News Monday, October 3rd Words by: Mark Bowen, pictures by: Mark Bowen

Hay Castle: Coming back to life

News Monday, October 3rd

Hay Castle: Coming back to life

A visit to Hay Castle fires the imagination with possibilities.

A  £4m+ renovation project will transform the currently dilapidated building into a major centre for culture, arts and education.

The once great medieval stronghold (part of the landscape for a thousand years) will have new life breathed into it following the award of a £4.46 million grant towards the renovation of Hay Castle by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The castle is part Norman, Jacobean and Victorian.

Its Norman keep is the oldest part of the remarkable structure but is unstable and unsafe for entry. Its famed archway is currently impassable.

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Hywel Jones of Mott MacDonald is leading the project 

The castle's Jacobean mansion has fallen into disrepair following a major fire in 1977 - its east wing remains roofless and its decorated stone walls are collapsing. 

The stables, added in the Victorican era and now used partly as office space, have untapped potential.

There are ambitious plans for all three parts of the castle that has been a home to invaders, a patriots’ citadel, a country manor and a world-famous bookshop.

The castle stands in the heart of Hay-on-Wye but access from the Castle Street side is currently limited, leaving visitors to negotiate steps suitable only for the nimble footed. 

But all of this is set to change under the leadership of Hywel Jones of global engineering, management and development consultancy company Mott MacDonald. Here he talks us throught the project. 

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There have been two serious fires at Hay Castle in 1939 and 1977

Can you tell me the outline of the project you are leading?

We’ve been brought on board to deliver the refurbishment and conservation of this historic grade one listed building so it’s the highest historic listing you can have. There is an investment of over £4m that is going to go into it so what we need to do is develop a design, secure planning permission, and tender it to get a price from contractors to realise this ambitious project. So we are at the stage now where we are awaiting planning permission, which is imminent, and listed building consent. Following that we will do the technical design so we can work up all the detail that is required to make this building watertight, to develop the spaces into multi-use spaces, so they can have an on-going life in terms of providing facilities and revenue to maintain this amazing building for the future.

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Hay Castle Trust announced the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a £4.46 million grant towards the renovation of the castle

What are you hoping to do with the keep?    

That’s more about conservation. That’s about drawing people into the space. There will be a platform there and an area where you walk in and you will get to experience the grandeur of that space. That’s more of a conservation type space to remind people of what the keep was with its amazing door features and amazing outlook.

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The inside of the east wing of the mansion

In terms of the outlook what are people going to be able to see?

They will be able to walk up the stairs and on platforms where they can view at certain levels, ultimately with the best view at the top end of the keep.

So they will be able to look into the town?

Yes and not only that they will be able to look at the building itself internally and externally. The keep was built providing the function of keeping a lookout and being the tallest part of this facility it gives you the best view.

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Visitors to the castle will be able to get spectacular views from the keep

What sort of state is the mansion itself in?

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The top floor of the mansion which is in a dilapidated state

It’s in a dilapidated state. Some of the rooms could be functional. There is a kitchen there, there are spaces that could be used, but it needs to be made watertight, it needs to have all of its features restored, and it needs to bring more use into the space so we need to bring contemporary design and we need to conserve it. A lot of those spaces are quite dilapidated, damp, there is not appropriate ventilation, you couldn’t really store books in there because they would degrade. The ambient temperature and the moisture in the air just isn’t right. It is an old building so what we need to do is bring in modern standards and restore the fabric of the building and maintain it as it was so it’s bringing the old with the new.

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There are plans to make the castle's mansion multi-functional

What are you hoping to use the mansion for?

It will be multi-use. It will be fully flexible. One of its key uses will be holding books and areas to read, educational facilities to bring people in, there is a huge demand for weddings, and there are two principle rooms that will be key for weddings. It is also about connecting the external areas, which are also listed with the historic gardens and the like, back into the building so you can imagine the venue space that would create.

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Inside the Jacobean mansion

Will there be on work on the gardens?

