Heritage accessibility is no longer a ‘nice to have’, but a real priority for anyone involved in running an historic site.
Heritage accessibility is the focus of attention here in Nunney too. At the end of last year, Nunney Parish Council received a request from a local resident to look into improving heritage accessibility at Nunney Castle for people who use wheelchairs or mobility scooters.
It is currently estimated that there are approximately 10 million adults in the UK who are disabled, 18% of the population. Around 5% of disabled people (that’s 500,000 people) use a wheelchair, but not all full-time.
Although the owners of many historic buildings open to the public make every effort these days to improve heritage accessibility for all, this is not always easy.
Ramps, toilets and information in Braille or large print are an option in some buildings, but certainly not everywhere.
Castles in particular were usually designed to keep people out, rather than get them in. Nunney is no exception.
Whereas many historic properties offer free access to carers accompanying a paying disabled visitor, there is no charge to visit Nunney Castle.
Since the 1990s UK law has gradually changed to force owners of historic properties to make it easier for disabled people to visit.
The law says that where a physical feature (steps, steep slopes, heights of desks or displays, etc.) makes it impossible or unreasonably difficult for disabled people to make use of your services, reasonable steps must be taken to remove, alter or avoid the feature, or provide the service by alternative means.
The law specifies that service providers must take “reasonable steps” to assist disabled people, but controversially doesn’t specify what “reasonable” means.
‘Service providers’ include owners and tenants of listed buildings and scheduled monuments open to the public, churches and employers with more than 15 employees. But that bit doesn’t appear to apply to Nunney Castle, which has no employees – or even volunteers.
The purpose of the duty to make reasonable adjustments is to provide access to a service as close as it is reasonably possible to get to the standard normally offered to the public at large.
If disabled people face barriers to heritage accessibility at your site, their families, friends or carers may not visit either. That doesn’t just affect Nunney Castle, but also the pub, café and village shop.
We can add to that the number of potential visitors with temporary mobility problems, whether during pregnancy, as a parent pushing a buggy, using crutches or an older person who is finding steps a bit harder to manage.
Disability Discrimination Act
The Equality Act 2010 replaced most of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), but the responsibilities duties under the DDA are still current.
It includes a wide-ranging definition of disability as: “physical or mental impairments which have a substantial and long term (12 months or more) adverse effect on a person’s ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities”.
This definition covers wheelchair users and ambulant disabled persons, as well as people with poor manual co-ordination or little strength.
This last group includes people who are unable to turn knobs, those with sensory impairments, including impaired sight and hearing, and those who lack memory, concentration or understanding.
You don’t have to be permanently disabled either. There are many people who experience such effects for a short period, such as pregnant women, children, elderly persons and people who are emotionally disturbed.
In other words, the law gives a very broad definition. But does it apply to Nunney Castle?
The aim of the heritage accessibility legislation is to make it possible for disabled people to enjoy their visit as much as any other visitor, ideally independently without needing a carer or assistant.
Although there are certainly many disabled people who enjoy visiting heritage sites unaccompanied, most visit – or not, depending on accessibility – with friends or family.
Tourism is undoubtedly important for local jobs and core facilities – such as the pub and village shop – in Nunney. But the village still has a wider issue with heritage accessibility for disabled people.
The only disabled toilet is located inside the village hall, for example. But some people are able to use the facilities in The George or the Moat & Turret café and there are plans for a toilet inside the church.
At present, forming ramps and providing toilets for disabled persons is zero-rated for VAT purposes for charities (including churches) and residential premises, and may be similarly zero-rated for some other historic buildings.
Ideally adapted toilets should not double as regular toilets or baby changing facilities, however, since this can make them unavailable to disabled people.
There is no dedicated Blue Badge disabled parking near the castle either. Although it is usually possible to drop off passengers by the castle gate and park in the visitor car park in Old Quarry Gardens, this can be an issue.
When it comes to funding facilities for visitors, there are also problems. Nunney Parish Council is only allowed to spend money on facilities for visitors, for example.
