, Duke of York, and close to the spot where he and his second son Edmund, Earl of Rutland, met their deaths in battle in December 1460. This, along with its connections to Richard III and its use during the later English Civil War, make the castle a site of local and national heritage significance; and when I published my Wars of the Roses battlefield guidebook Walk Wakefield 1460 in 2011, the place was in fine fettle. Stout timber stairs across the moat and up the motte gave full access to the monument (a couple of years later, stairways down into the moat were added, giving spectacular views of the earthworks), and its Visitor Centre, containing displays on the castle’s history, plus space for educational activities, loos and a shop, was open every Wednesday to Sunday for four hours a day. The site looked tidy and well cared-for, and was a wonderful amenity for the dog-walkers, joggers, local families and visitors from farther afield who came to enjoy its beauty and unique atmosphere (not to mention the bracing winds that always seem to blow there).

Today it’s a very different, and depressing, story. Years of savage cuts to local authority budgets forced Wakefield Council to pare back staffing until the Visitor Centre finally had to close completely; then the stairways to the inner bailey and up the motte became structurally unsound and were blocked off in March this year, limiting permitted access to the perimeter of the monument only.

The consequences were sadly predictable. Lack of access for grounds maintenance means the inner monument is now so overgrown with bushes and weeds that it looks a right mess. Many visitors totally ignore the ‘No Entry’ and warning signs, (or view them as a challenge), and simply scramble or ride mountain bikes up and down the earthworks, damaging the grass and forming highly visible, unsightly tracks. With no staff to warn them off or call the police, they do this quite blatantly; the other day I witnessed several truanting schoolboys climb to the top of the motte, and a ‘carer’ (hah!) lead his special needs charge very deliberately up and down the sides of the moat (proving that some folk really don’t have the sense they were born with). The site has become a magnet for antisocial behaviour, a place for teenagers to congregate at night to booze (leaving their empties behind, of course), intimidate bona fide visitors, and spray their moronic graffiti – yes, recently the stonework was vandalised with purple paint, the work of local yobs well-known to police, who are now bragging about their exploits around the neighbourhood. Most dangerous of all, a group of young adults who should have known better drove a car around the site during the day, putting everyone else present with their children and dogs in danger, and leaving deep wheel ruts in the grass as a lasting trip hazard.

Am I angry? You bet. Who do I blame? Primarily the Government, for consistently starving local authorities of the money to provide essential services, let alone quality of life amenities like heritage (always a soft target at times of austerity). The site abusers: those who lack respect for themselves, for other people’s safety and enjoyment, and for our shared environment and history. (However, I can sympathise with locals whose Council Tax goes in part to pay for Sandal Castle’s upkeep and who are determined to continue accessing the whole site as they always have done, despite the blocked stairways). And for all that I understand Wakefield Council’s financial difficulties, I can’t help feeling frustrated by the flabby, short-sighted, ‘we can’t do that’ approach they seem to have taken, rather than energetically pursuing solutions to this problem. Where is the joined-up thinking? Where is the major public appeal to raise a relatively modest £175,000 to reinstate the walkways? Where is the regional tourism drive to capitalise on the unprecedented levels of national and international interest in the Wars of the Roses since the discovery of Richard III’s remains in 2012? And why is it now falling on unpaid members of the community to kick up a fuss and take action when there are senior and principal council officers receiving good salaries to address issues like this?!

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Save Wakefield’s Market Hall

A good market is a focal point for any town; the workaday equivalent of a department store where you can buy anything and everything at bargain prices.

When I moved here in 2005, Wakefield had a great indoor market on Westmorland Street, with a food hall on the ground floor and a mezzanine above full of all sorts of clothing, haberdashery and other stalls. This lively, bustling place, popular with shoppers and traders alike, was demolished to make way for the new Trinity Walk luxury retail development, and many of its traders relocated in 2008 to a new Market Hall.