Yes. Particularly for providing totally inclusive access. You need ramps, gentle inclines, and you need areas where you can bring people with prams, all sorts of needs, because as it stands now there are steps everywhere so we need to grade all of those out. But we need to conserve the landscape. The external areas are just as important as the internal so there will be a significant amount of spend on those areas, particularly looking out over the town itself where the market is held, there are quite large gradients there, so there’s a lot of remodelling, and the principle stairs need to be conserved but brought back so it can be used for modern people to access the site safely.

On your website there is a line about reconnecting the castle with the town. Can you explain what that means?

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The great gateway will be opened up again to allow access from the town side. Samples from the gate are undergoing carbon dating which could prove the door to be the oldest working defensive gate in Wales.

If you look at the market area you will find the severance there. There is one entrance where you can come through and there are charity boxes where you can take books. But it is quite confined, the main principle access needs to be opened up. At the moment there are lamp posts, service boxes, everything in the way. It’s that connection, the remodelling back to what it used to be. There won’t be a severance there with a big wall, there will be a full connection, it will be a natural progression from the market area back up to the castle. At the moment it’s quite difficult to work your way from the square back to the castle and with it being dilapidated as well it does not welcome people. With it being fully restored people are just going to be naturally drawn to the castle particularly with the landscaping being terraced and being shaped in such a way where you could just picnic or chill out and read a book. The severance would be taken away by the investment that goes into the boundary area and the access up to the main building.

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A view of the town from the obstructed gateway

The building is open to tourists at the moment isn’t it?

Tours are provided but there aren’t that many events tourists could be drawn into other than seeing the building as it is in itself so what you need to do is improve the offer, improve the experience, and that’s why we are spending over £4m to create those experiences and opening up sections that have been covered up. There are lots of sections that have been covered up where there is fantastic archaeology and heritage, just exposing that would provide more interest to people to be drawn in.

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Books are sold in the grounds of the castle

Would there be an opportunity for more events to be held?

Without doubt. Events would substantially help in terms of revenue. That is going to be really important, cafes, all those type of revenue generating areas which can be recouped and reinvested back in the building. You just can’t spend £4m refurbishing somewhere and just hope that it’s going to be ok for another 20 years, you need to create business and you need to create revenue. The stables will be turned into a café with a terrace area coming back to the grounds so that in itself will draw people up. Then you will have educational facilities so you will have people residing here in the day time for educational purposes, you would have weddings. All of a sudden you are bringing life and animation into the building.

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The stables will be turned into a café

Would there be any possibility of linking up with Hay Festival?

Without a doubt. The castle will become a community asset. They already use the grass area space, they have marquees, and people have used the building, but I think you would just get more use out of the castle because you would be bringing all of the spaces back into use. It could become a hub for the event spaces so you actually help others events throughout Hay to succeed by providing this fantastic facility.

The open space behind he castle would be ideal for those sorts of events wouldn't it?

That’s right. It’s not just the space. Even though it is an old building it will have fantastic broadband connections and good facilities for projecting. All of a sudden this historic garden will have connections for high level event spaces so that becomes a facility you don’t always get in rural areas. It’s surprising because the main thrust of this project is to conserve the building and celebrate it. It is a fantastic building but it’s also about the operation and the facilities and bringing it into the 21st century. That mix can be powerful and can act as its own catalyst for regeneration of areas outside of the footprint of this building so you get a huge return on the investment.

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There is plenty of green space surrounding the castle that can be used for events

Has there been a positive reaction to the plans in the town?

Yes. It is a popular project. I suppose some people might think 'is it going to happen'? That is the only thing that you could say would be a negative. But as soon as you get the planning permission within the next few weeks, as soon as we start doing enabling works and scaffolding starts lifting, the confidence should flow right back and then there will be far more engagement. It’s more about making it happen now.

Where are you with the planning permission?

It’s imminent. We would think two to three weeks and we should secure that and then we will be going out to get contractors. We will probably get contractors on board around March time and we are looking to start in May but we may do a little bit of enabling work prior to that .That will serve as a strong gesture to the community that this thing is happening.      

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Proposed access to the ancient keep

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Architectural plans for the castle's mansion                             

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