Lowry’s York: Your York

York is a honeypot of highly valuable heritage sites. As a major tourist attraction in the UK, York’s historical legacy often finds itself jumbled into musty institutions, and subjected to entrance fees and limited opening hours. Our project aims to open up one of York’s most iconic heritage sites for greater public access — allowing the residents as well as the visitors an equally comprehensive experience of its history and place within York’s modern day life.

Clifford’s Tower is one of the most popular landmarks of York. With a rich history of local and national significance, Clifford’s Tower remains a valuable piece of cultural heritage today. As it stands, Clifford’s Tower is the largest remaining part of the York Castle. From a defensive rampart to a gift shop, this site has been in continuous use since the 11th century. Its function has understandably shifted dramatically over the years: once a centre for the government of North of England, it is now a key tourist asset and a part of the ‘Eye of York’ (a public space) today.

Why is it still important?
Originally built of timber, this stone tower was established in 1068 as one of the two motte-and-bailey castles built by William the conqueror. It was the probable site of mass Jewish suicides that occurred in 1190. After being burnt down, it was entirely rebuilt in the 13th century AD, by King Henry III, who mainly used it for administrative purposes. The tower was used as an exchequer throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, after which it lost its original role as a Royal Centre and was used as an administrative centre and prison.

As well as this historical importance, it is widely celebrated for aesthetic values, and the commanding views of York from the top of the tower. However, this site is not the most accessible attraction in York today.

Figure 1. Photo showing one information board inside Clifford’s Tower. The information on offer inside the Tower is very limited, although this instance demonstrates a potential for creativity. Photo, Alice Trew. 30/01/2016.

What’s the problem?
The ruins of York’s fortified castle complex are only reached via a long, steep flight of stairs, which hinders access for many. Once inside, elements of the Tower are constrained by tight, winding staircases and narrow spaces. Other problems include a lack of interesting activities and provision of education within the space, and it has a relatively pricey entrance fee (£4!). Therefore, in an attempt to rejuvenate this site and give it due value, our project focuses on finding a solution to these problems through widening community engagement.

Figure 2 Photo showing the use of The Eye of York as a site for public activity. Here, the site was used for a Jowett festival, ‘Jowetts in Jorvik 2004’, as the location for their static display. Photo, Keith Clements. June 2004. Accessed http://www.jowettjupiter.

Our solution
Our project encourages public participation with the history of Clifford’s Tower, as well as an engagement with this site as an icon of York’s historical significance and contemporary beauty. Even though Clifford’s Tower is visually at the heart of York’s historic centre and is well known in the heritage sector, it may be distanced from some local residents and visitors in terms of access — not to mention the somewhat steep entrance fee. Also there is a danger that York’s local heritage is not the residents’ heritage; that it belongs to the local government, to conservators, to English Heritage or to tourists.

​Our project brings Clifford’s Tower down into the Eye of York. On this public space we will enlist the help of local people, including artists, crafters, and simply creative spirits to cultivate an engaging public activity which is considerably more accessible than Clifford’s Tower. This project enables the expansion of Clifford’s Tower’s history and significance down from its lofty, unscalable heights, and enables wider public engagement through focusing on accessibility — both physically and creatively.

Figure 3. Mock-up sketch of how this heritage arts festival on The Eye of York might look. Image accessed from Google Images. Edited, Alice Trew.

The inspiration for our project ties this heritage site to a wider history of York as a place of art heritage as well as monumental physical significance. Following ideas championed by Vagnone (Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums, 2015) and Simon (The Participatory Museum, 2010), we aim to open the focus on heritage to an artistic consideration. Through this venture we hope to make the site more exciting — and thus more accessible — to the public. The inspiration here comes from the Evelyn Award art exhibition at the York Art Gallery, where from 1950 until 1962 famous artists travelled the city of York to capture a ‘View of York’. All the artists chose different views and different mediums to produce their artwork:

Figure 4. Photo showing a selection of artworks displayed in the Evelyn Award art exhibition at the York Art Gallery. Photo, Helen Simmons, 10/02/2016.

But perhaps the most iconic of these artworks, both for the subject matter and for the famous artist, is L. S. Lowry’s interpretation of Clifford’s Tower:

Figure 5. Photo depicting L. S. Lowry’s artwork of Clifford’s Tower from the Evelyn Award art exhibition at the York Art Gallery. Photo, Helen Simmons, 10/02/2016.

