(Above) the Keep at Farnham Castle dates back 900 years
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt was at Farnham Castle Keep last weekend (June 25 2010) to launch an innovative restoration project which secures free and increased access to one of the most important heritage sites in the South East of England.
Founded in 1138 by Bishop Henry of Blois, Farnham Castle Keep represents more than 900 years of English history and, together with its adjoining buildings, was used as an administrative centre and power base for the Bishops of Winchester from the Norman conquest to the Tudor period.
Thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant of more than £700,000 and support from English Heritage, the 900-year-old Norman Keep, which offers spectacular views over Farnham and the surrounding parkland, has been made secure, safe and open to the public for 300 days each year.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the partnership between English Heritage and Farnham Castle was a "really good model", with the potential to be used at other heritage sites
A scheduled ancient monument, the Keep has come under the single management of the charity, Farnham Castle, which runs the adjoining mixture of Norman, Tudor and Restoration period buildings as the Bishop's Palace, a conference and international briefing centre. Farnham Castle will take over the day-to-day running and maintenance of the Keep from English Heritage.
As well as free admission and improved interpretation, visitors will benefit from the opening up of the Keep's central tower. In a departure from the traditional motte and bailey pattern of castle building, the tower was encased by a chalk mound built up around its sides.
Descending onto a robust but vertiginous wooden platform, the public can enter the mouth of this remarkable structure and gaze into the void as it expands into the gloom beneath them.
A new wooden structure, in keeping with the Norman period, shelters visitors exploring the Keep's unusual submerged tower
The new Culture Secretary and MP for South West Surrey was one of the first people to experience this new feature, having supported the project to improve access and restore the Keep since a failed bid for a HLF grant in October 2008.
"Things like this really do make a big difference because they help remind people that Surrey has a remarkable history. It isn't just full of dormitory towns," he said.
"We've got a castle here that was built in 1138, we've got a park that Henry VIII rode through and which Elizabeth I visited three times, so creating that sense of local identity is really important to people in Farnham."
Visitors can explore the tower via a platform and stairs
The Minister also approved of the partnership between English Heritage and Farnham Castle, describing it as a "really good model" with potential for future use at other heritage sites.
"What's interesting about what's happened here is that even though it's become a cliché for government ministers to talk about more for less, the reality is that the opening hours are being increased from 60 to 300 and admission charges are being removed, so everyone is a winner," he claimed.
Turning to other heritage projects in need of funding, he said: "I think we're going to have to think inventively and creatively - and I think it's what’s going to happen with Stonehenge, actually.
"The traditional model of lobbying the government who then produce a big cheque isn't going to work in this kind of climate, and we're going to have to be very realistic about that.
"There are some good things that came together here and I think it could potentially work elsewhere but I think the main thing is just to try and be as inventive and imaginative as possible.
"It's going to be much harder to make progress on big new heritage projects in the next few years, but it's not going to be impossible. We shouldn't lose hope."