My years as the East Midlands Committee Chair

Outgoing Chair of the East Midlands Committee, Christopher Pennell MBE, reflects on his eight years in post.

I have just completed a wonderful eight years on the East Midlands Committee of the Heritage Lottery Fund with six of those years as its Chair. After 46 years of working in various roles since I left university, I can safely say that this was the most personally rewarding task I have taken on. Why? Because it enabled me to contribute to the strengthening and celebration of the region’s built, natural and cultural heritage, which are things dear to my heart, and it gave me the chance to exercise my skills in weighing evidence and objectively discriminating between applications for grants, whilst ensuring that hard to reach potential applicants or hidden heritage stories are not disadvantaged.

The HLF’s aim is to make a lasting difference for heritage, people and communities and, in my time, I think it has done that, particularly in a time of economic pressure over recent years. I can only admire local authorities who have continued their commitment to heritage in people’s lives despite these pressures. They will have seen the benefits, both economically and socially, that investment in heritage can bring.

Such examples include Lincolnshire County Council which, with our £12million and other funds, is restoring the walls of the Norman Lincoln Castle and providing a much improved visitor experience to the historic prison building plus a magnificent new vaulted chamber to display one of only four copies of Magna Carta in its 800th anniversary next year.

Then there is Northamptonshire County Council, which has won a £4m grant from us to help them to develop Chester Farm near Wellingborough as a centre for popular archaeology with all the county’s archaeological collections centralised at that location.

And what about Derbyshire County Council and High Peak Borough Council, who are persevering with their aim to restore with HLF’s help John Carr’s magnificent Buxton Crescent (a northern masterpiece to match Bath’s great crescents), re-opening the spa and a new luxury hotel; and all of that to add to the HLF’s earlier investment in Buxton’s ‘Dome’ to provide a northern campus for Derby University.

We have in my time provided grants to some inspiring and exciting community-based and volunteer archaeological initiatives, all with expert guidance, such as:

  • The uncovering by the local community of an Iron Age hillfort at Fin Cop in Derbyshire and the discovery of skeletons of those killed when the fort was sacked when the men were absent; discoveries that are helping to change thinking on how peaceful or aggressive communities were in the Iron Age.
  • Helping to fund the display of the fabulous Iron Age coin hoard of the Corieltauvis which is housed in Hallaton and Market Harborough.
  • Helping to finance the expert search for the true site of the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 which effectively ended the Wars of the Roses with Richard III’s death. The site is now marked in a visitor centre part-funded by the HLF. How we must all have rejoiced when Richard’s body was later found under a carpark in Leicester and now awaits re-interment with more honour in Leicester Cathedral or in York.

But the HLF is not only about built and uncovered heritage. It is also about museums and collections and natural heritage. There are some great contributions we have made to collections and museums, such as: A fabulous new museum in Lincoln called quite simply The Collection.

  • A museum and visitor centre at Creswell Crags telling the story of the prehistoric Ice Age hunters in the limestone gorge where the most northern European cave art has been found
  • Funding fresh acquisitions from the Enlightenment for Derbyshire Derwent Valley museums and of sneakers for a Northamptonshire boot and shoe museum
  • Giving the Arkwright Society a huge boost in being able to save, restore and re-employ No 17 mill at Cromford, the first fully surviving factory in the world and spark for the Industrial Revolution and now destined to be the northern gateway for the region’s only World Heritage Site

The HLF gets into the great outdoors too and helps to protect our precious natural heritage whether it’s the Lincolnshire grazing marshes, the Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottingham, the Idle Valley in Nottinghamshire, the National Forest or, my all-time favourite, Moors for the Future, where the HLF kick-started stupendous long-term work to restore degraded peat bogs on the high Derbyshire moors in the Peak District National Park. This will help them to store carbon effectively and to hold water to help in the fight against climate change and to slow down flood waters.

At the end of the day it’s not necessarily the big traditional heritage projects which most move me: it can all too often be modest grants to small village groups or to inner city or overlooked communities, like gypsies or minority ethnic groups. Then there are those where economic life has moved on and left them stranded, like isolated rural coal-mining villages, or those whose stories sometimes seem too hard or painful to tell, and in the latter case I celebrate the grants we made to Southwell Workhouse and the Holocaust Centre, both in Nottinghamshire.

I leave the HLF knowing that it has made a lasting difference on my watch and remains there to do much much more in the future. 

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