Designed by David Adjaye, this is another modern triumph of architectural ego over the needs and convenience of users: a grotesque, badly laid out structure, much smaller than its predecessor, with a large volume of grossly overheated wasted space above its ground floor stalls, and a pitiful food annexe tacked on like an afterthought. Hubcap and I don’t like it (does anyone, apart from David Adjaye and the developers seduced by his pretentious ‘vision’?). Nonetheless, we shop there nearly every week because, apart from the open markets periodically held around the Cathedral and Wood Street, it’s our one and only permanent market. Its main advantage is its position next to the main bus station – a real boon for shoppers, especially the elderly and carless. You can still buy excellent fresh local produce, clothes and various other goods from the stalls outside, and meat, cheese, delicatessen and ethnic foods in the annexe. And while the main hall lacks the diversity of the old one, you’ll still find carpets, linens, clothes and shoes, cosmetics and jewellery, greetings cards, cakes and confectionery and lots more besides, including a very well-patronised café. (If you’d like a look at it, there are pictures on the February News page of my website).

The Market Hall cost around £3 million to build, (plus more to fix its inexcusable problems like inadequate flooring and drainage), and it’s so new that the paint’s barely dry. But guess what? It’s under-performing (apart from its rubbish design, this may be due to a relative dearth of publicity compared with Trinity Walk) – so now Wakefield Council and the landowners say it’s got to go. And what will we get in its place – a new, better market? I wish! No – a ‘cinema and restaurant complex’ when we’ve already got a perfectly good multi-screen on a retail and leisure park less than a mile away, and the city centre’s already heaving with eateries ranging from Italian, Indian and Chinese restaurants, tapas bars, pizza houses, sandwich bars, cafes and coffee shops, to pubs that serve grub.

So the local population doesn’t need it – and our market traders certainly don’t want it. ‘But they’d be offered alternative outdoor pitches,’ say the Council blithely, ‘perhaps on Trinity Walk.’ Yeah, right – one chap we spoke to, who’s traded in Wakefield all his working life, has been offered ten square feet – a fraction the size of his current pitch in the Market Hall. Or, according to our Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Growth, they could relocate to the many empty shop units to ‘boost the city’s retail economy.’ What a joke. If the traders wanted retail premises, they’d be shopkeepers already; but most don’t want and/or can’t afford them, when a city-centre shop can cost over £65,000 in leasehold, plus £30-odd thousand in rates. That works out at more than £2000 per week excluding utilities, insurance, staff wages, National Insurance and pension contributions – not forgetting shop-fitting, redecoration and stock. Compare this to the £165 per week for rent and services our trader pays for his Market Hall pitch, and you don’t need a maths degree to see that it’s way beyond the means of the average stall-holder.

Then consider the terrible personal consequences of closure for the trading community. The proprietor of the Thai Noodle stand, we were told, spent tens of thousands getting his pitch ready to open just before Christmas 2013; the new incumbent at the health food stall has taken out grants and loans to enable her to start business; and now, poof! All their hard work and investment set to be flattened by the wrecking ball. So if this proposal goes ahead, I have no doubt that some unfortunate traders will go bust along with the building, at God knows what cost to themselves, their families, and our struggling welfare system. And in five years’ time, instead of a potentially successful market, Wakefield will be stuck with a failing cinema and a bunch of junk-food franchises stuffing our veins with cholesterol even as they suck the lifeblood from other city-centre eating places.

So although it galls me to defend such a rotten building, I feel I’ve no choice. The sheer wastefulness of the proposal sickens me, as does the prospect of what we’ll get instead – a city with no permanent indoor market, and a long-established trading community thrown into the misery of unemployment, debt and bankruptcy. So please support them – while you’ve still got chance, come to the Market Hall and bag yourself a bargain (we got a pure cotton double bedspread for £10, and a pair of floor-ceiling, fully lined polyester chenille curtains for £39 on Saturday). And please – if you care about Wakefield, about its traders, about the ancient right of citizens to a decent market, sign my online petition! (Just log on to the Wakefield Council site, register as a user with your email address and a password, then sign Save the Market Hall). At the very least, we can raise our voices in protest before this multi-million pound development, and the livelihoods of its traders, are destroyed; and at the very best, we might even stop it happening.