Tomlinson resurrects Robin Hood legend at Nottingham Castle

30 April 2019 | By Kristina Smith

The curved colonnade at the Ducal Palace

Preserving and adapting Nottingham Castle to boost tourist visits and the local economy is a labour of love for contractor GF Tomlinson. Kristina Smith visited the project. Photographs by Jakt Photography.

Visitors to Nottingham Castle are often disappointed. They come in search of a medieval castle and Robin Hood; they find a large Victorian museum on top of a hill.

All that is set to change, with a makeover that aims to restore the Victorian building – which is actually a very beautiful example of a Palladian mansion – and add in interactive Robin Hood-themed experiences which should get the tourists flooding in. The goal is to more than double the number of visitors to 400,000 a year.

Nottingham Castle Transformation Project

Client: Nottingham City Council
Project manager: Mace
QS: Gleeds
Lead designer: Purcell UK
Contractor: GF Tomlinson
Form of contract: NEC Option A
Construction cost: £16m 

Main subcontractors:

M&E (Ducal Palace): Amptron
Heritage joinery: Jericho
Masonry: Messenger
Roof restoration: Martin-Brooks
Scaffolding: Empire
Piling: Van Elle
Steel frame: MJ Robinson

Construction starts: October 2018
Construction finish: March 2020
Opens to public: Late 2020

“This wasn’t a case of ‘build it and they will come’. They came, and we did not have it,” says Cal Warren, Nottingham Castle National Lottery Heritage Fund programme manager for Nottingham City Council, which owns the site.

The medieval castle of Hollywood legend was demolished in 1651 (see timeline). The site is now closed for the construction project and the Victorian building, called the Ducal Palace, is swathed in white scaffold sheeting.

Contractor GF Tomlinson is four months into a 16-month contract which combines new build and restoration.

“The biggest challenge to date has been temporary works,” says Richard Oldfield, GF Tomlinson’s project manager.

The aim in restoring the existing buildings, explains Oldfield, is to leave as much of the original fabric untouched, wherever possible. But decaying elements of the building must be somehow accessed, preserved and made safe without causing further damage.

The battle to design the huge scaffold which wraps around the Ducal Palace and over half of its roof illustrates perfectly the constraints under which GF Tomlinson is labouring. The weight from the scaffold into the ground had to be limited around most of the perimeter due to the presence of caves below the site and the possibility of landslides to the cliffs on which the castle sits.

The original scaffold design, created with GF Tomlinson’s contractor Empire, involved 1,500 fixings into the building, but Historic England was not happy with that approach. Nine iterations, three submissions and three months later, the buttress kentledge scaffold design features just 30 fixings on the south corner, with the whole structure weighted down by huge water tanks along one side of the building.

The scaffold, which cost “hundreds of thousands” of pounds, is performing well. “We have had six days of terrible winds. It is a concern, it’s a big risk element,” says Oldfield.  “We spend our lives concerned about it, but it’s held up after some pretty bad weather.”

Rebuilding an economy

The revamp of Nottingham Castle follows the council’s successful bids for funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and local growth funds to cover two-thirds of the project cost of £30m. It estimates the project will bring in an additional £90m in tourist income to the city over 10 years.

GF Tomlinson’s £16m contract includes the construction of a new 325 sq m visitors’ centre; a 400 sq m extension to the Ducal Palace which will house the new, interactive Robin Hood Gallery; renovation and refurbishment of the huge Ducal Palace; renovation of the gatehouse and its bridge; and work to improve access to the caves beneath the castle which host historic tours.

Above: A Messenger stonemason checks a piece of replacement stonework. Below: GF Tomlinson’s contract includes works to the caves which run beneath the Castle

Though it is not a requirement of its contract with the council, GF Tomlinson’s procurement strategy is making a significant contribution to that economic boost. “We try and keep our spend local. It’s fundamental to everything we do,” says Oldfield, who went to university in Nottingham and now lives 10 miles down the road. With 20% of its turnover coming from heritage projects, GF Tomlinson has a trusted and experienced supply chain which it called on during the tender period for advice and costings.

Stripping back

Before it can start on restoration work proper, GF Tomlinson has been carefully stripping away later additions to the building and removing the old mechanical and electrical services. The goal is to return the building – as far as possible – to its Victorian state, an approach approved by Historic England. For instance, a 1990s mezzanine layer, added to give more space to the 1891-built Herbert Walker Extension room on the ground floor, has been taken out.

The building itself is Grade-I listed, but the ground on which it sits is a Scheduled Monument. Archaeologists must be on hand whenever that ground is disturbed and there have already been some interesting finds, including masonry from the Saxon period and some monkey skeletons, believed to be from a 17th century menagerie.

Their ongoing involvement must also be factored into programming. Digging out the floor plan of the basement, for example, would normally take two weeks; here it took 12.

As well as Historic England, there is input from the council’s conservation officer and the city’s archaeologist, Scott Lomax. Lead designer Purcell manages the decision-making and approvals processes around what work is necessary, how elements should be handled and design details.

