Stephen Manion might have been at Arundel Castle for less than a year, but he’s ready to celebrate the historic location’s 950th birthday.
Construction on the first building at this expansive site, located in West Sussex in southeast England, began in 1068, shortly after William the Conqueror was crowned king. “In a way, we’ve been waiting 950 years for this,” says Manion, “and our plans have been bubbling in the background for some years. It’s my job now to deliver these celebratory events.”
And the recent news that the Bayeux Tapestry, which is of the same period, is being loaned by France to the UK coincides happily with Manion’s promotional phase.
“Like all these things, if you have an attraction that sits in a historical period and something national is happening, whether it’s related to World War II or the Napoleonic era, or in this case Bayeux, it brings that period of history to the fore and can spark public imagination. In this business, we do like national stories like this and we’ll be following the story as it progresses.”
Manion brings experience from his work at National Museums Merseyside, Beamish Open Air Museum and, most recently, as manager of Alnwick Castle, built to defend England from the Scots in the 14th century. At Arundel, he wants to make more of that early history and the landmark’s origins.
“A lot of historic houses emphasise the artworks, the furniture, the house itself, but we have this original keep from the Norman period and I want to bring the story back to these early days of the 11th century and ask: why is there a castle here?”
From battlefield to tulip field
To do this, Manion commissioned some new permanent exhibitions for the keep and old gatehouse. Set to open on 30th March, they’ll tell the story of Arundel Castle from the 11th century through to the English Civil War in the 17th century. A new welcome zone to introduce visitors to the castle and its timeline is also opening.
Furthermore, the castle’s series of live events from the Raven Tor Living History Group – a regular fixture over the past 10 years – will be bigger and better than ever.
There will be the ‘Normans and Crusaders’ weekend over Easter, where visitors will be whisked back to a 12th century encampment, with combat, falconry displays, archery and more. For history enthusiasts, the three-day ‘12,000 Years of Combat’ reenacts battles from the Stone Age to the Victorian era. The Annual Tulip Festival takes place in April and, perhaps the most anticipated, there’s also a six-day ‘Jousting & Medieval Tournament’ in July, with specially trained horses and armoured competitors.
“The joust will be bigger than ever, with international jousters and a Champion of Champions event. It’s the 10th anniversary of our jousting, so it will be high profile, with knights in armour and the clashing of steel against the backdrop of a medieval village.
“It’s all staged on the lawned area and throughout the 40 acres of grounds and gardens, where there’s everything from the main house and historic keep to woodland walks, medieval fishponds, sculpture and vegetable gardens – and our stumpery, which looks like something out of Jurassic Park. There’s also the rare sight of a Roman Catholic chapel adjoining an Anglican church, which tells a story in itself.”
A place made for exploring
Visitors will also bump into different characters as they roam the grounds – a medieval scribe or a dancer or performer, for example – who they can interact with.
“It’s a place that’s made for exploring. There are lots of nooks and crannies, tracks that meander and unexpected views and experiences. People find it quite surprising when they come here.”
Arundel Castle attracts around 180,000 visitors per year, arriving mainly from the local area and the southeast of England, but also from continental Europe, especially France. Although Manion would like to reach out to a less-tapped audience to the west and from within London (less than 100km north), he is wary of increasing attendance.
“Interestingly, we’re one attraction that’s not in the numbers game,” he says. “Last year, we welcomed 182,000, which was a 4 per cent increase, but the Duke of Norfolk and the Trust [who own the property] are not interested in increasing that figure. We’d all be very happy if it stayed at 170,000 to 180,000 because what we’re really looking at is the quality of the visit.
“Having too many visitors at once can spoil the experience, especially indoors. That’s why we’ve been increasing outdoor activities. Visitors often explore the castle and grounds for three or four hours. They feel they’ve spent their time and money well, which means they’ll want to come back and they’ll recommend us to others.”