Cambridgeshire County Council to maintain a presence on Castle Hill, Cambridge – could this include an enhanced heritage offer?

Pictured: Campaigners calling for Cambridge’s Castle Mound Historical Monument to be protected from potential privatisation.

Back in 2016 shortly after the EU Referendum I decided to switch my focus away from national politics and move it towards local history. I made my way to the top of the Hill and recorded this piece:

…and I’ve been pestering various tiers of local government and local history ever since!

Cambridgeshire Conservatives move the County Council HQ to Alconbury

“Why would they do that?”

This post by Cllr Samantha Hoy (Cons – Wisbech East) reflects the party political polarisation between the Conservatives – historically the ruling party for much of the Council’s existence, and their Liberal & Labour opponents. That polarisation was brutally illustrated on the post-2021 election map for Cambridgeshire County Council below.

Above – if you are a true-blue councillor, why would you want to spend time driving into the hotbed of socialism surrounded by liberalism? And that’s before you address the century-long transport problems of Cambridge.

“The authority voted to vacate Shire Hall, which was built in 1933, in a move that could save £39m in 30 years.”

So repeated the BBC from the council’s press release back in 2018 when the ruling group made the decision. Although Labour & Liberal Democrat councillor voted against it, with the building in Alconbury nearly complete it would not make financial sense to scrap the move in its entirety.


One of the assumptions behind the move is that there would be a decent public transport system enabling people to get from Cambridge to Alconbury for meetings. Then the Pandemic hit, and the Tories imploded at the ballot box last May, resulting in a new Joint Administration for the County Council, and a Labour Mayor for the County – Dr Nik Johnson.

Such is the state of the county finances that the Joint Administration is preparing to call in experts from the Local Government Association to undertake a peer review of the existing financial strategy approved by the previous Conservative administration. A reasonable thing to do given the impact of the pandemic – and also of the realities of Brexit. Some of the assumptions made in 2018/19 may have seemed sound back then, but not now. Think of all of the major retail names that have imploded, and brands that have scaled back their operations. The Leader of the Conservative Opposition has welcomed the prospect of the peer review.

The County Council maintaining a presence on Castle Hill

See John Elworthy here for the Cambs Times. One of the big issues Cambridge City Council had with the proposed move (apart from the inconvenience for local council officers looking at the prospect of having to move house or face extended commutes) was the loss of a registry office in Cambridge. The previous administration decided to relocate it to the former Roger Ascham School in Chesterton, with some depressingly uninspiring architecture planned for what should be a big day for some of the people using it. It will be interesting to see what the Joint Administration choose to do with the Registry Office.

“Can they keep the registry office at the existing Shire Hall? I know! Maybe they could rebuild the old Assizes Court House for it!”

Above – from the Museum of Cambridge’s photo archive – I think this should be rebuilt and used as a heritage building/museum expansion

You can see where the old Assizes Court House stood prior to its demolition (opposed by Cambridge City Council at the time), from Britain From Above.

The construction of the Assizes Court House in the 1840s was not without controversy, some locals lamenting the loss of the last part of the old Cambridge Castle.

Above – The Cambridge General Advertiser lamenting the loss of the Castle Gatehouse

Above – the old Castle Gate House

Above – the old Castle Gate House (and prison to its left) from the British Museum’s archive

Above – From Cambridgeshire County Council – an old display board they brought out a few years ago: The castle site re-imagined before the colleges ran off with all of the stone!

“What do the county council want to do with the site?”

As it turns out, I don’t hold a huge amount of affection for the interwar Shire Hall building. It’s a very functional, reserved local council building similar to others of its type from the interwar era.

Above – from the Cambridgeshire Collection – they added an extra storey.

I wasn’t too worried about the prospect of the building being turned into an expensive boutique hotel so long as Cambridge was able to make use of the car parks and restore the old Assizes Court and perhaps build a new medieval-themed tower building on the site of the current registry office as office accommodation to help fund the heritage activities, with an on-site cafe and rooftop bar to reduce the wear and tear of the historical monument. (See here – note this is my personal view, *not* the view of the trustees of the Museum of Cambridge)

They’ve published a plan below: (See Item 7 – Future of Shire Hall Campus in the papers here)

Above – the timetable proposed by the County Council.

“What do they want to do with the car park?”

Hard to see from here, but I think there is a significant opportunity to use some of the site as a heritage facility for something that can tell the story of the City of Cambridge. I hope there is enough flexibility in the plans that the County Council have to discuss this first with the local history community and anyone interested, and then with the wider city and county. Because the Cambridgeshire Collection told me a few years ago that they only have the space in the Central Library to display 3% of their historical holdings. Furthermore, one of the donations I have made to the Museum of Cambridge is too big to put on display. I know of other items and objects that would make for wonderful display pieces and conversation pieces to share our local history. This review of what to do with Shire Hall is a rare opportunity to give some much-needed attention to our local history. I hope the new council takes that opportunity.

Above – Kerry Lee’s magnificent railway poster from the 1950s. Larger than A0 size, I successfully bid for it at auction and donated it to the Museum of Cambridge for future public display.

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