ELEVEN years ago the people of Worcestershire were in danger of losing access to one of the county’s historical treasures.

Hartlebury Castle, the traditional home to the Bishops of Worcester for more than 1,000 years and site of the County Museum in more recent times, was put up for sale by the Church Commissioners.

The Right Rev Peter Selby was the last Bishop of Worcester to live at Hartlebury and when he retired in 2007 his successor – the current Bishop of Worcester The Right Rev John Inge – moved into a property adjacent Worcester Cathedral.

It effectively rendered Hartlebury Castle surplus to the Church of England requirements and the commissioners started looking for a suitable buyer.

Alarmed at the prospect of this historical gem falling into commercial or private hands, which would prohibit public access, and of the unique collection of historic books in the Hurd Library being split and put into storage, a group of local friends and supporters of the castle formed the Hartlebury Castle Preservation Trust with the aim of conserving the property for visitors to enjoy in future decades.

Chairman of the Hartlebury Preservation Trustees Jacqui Watson, who is passionate about the castle, said: “There were four or five people from the village of Hartlebury who said ‘We need to save the books’. The trust was pretty much a coffee morning organisation at the start and the first bid for money was turned down.

“Three new trustees came on board and we started to bid properly. The County Museum had been on site for 50 years and we hoped funding would come along to help us compliment the museum.”

The trust, which consisted of volunteers, started working on putting a bid together for Heritage Lottery funding. It took a number of years to formulate a proposal that might have a chance of success and the trust explored various options including partnerships with other organisations.

The recession which hit Britain very hard from 2008 probably worked in the trust’s favour, discouraging other possible investors from committing to the property.

Eventually the trust submitted a bid with a 10-year business plan to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £5 million in 2014 and it was accepted, much to the trustees’ relief and excitement. They bought the castle in March 2015.

“We put in a bid to the lottery and asked for the money to buy the castle and that was really unusual. More than 50 per cent of the grant was spent on buying the castle,” said Jacqui.

“At the point we put the bid in, we only had about £5,000 in the bank. The whole project was going to cost £7.5 or £8 million and we had to raise match funding,” she added. Jacqui lives in Kingswinford but had taken her children to the venue on many occasions where they enjoyed family days out. She wanted to do her utmost to save the castle.

The trust applied to a number of heritage trusts and foundations – inviting their representatives to visit and meet its members to experience first-hand their passion and commitment to this unique project. Within eight months pledges were made securing the property.

“We had to ask the Church Commissioners to take the castle off the market for us to get the money in,” said Jacqui. “We only had a short amount of time to buy the castle or it would have gone back on the market.”

She added: “I have never bought a castle before. The thing you have to have is persistence. If things aren’t going well, you have to pick yourself up and carry on.

“I have done it so other people can enjoy it like we did when I bought the kids. It is a special place and I could not contemplate people not to be able to get access to it.

“You do not imagine, at any part of your life, that you are going to get the keys to a castle. It is a huge privilege and it is amazing to be part of it.”

The restoration work on the castle did not start for about two years because additional work had to be done before it could begin. The trust had to run the castle as a business during that time while the plans were refined.

“When we bought it, the running costs were £1,000 a week, so we started the wedding business to help pay for it,” said Jacqui. Various events were already being held at the castle and a limited number of rooms were open to the public.

The major refurbishment project - which has included reinstating the Long Gallery, redecorating the Great Hall, changes to the bedrooms, creating a new café, installing a lift, clearing and reclaiming parts of the grounds and creating walk ways, installing talking portraits of some of the castle’s former occupants and greater access to the Hurd Library - only started a year ago.

Before the restoration about 25 per cent of the castle was accessible. Now visitors can access about 90 per cent of it.

Helen Large, Museums Worcestershire Marketing Manager, said: “This is not just about preserving the castle and the site, it is about making it accessible. There is lots of new interpretation to tell stories about the bishops and other people who lived here and it complements the County Museum collections. Hartlebury Castle is much more appealing for people to visit now.”

