It’s easy to forget that the buildings we take for granted as part of our historic environment would have looked completely different when they were in use. Ancient Athens and Rome were gleaming cities of pristine marble, and castles were austere military structures. But centuries upon centuries of weathering and wear and tear have changed them beyond recognition.
Castles were often whitewashed inside and out, and high status area could be richly equipped with tapestries and decorated furniture. To see how a reconstruction can utterly transform a space, you don’t have to look further than Dover Castle. As English Heritage’s flagship medieval property, they seem keen to keep it fresh and interesting for the 350,000 visitors who pass through its gates every year. The work at Dover cost £2.45 million and took two years to complete (a Time Team special offered insight into the work done there).
So it’s no small feat to recreate the medieval world in glorious technicolour, but that is precisely what Norfolk Museums Service hopes to do at Norwich Castle. In February it was announced that £1 million was coming from central government. The fundraising isn’t over, but that is a sizable step which will allow for a digital reconstruction of the great tower. The intention is to carry out “major restoration work of the 900-year-old castle, including architectural, archaeological, structural and environmental surveys”. It is also hoped that visitor numbers will increase by 100,000 every year, though it isn’t clear what the baseline figure is.
So what might a restored Norwich Castle look like? A lot of research was done by the English Heritage team behind the Dover Castle project, and might offer a guideline, especially as the emphasis at Norwich will be on the 12th century which is around the time Dover Castle’s great tower was built. Norwich’s keep was built between 1095 and 1100, while Dover’s was built during the reign of Henry II. Like its later counterpart, Norwich’s keep was built by the king of England and both are similarly proportioned: Norwich is 21m tall and measures 29m by 27 at the base, while Dover’s great tower is 25.3m high and about 30m by 30m. So straightaway it looks like some of the research underpinning the Dover project eight years ago will be appropriate at Norwich.
What was striking about Dover is the way the vibrant primary colours of the furniture and tapestries were transformed by the lighting. Under broad daylight, they looked gaudy but in the darker setting of the king’s apartments they suddenly looked much more stately.
It doesn’t matter how many times you are told that these places would have been lived in by the richest of society: it takes a formidable imagination to look at bare walls and try to picture these buildings as they appeared in their heyday. Maybe most of the money set aside for Norwich will go towards repairs and more muted restoration work, but I hope to see something similar to the work at Dover Castle.