In this painting Lowry used his signature style to place the beautiful heritage attraction of Clifford’s Tower juxtaposed against the gritty nature of the industrial revolution.

To discover what the iconic Views of York are for its residents and visitors, this event encourages people to create their own Views of York, whether an adaptation of an iconic view such as at Clifford’s Tower, or through representing a view known only to them. Then, just like with the Evelyn Award exhibition, the artworks will be displayed throughout the city, in various institutions, to show visitors all the Views of York.

​By bringing our project down to the street level for passers-by, and creating an activity which can be fun for many different people, everyone will have a chance to think about what Clifford’s Tower and the other York landscapes mean to them in their life, and how they fit into the wider pattern of the city’s history, to provide a sense of belonging and ownership. If Clifford’s Tower is the heart of the historic landscape of York, what do the people nearby see at the heart of their view of the city?

By allowing people to use artworks to tell their own stories, we can get a better sense of how communities in York see their city and their heritage, enabling heritage professionals and local people to communicate more easily in future. This will also enable residents who have not previously felt engaged with York’s cultural and historic heritage to have a sense of ownership over it — their created art works will act as a legitimating force, validating their personal experiences and viewpoints of the city, and encourage a sharing of stories and conversation between participants. In this way we hope our project will encourage a positive community building experience, centred around a sense of pride in York.

Practical Considerations
On paper, this all sounds wonderful. However, the project must also be considered practically. Firstly, we must consider the legal practicalities of using the Eye of York: In order to have an event on council owned land — and an organised movement around the city — we will have to get permission from the council. We would also have to ensure health and safety checks were carried out correctly.

Secondly, funding: we must be able to provide our participants with suitable materials to produce the intended works of art. It would be beneficial for the project if we were able to offer a wide range of materials and mediums, so as to appeal to as many people as possible. We may have to source funding to achieve this: whether from Heritage Fund Lottery, English Heritage, or from other institutional sponsorship.

Thirdly, engagement with other institutions is integral to the success of this project. Aside from possibilities of funding, museums, science and discovery centres, libraries and other cultural venues make excellent partners in establishing new exhibitions and an open, two-way communication with the public will give the exhibition the meaning and inclusivity that it aims for . A co-ordination with as many of York’s institutions as we can may be difficult but important in creating a smoothly flowing event.

Fourthly, we must consider that most British of assailants — the weather. Due to the fact that this project largely relies on the ability of people to be able to move around the city and be comfortable enough to produce a piece of art, a deluge of rain may put a bit of a dampener on the event. Here, partnerships with institutions and cafes throughout the city, would allow us to utilise other venues with inside space, to use alongside outside views.

But what is a good plan without a method for spreading the word? A strong online presence is vital to maximise participation. Blogging, tweets, and Facebook are all vital tools of a social media age for gathering attention, and should be well established a few months prior to the event in order to provide the public time to process the possibilities, to timetable events, and to enable interest to grow. Social media would also provide an open platform to receive feedback and suggestions, and to make sure our project is fit for purpose.

Advertising of the event needs to be wide and diverse to encourage all of York’s inhabitants and visitors. It is important that this event is not seen as an art exhibition only for the crafts groups, the hobby painters or local artists. It is important to engage with the local schools, colleges, youth groups, community centres and hospitals to highlight the broad scope for meaning in ‘Views of York’. Providing early examples of non-traditional and outside-the-box thinking should be part of the advertising early on so that the exhibition encourages a wide range of contributors. This can help to overcome contribution issues, such as the general public being reluctant to participate if they don’t feel like the ‘expert’.

Our project, though perhaps a little ambitious, would be extremely beneficial in creating a more accessible heritage of York for residents and visitors alike. It would provide a platform for artists to showcase their work, to help in the community, and encourage a wider artistic engagement with space. We hope that through this project, residents of York, as well as visitors, will be able to feel as included and valued in York as even Clifford’s Tower is today.

By Alison Edwards, Apoorva D. Goyle, Matthew Hargreaves, Aoife Kurta, Charlotte Roden, Helen Simmons, Alice Trew.


Simon, N. (2010) The participatory museum. Santa Cruz, CA: Museum 2.0.

Vagnone F D, and Ryan D. (2015) The Anarchists Guide to Historic House Museums. USA: Left Coast Press.