Inside the building, there is protective boarding and heavy-duty propping supporting the structure while alterations are made to create new openings to link some of the rooms. At ground-floor level, trenches for services are being dug under the watchful eye of an archaeologist.

A potted history of Nottingham Castle

1068 - William the Conqueror builds motte-and-bailey castle
- Edward III adds a new tower and a prison
1476 - Edward IV adds another new tower and royal apartments1600 - No longer in use as a residence
1651 - Building derelict and is demolished
1674 - Ducal Palace built on the foundations of the old building
1831 - Slums’ residents revolt and burn it down
1878 - Palace is rebuilt and opens as a museum
1891 - Herbert Walker Extension added
2018 - Palace and castle grounds closed for renovation
2020 - Transformed castle to reopen

The next big task is first-fix M&E works which will run until October this year. After that there will be painstaking repairs to ornate cornices and lime plaster and works to lay lights in the galleries with their 130-year old glass. These are tasks that cannot be rushed, explains Oldfield.

Externally, repairs are underway. Up on the north side of the roof, currently covered by a scaffold tent which is due to move to the south side in June, the roofing contractor has removed the slates and is at work on the ancient Victorian timbers, which Oldfield says are in good shape.

Around half of the slates from the 750 sq m of roof will be retained and half replaced. A mixture of Burlington blue-grey slates and Green Westmorland slate from the Lake District and some Welsh slates, some are proving quite a challenge to source, due to their unusually large size, says Oldfield.

Further down the building, stonemasons from Messenger are working on the sandstone walls; one is busy recreating a volute or scroll. Each repair must be agreed and recorded, and the order of the day is – as everywhere – “a light touch”, says Oldfield. Like many of the materials that will be used here, the stone is coming from a local source, Stanton Moor, following extensive research and testing.

Only one material must come from overseas, possibly Spain: the curved colonnade glazing which will fit between the pillars of the main entrance to create more circulation space and protect the entrance from the westerly winds. With long lead times and unknown Brexit impacts, this is a risk item, says Oldfield.

Attached to the Palace, the steel frame for the one-storey extension is already standing. Sitting in the courtyard area at basement level, the extension’s zinc roof will be flush with the ground, leaving views of the Ducal Palace undisturbed. The steel frame for the visitors’ centre, sitting between the gatehouse and the Palace, is also in place.

The position of the visitors’ centre was very much governed by the archaeology – or rather, the lack of it – beneath that part of the grounds. Contractor Van Elle installed Odex piles, steel casings filled with concrete, for the building’s foundations to prevent groundwater pollution or migration into Nottingham’s caves. The centre will be clad in oak, aluminium and glazing with a zinc roof.

Balancing act

The project is at a crucial stage, explains Mace project manager Josh Barber.

“We are at this point in the contract where GF Tomlinson has a lot of work on site but there is still a lot of design work to be done,” says Barber. “We are trying to finish the design work that we could not do until we knew what was there, while still keeping up with the programme.”

View of the Ducal Palace through steelwork for a new extension which will house the Robin Hood interactive gallery

GF Tomlinson has responsibility for some design elements, such as detailing for the steelwork and the services.

“A lot of it is about flow of information. When we have a fit-out contractor coming on board is very critical,” says Oldfield. “The procurement process is pretty well developed: we are getting to the point where we can get clarity.” Nottingham City Council was about to appoint the fit-out contractor for the exhibition at the time of CM’s visit.

From Mace’s perspective, the biggest challenge is managing its risk profile, says Barber: “Coming at it from a contractual perspective, it’s a fixed-price lump sum NEC Option A but there’s a lot of change due to the unknowns. The design team surveyed the building to death but there are still a lot of things you can’t know until you start taking away the added bits.

“The other challenge is managing the client’s expectations in terms of how you manage the contingency and the programme date.”

View of the Ducal Palace wrapped in scaffold

GF Tomlinson aims to hand over the elements in phases. First the visitor centre in October 2019, then the Gatehouse, next the Ducal Palace extension and finally, in March 2020, the Ducal Palace itself.

Nottingham City Council has not put an end date on the overall project yet. “We hope to be finished on site towards the end of 2020,” says Richard Hamblin, the council’s project director. “We don’t have a date we have to open by. The main thing will be to make sure we open at a time when it’s fit for doing so.”

This is a testing project, with many elements to balance: what could be done, what must be done, what Historic England can allow, what the budget and programme can stretch to. The overall cost has already grown from £24m when it was announced in 2015 to £30m today.

“There are two main reasons it went up: the restoration costs were coming out slightly higher and we have invested more in the interpretation and exhibition fit out,” says Hamblin.

“It’s a stressful project for us, for the council, for Purcell and for Mace our project manager,” says Oldfield. “There are quite a lot of unknowns and we have got on very well. NEC is cooperative, and we never lose sight of what we are trying to deliver, which is a building for the people of Nottingham.”

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