Jacqui added that there are lots of new interactive aspects to keep people engaged but there is also a serious history to the castle. “It is something we really thought about. It is not a static country house – it is a different experience.

“None of this would have been possible without the incredible hard work of our amazing volunteers and the generosity of our supporters.”

The work done by the trust, supported by Worcestershire County Council and Museums Worcestershire, to save the castle has inspired other groups in a similar position. Jacqui said: “There are other groups who are talking to us now and asking how we did it. It is nice to be able to share that experience.”

• A grand opening and launch of the newly refurbished Hartlebury Castle takes place on Bank Holiday Monday May 7 with a special May Day festival from 11am to 4pm. This will include traditional entertainment, craft stalls, maypole dancing, children’s craft activities, jugglers, face painting, ferrets, a May Queen and a Green Man, as well as an opportunity to explore the newly opened and restored parts of the castle and grounds.

• Visitors will be able to follow in the footsteps of Queen Elizabeth I, King George III and Queen Charlotte as they stroll around the moat on a new walk revealing the grounds for the very first time, including a 270-year-old Mulberry tree.

• The County Museum will be open for people to see its collection decorative arts, costumes, an outstanding transport collection including gypsy caravans and other items from Worcestershire fascinating past.

History of Hartlebury Castle

HARTLEBURY Castle was the home to the Bishops of Worcester for 1,000 years. Its rich and varied history goes back to 850 when Burhred, King of Mercia, gave the land to Aelhun, the Bishop of Worcester.

The first record of a bishop’s house at Hartlebury was in 1268 when Godrey Giffard succeeded Walter de Cantilupe as Bishop of Worcester and was given the right by King Henry III to create battlements on the building. The manor became a castle.

The castle’s first royal visitor was Edward I, who went to collect the bishop’s 100 men at arms, en route to suppress an uprising in Wales.

Queen Elizabeth I stayed at the castle in August 1575 before moving on to Worcester the next day where she stayed in the Bishop’s Palace for a week.

During the Civil War of 1642 to 1646, the castle was held for the King by Captain Sandys with a garrison of 120 men. The captain and troops surrendered after hearing the king had ordered all his garrisons to surrender. At the end of the Civil War, the castle was used as a prison for Royalist.

The castle was abandoned in 1647 and sold to Thomas Westrowe of Mitton in 1648. In 1660 King Charles II returned to his kingdom and the castle came back to the bishops. In 1675 James Fleetwood was made Bishop of Worcester.

There was enough money to restore the building and the medieval buildings were transformed into a country mansion in line with what visitors see today. Sadly Fleetwood died in 1683 just as the work was being completed.

In 1759 a very wealthy bishop living at Hartlebury – Bishop James Johnson – modified the building and created a carriage circle so that his horse-drawn carriage could sweep up to the front door and then be driven away.

When Richard Hurd became bishop in 1781, he inspected the castle and found there was nowhere to put his books. He realised the long gallery was a single storey and built a second storey above it which became the castle’s greatest treasure – the Hurd Library.

King George III and Queen Charlotte visited the castle with three of the princesses and the Duke of York in 1788 taking breakfast in the Hurd Library before walking in the garden in front of what is claimed to be 8,000 people.

In 1807 the Prince of Wales – the future King George IV – visited a frail 87-year-old Bishop Hurd at the castle.

Bishop Henry Pepys moved into the castle in 1841 and his 10-year-old daughter Emily wrote a diary describing her fascinating life at the castle.

In 1956 when Mervyn Charles-Edwards became Bishop of Worcester, he was told he could not live at the castle and a more suitable residence would be found. Determined to retain the 1,000-year-old history he helped devise a plan to save the building. This saw the County Museum move into the North Wing, the staterooms became a trust and were let out for functions and rest of the building became a more modest home for the bishop.

In 1980 Queen Elizabeth II lunched at the castle after the Maundy Thursday Service at Worcester Cathedral. She planted a magnolia tree on the edge of the carriage circle.