In some cases, the Nunney Community Association (NCA) may be able to help out financially – but it depends on what facilities are needed.
But Nunney Castle has more serious problems when it comes to accessibility for disabled visitors with or without assistance. Let’s take a closer look.
Parking at Old Quarry Garden is free and there is usually plenty of space for visitors. From there, there’s a slope down tarmacked Castle Hill (no pavement) to the Moat & Turret café.
Turn left and you’re in Castle Street. Again, there’s no pavement and there are usually lots of parked cars. On the other hand, it’s a dead-end street with little moving traffic.
There is currently no footbridge to cross the Nunney Brook to Church Street and All Saints Church.
A new one is expected to be installed this summer, although as far as we know the Highways Agency has not yet sent out bid documents for the tender to supply a replacement.
The design for the new bridge has been approved, however, and it shows a footbridge that is as wide – or narrow – as the previous one.
The new footbridge is designed to be wheelchair-friendly, with an easy 1:16 slope in its approach on both sides.
Short ramps or slopes should not exceed a gradient of 1:12, but 1:15 or less is preferred for ramps longer than about 2 metres.
Once we actually try to access the castle, stone steps and a narrow entrance gate provide a first barrier. There is no alternative access point.
To create access for wheelchairs and mobility scooters, either the existing gate would need to be widened or a new opening with ramp created in the boundary wall.
The boundary wall that surrounds the castle area these days isn’t part of the original perimeter wall, an 8ft wall that used to ran from the current café across the top of the hill behind the castle and down to the brook.
A very similar looking boundary wall does, however, appear in a 1733 engraving of Nunney Castle by Simon and Nathaniel Buck.
It’s not clear when the boundary wall was built. In any case, Historic England considers it part of the scheduled ancient monument.
Importantly, the Equality Act does not override other legislation, such as listed building or planning legislation, and the need to obtain appropriate approvals still applies in the case of changes made to improve access.
To further complicate heritage accessibility matters, the wall belongs to the castle – privately-owned, but managed by English Heritage on behalf of Historic England – but the road outside the boundary wall belongs to the Highways Agency.
Helen Allen, Estates Office Manager West at English Heritage, told Nunney Parish Council:
“Access to scheduled ancient monuments (which are more highly protected than a listed building) can certainly be difficult for disabled people by their very nature, as is the case at Nunney Castle.”
“At Nunney, a ramp would have to run either partly in the road outside. This doesn’t belong to English Heritage and would probably take up too much space.”
“Ground within the boundary wall would have to be significantly excavated to accommodate it inside. It is extremely unlikely that we would be granted consent from Historic England to make such an excavation, as all the land there is scheduled as well as the castle ruins.”
She added that what seems to be a straightforward solution to an identified need rarely turns out to be that way when dealing with ancient monuments.
“At English Heritage we are not insensitive to the heritage accessibility needs of all our visitors and new developments certainly take this into account; it is however not always possible to make each and every site fully accessible.”
Once inside the boundary wall, a gravel path leads around the moat to the northwest side of the castle and its footbridge.
Immediately alongside the path, the grassy banks of the moat drop steeply down to the moat. There is no barrier and the path is too narrow for two wheelchairs to pass each other.
The narrow footbridge across the moat has level access on the side of the path and shallow steps on the castle side.
Installing a ramp here would not be a solution, since steps can be easier for disabled people who can walk and for those with visual impairment.
A portable ramp would would not be of little use to individual disabled visitors, so a wider footbridge would appear to be required.
There is only one entrance into the castle itself, a narrow doorway. The uneven area in front of the doorway leads to several stone steps.
Again, a ramp here would necessarily cover the entire width available – with no space for steps.
Specialists in making heritage accessibility recommend that, where possible, ramps to entrances should respect the symmetry of existing elevations and not leave them with a lop-sided appearance. That’s not even an option at Nunney.
Guidance provided by Historic England says:
“It may be the case that those features which form a barrier are also those which make up the special interest of the building – a narrow doorway or staircase for example. In this case, removal is unlikely to constitute a reasonable adjustment.
