I was excited when work began on refurbishing Clifford’s Tower. It is a go-to place to take visitors and boasts the best views of the York skyline. During the works, the hoardings had been plastered in old photos, which along with pictures of the new installation and links to digital assets online was a definite plus.
Arriving for my visit, I was not disappointed. The area around the entry has been improved significantly. There is a bronze timeline showing key dates, new seating and a membership van. The memorial to the Jewish people who died in the tower has also been well refurbished.
Climbing up the long staircase, I appreciated the addition of stopping points with benches to allow rests and the new banisters at multiple heights, which made the stairs feel much safer.
I was struck by how aesthetically pleasing the new staircases and floors are. Made from wood and metal, they feel nicely modern but don’t detract from the ancient structure. I went straight to the top floor and was happy to see that they have kept the internal stone spiral staircases that were the only access up previously, but that they have improved the stonework and put in new banisters with lighting tracks.
The new wooden upper floor is great. It maintains the 360-degree views that I love, but makes it all feel much more spacious. When I visited, the tower was steadily busy, but there was plenty of room for everyone, with seats to sit on after the long ascent and lots of view to go around.
The wooden flooring looked fantastic, and the well in the middle allows a view down into the tower. I also liked the fact that the new stairs, which connect the new top and middle floors, are spiral, matching the historic design.
Having marvelled at the views and appreciated the skill that has gone into constructing the floors, I started to notice some issues. The first was accessibility. There were some good things. For instance, the text panels are white on a black background and had good contrast. The introductory paragraphs were also bold, so if you just wanted the headlines you could pick them up easily.
The panels were at a good height so my six-year-old could read them. There was braille on most signs, and audio tours and translations into other languages via QR codes. The entry sign also promised a large print and touch map, though ironically this information was written in very small print.
The steep stairs mean the site may never be wheelchair accessible. That said, there were a few missed opportunities. The wooden lightwell at the top was high enough that, as a six-footer, I could see over, but my five-foot tall wife couldn’t, and we saw some parents lift children up to see over. A glass or perspex viewing panel would have been good.
Many of the wooden steps at the top didn’t have edge markings to guide people with sight issues. And it would have been good if some of the box-style seats had armrests for people who need help getting out of a chair.
The audioguide had lovely information, but there was no accompanying text which can be helpful for those of harder hearing in an echoing castle.
A last point on access is that there were some nice audio points set on beautiful stone benches. However, the text explaining who was telling the story was located further away. In addition, there was no indication of length of track, the audio ran quickly, there was no text to follow along with and the volume was so low that everyone I saw had to put their ear close to the speaker, meaning it only worked for one person at a time.
I liked the concept of the see-through stairs and gantry-way on the first floor, but it became apparent that anyone wearing a skirt or dress would be exposed to people on the ground floor.
My other issue was with the scant interpretation. Panels on the lower floor outline the history of the tower, and skyline text highlights key places in town, but that was it. So, although you can get up close to bits of history you hadn’t been able to access before, you don’t learn much about them.
Lastly, there was nothing for children to do. No panels aimed at fostering family learning, no games, activities, interactives or anything at all. My daughter left feeling upset as she remembered having a sword-and-shield fight on a previous visit. There wasn’t an activity pack or even a children’s guidebook to be bought either. There was also no shop, no toilets, and no indication of the lack of these at ground level. Directions to the nearest public loos are a definite must.
I have mixed feelings about the visit. In a lot of ways, the refurbishment has done what it set out to do. It looks fantastic, has improved the aesthetics, health and safety and some elements of accessibility and no doubt done much to conserve the fabric of the site.
But there are a number of missed opportunities around access, and the interpretation feels like a throwback to an older time, with only one audience in mind. Sadly, as a family, that wasn’t us. I don’t feel the urge to go back, and as we left a family member remarked: “Who spends £5m and makes a place duller?”