Monday, 28 March 2011

HLF Approve £4.7m grant to restore Cardigan Castle - Birthplace of the Welsh Eisteddfod

Today is a bloody good day for Cardigan, Wales and for anyone who values Welsh culture.
Cardigan Castle in 2014?

For today it was officially announced that the Heritage Lottery Fund have given their approval to a £4.7m grant application submitted by Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust on behalf of Cardigan Castle.

This is absolutely brilliant news for the castle and for us all here in the town. It is the moment when a great campaign to bring our historic castle back into full, open, public use, crossed the rubicon from being one of hope to one of expectancy.

A Potted History
Cardigan is a Welsh castle built in stone in 1171 - built by the native population and not by the Norman occupiers. It is a castle that, in 1176, witnessed a feast of celebration as poets and musicians competed for a chair at Lord Rhys's table.

As recorded in Brut y Tywysogion...

" Christmas in that year, the Lord Rhys ap Gruffydd held court in splendour at Cardigan, in the castle. And he set two kinds of contests there: one between bards and poets, another between harpists and crowders and pipers and various classes of music craft. And he had two chairs set for the victors. And he honoured those with ample gifts".

It was the first incarnation of our modern day Eisteddfod. After the final Norman conquest of the castle during the 1240s, the castle was reconstructed. Two towers, a new keep and the town wall were all built to create the stronghold, the ruins of which are visible to visitors today. A peaceful four centuries however came to an abrupt end when Oliver Cromwell took it upon himself to storm the battlements. The castle was uninhabitable from then on until the 19th century, when it breathed a new lease of life as it was converted into a residence with Castle Green House built inside the walls and incorporating the North Tower. A pill box was built overlooking Cardigan Bridge during WWII but the castle fell into disrepair after its final private owner Barbara Wood failed to keep up with the maintenance required on such an old and vast site. After threatening a CPO, the castle was sold to Ceredigion County Council in 2003 and it's re-emergance into the public consciousness moved into top gear from then until the present day.

Cardigan Castle and me
As I've previously blogged here, as a historian, Cardigan Castle has always been a special place for me.

As I said in that post back in September...

"I can remember as a child crossing the old bridge and always wondering what lay behind those great walls. Never in a million years could I have thought that I would one day become Mayor of Cardigan and donate my Mayoral Fund donations to the Cardigan Castle Fund. If current plans being pursued by local Building Preservation Trust Cadwgan are successful, then the castle could well be totally renovated and open to the public by 2014".

Well, they were indeed precient words because that final sentence is now a great step closer to becoming a reality.

Cardigan Castle as I have always known it

"...the end of the beginning".
But it hasn't been easy. After the Council bought the castle back in 2003 after a campaign led by the local Tivy Side Advertiser, it entered into discussions regarding the future 'end use' of the castle. It was at this stage that I became directly involved in the development of this story having been elected to the County Council in 2004.

I sat in many a meeting that dealt with the 'next steps' in bringing the castle into full public use. A viable, sustainable 'end use' was required with which to bid for grant funding. I can well recall the Keen Report which the authority spent a good deal of money on but which came up with no credible plan. We then had the Peter Lord proposal of housing a new Welsh Museum of Art in the castle. I recall a passionate public meeting in the town (which public meeting in Cardigan isn't passionate?!) to discuss the options in which I as a local member was sitting on the 'top table'. It was chaired by then County Council leader Dai Lloyd Evans and local residents didn't hold back from giving their opinions.

It eventually became clear that the County Council had gone as far as they could with the castle and when Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust requested the opportunity to take charge of this ambitious project, it was a welcomed change of direction. Since then, around 2007, they have put together financially sustainable options that have been welcomed by local residents. Along with their partners, they have worked with great patience to put forward a detailed bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for what is a £9.2m scheme.

Castle Green House

It was important as a part of their detailed bid that they could evidence public support for their bid. It was with great pride therefore that during my Mayoral year between 2009-2010, my Mayoral charity was the Castle Fund.

I felt that I needed to give them this support because if their bid proved unsuccessful in this difficult economic climate where grants are drying up, it would probably mean the moth-balling of the Cardigan Castle project for a generation.

You can imagine by sheer delight therefore, after years of increasing hope but nagging uncertainty, when I heard last Wednesday morning that we'd got the full grant request of £4.7m! But it was embargoed until today so I can only give my sentiments today! But it is wonderful news. This now means that we're half-way to raising the £9m+ necessary to making our dream a reality.

But this is only a work-in-progress. The remaining money is still required but this positive news will I am sure, act as a magnet to draw down the match-funding required to bring us to our financial goal. It is now more than feasible that works on the site could begin before the end of this year and the 2014 completion date is still a very much hoped for reality. Seeing the removal of those awful stanchions will be a good start!

As Jann Tucker, the Chair of the Cadwgan Building Preservation Trust, in quoting Churchill said at today's official announcement in the castle:

"Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning".

It is indeed. There's much work ahead of us but the light at the end of the tunnel has just got that big bit brighter.

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