We asked our followers on Twitter for recommendations. One suggestion was to knock a new access for disabled visitors through the northeast wall of the castle, near the medieval well inside the castle.
Although Historic England favours alternative, reversible solutions where possible, knocking an entrance through a 14th century castle wall would “adversely affect the historic fabric” and be neither reversible nor reasonable.
Even if wheelchair access could be created, the cobbled castle floor would provide a rather bumpy ride.
Robbie Walker inherited Nunney Castle from his father, who bought it at auction in 1950. He told Visit Nunney:
“I am all in favour of improving disabled access to the castle. But a couple of points spring to mind. Is the unprotected moat a potential risk? The steepness of the banks have always concerned me, but I think it would be aesthetically displeasing to fence it off.”
“The castle floor is bumpy and uneven. I feel this reflects its originality and would be unhappy for it to be boarded over in any way. Likewise any ramps would need to be free standing and not attached to the castle structure. The castle and its surrounds should be kept as close to the original as possible and any additions to the minimum.”
The sad conclusion seems to be that it is impractible to make Nunney Castle accessible to a large percentage of disabled visitors through reasonable steps.
The guidance says that the aim should be to improve accessibility “where practically possible”, provided that the work does not prejudice the character of the building or increase the risk of long-term deterioration to
the building fabric or fittings.
The best we can do under the circumstances is to work even harder to establish a professional heritage and visitor centre inside Nunney Church.
Visit Nunney has long campaigned for better heritage interpretation. Now that the church has a new nave ceiling and – hopefully soon – a visitor toilet, better lighting and heating, this is the time to create a small but beautiful heritage display.
We have made contact with the Digital Building Heritage group at De Montfort University in Leicester, who train technical experts in creating heritage centres and museum displays.
They have enthusiastically welcomed our suggestion to use Nunney Castle and village as a training project for everything from holograms and 3D models to educational displays and videos.
There are many potential sources of funding available for both education and heritage accessibility, through the Heritage Lottery Fund and other organisations.
Neither Historic England nor the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) is in a position to provide the owners of historic buildings with money specifically to improve heritage accessibility.
However, HLF can fund physical and sensory access improvements to historic buildings or sites (including places of worship) if they form part of a wider project to repair and open up the building or site to the public.
If we can’t get wheelchair users into Nunney Castle, the next best thing is to provide a virtual tour of the castle – as it was in medieval times and as it is now.
At Sherborne Castle, for example, only the ground floor is accessible to wheelchairs and mobility scooters. But a photo slide show shows what can be seen on the other three floors – not ideal, but an acceptable compromise.
English Heritage encourages providing images, plans or a virtual tour on a computer of the inaccessible part of an historic building which cannot be altered for conservation reasons.
Where heritage accessibility in Nunney is a real issue and other options are seemingly off limits, a modest heritage centre – designed to be inclusive to all, including disabled and blind visitors – inside the church certainly seems a good alternative.
Do you have any suggestions to help improve heritage accessibility at Nunney Castle? Have you had a great experience at other heritage sites? We would love to hear from you through our contact page!
Historic England’s report Easy Access to Historic Buildings (published in 2015) provides further information on heritage accessibility.
Heritage Ability is a Heritage Lottery Funded project working to improve accessibility and inclusivity at 20 heritage places across the South West.
Many heritage sites and collections work hard to improve heritage accessibility, but evidence from disabled and deaf people (who use British Sign Language) suggests that there is more that can be done to improve access.
As well as training staff, Heritage Ability produces accessible “walks” and hires out mobility equipment at heritage sites.
More information on Nunney Castle
How Nunney Castle was saved tells the fascinating story of the decline and restoration of Nunney Castle from the siege of 1645 to its rescue in the 1920s.
Nunney Castle opening hours
Nunney Castle is open free of charge all hours throughout the year, except during the Nunney Street Market & Fayre on the first Saturday in August.
Nunney Castle walks
Visit Britain’s BRITAIN magazine ranks Nunney Castle in the Top 10 Best British castles.
For short and longer Nunney Castle walks visit our Nunney Castle walks page.