More than ‘just a ruin’, this Staffordshire castle has a diverse offering from weddings to ghost hunts.
A well known historian and media personality, curator Lesley Smith can often be found as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots or Anne Boleyn. Radiating passion for her subject and the 11th century ruin, she and her team have created a multi-faceted venue business with some utterly unique features! We talk to Lesley.
When did you start your venue business and what is its history?
Tutbury Castle was one of the first historic properties to open its doors for a fee in 1848. The entrance fee was one penny. The castle was particularly attractive to Victorians who much enjoyed all things Gothic. There is even a Penny Dreadful dated 1830, prior to Queen Victoria coming to the throne, which reports on the romantic ruined part of the castle and also the ghosts. I took over the castle at the end of 1999 as the first lessee from the Duchy of Lancaster. The castle forms part of the Forest of Needwood Estate and currently trades as a limited company.
Tell us about your location and site
The castle is royal (and still is) despite being largely ruined in 1647. This was carried out by order of an Act of Parliament following the civil war although the Great Hall was allowed to remain as the parliamentarians needed an administration based here. It was known as the “Lock of two counties” those counties being Staffordshire and Derbyshire – vital to control to allow movement to the North by an aggressive army.
The castle sits 150 feet up on a grassy ledge overlooking the lush Dove Valley below and the river Dove itself with an almost complete ox-bow lake. Far in the green distance can be seen both the Derbyshire and Weaver Hills. The famous Derbyshire Peak National Park is a half hour drive away.
Although there is evidence that man has lived on the castle ledge from 8,000 BC and Romans are recorded on the site, it is also known that the Vikings sacked the immediate area, but it was really the Normans that made the Tutbury Castle we know today in the reign of William the Conqueror. First built in wood and then stone, rising up to be a massive castle with up to the 1,000 people within her walls at her height of medieval glory in the mid to late 14th Century. There are three baileys and one motte now resting on 38 acres still held by the castle.
It has welcomed numerous kings and queen such as Henry IV, Richard III and Mary Queen of Scots as a prisoner four times.
What facilities for outdoor functions do you offer?
A glamorous hard floor marquee seats up to 120 for catered functions with a dance floor and professional chefs producing award winning food. Medieval style tents can be rented for events.
Food is also served in the Great Hall and a pretty tea room.
Hand-fasting ceremonies are on offer at the castle, calling on the pre-1446 custom of marriage. These are also offered at midnight for the ghosts and the brave.
Camping is occasionally allowed.
What services do you offer?
We offer wedding ceremonies, civil partnerships, handfastings outside or inside, ghost hunts (public and corporate), historic food sampling, Cornish cream teas, light lunches, formal lunches and suppers.
Events planning forms part of the usual system of booking at Tutbury Castle. Our team works closely with clients to ensure they achieve their ideal event.
For corporate events we offer the marquee as well as the Great Hall and a series of break-out rooms.
We also offer management training, funerals, outside cinema and entertainment with an historic flavour such as birds of prey, have a go archery, Medieval musicians, Tudor musicians and guided tours.
Particularly well known for our historic talks by myself and other experts in full costume, visitors and guests at private functions have the chance to meet Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Anne Boleyn among others, as well as the specialist talk “Sex and the Tudors”. There are other historical speakers including Henry VIII, Richard III and specialist speaker Dr Gareth Williams from the British Museum who gives talks on Vikings and medieval warfare.
Describe how you researched and sourced your structures
Mostly from visiting other sites and seeing their structures and deciding the right type for us. Direct experience is always preferable to pictures! The cold light of day works best in making a decision. Marquee companies, in my experience, agree.
How do you work with your customers to make their events unique?
Listening to the client rather than just hearing is essential and ensuring that information about their event is agreed formally and constantly tracked from planning to the day itself. It is also very helpful to ensure that there are only two contacts not a stream of individuals who may want to put forward their own ideas. A filter from the client and in turn the castle end enables smooth planning with reliable outcomes.
Tutbury Castle is able to make quick decisions about what is possible and to offer creative alternative ideas if necessary. Not being too prescriptive is also essential as clients must have their own event, not ours! Restrictions of a scheduled monument may come into play but clients always understand that Tutbury Castle is a real 11th century royal castle with a noble, and in some ways tragic, past and that is a large part of its attraction.
The castle has minimal fly past and stunning countryside views. It has parking for 250 cars and an opportunity is available for clients to have exclusive use. This is particularly important for commercial clients who may need complete security and confidentiality. We have had main boards fly in to be with us from countries in Europe particularly to discuss sensitive issues.
Tutbury Castle is in the heart of England with easy access to all the major Midlands roads such as the M1, M42, A50 and A38. It is just a 40 minute drive to East Midlands or Birmingham Airport and there is a train station at Hatton under a mile from the castle.
How do you publicise yourself?
It really helps that I have appeared in over 120 television programmes – history programmes, the BBC News, The One Show and paranormal TV programmes across the world. I have also appeared in national press including a double page spread in the Daily Telegraph and numerous glossy magazines. I also had my own page in Staffordshire Life for eight years. Radio interviews are regular, including the John Humphries show on Radio 4 and international life radio interviews to countries such as Australia.
Our website and literature have been professionally designed to a high standard. The two major promotions remain however – customers typically coming to the castle for a meal and historic talk and then coming back to repeat the experience with other historic characters. Many of these same people then come back to other events. We use a system of press releases for up and coming general public events.
Any wedding will usually result in more enquiries.
The castle is also a favourite with some blue chip corporate clients returning for other events and family days.
I speak off site all over the UK to audiences of up to 1,000 but more usually around 200. These talks bring business directly to the castle as audiences will arrange a coach tour to see Tutbury Castle and experience another historic character.
How would you describe your ‘style’ or unique selling point?
The castle is in a beautiful place and has a sensational history but as one visitor said: “There are lots of castles but not another Lesley Smith”. Therefore, the costumed talks we offer is the major USP, which was proved when I went on a sabbatical for a couple of years and the bookings (other than weddings) plummeted. The talks are very popular, now more than ever.
What challenges have you faced?
Tutbury, although a pretty town, is not near London or York or any other major city with a strong historic past where people in a five mile radius might visit a number of attractions, therefore the ‘pull’ to the area is a difficult one. The castle has endured a number of dramas in the past 20 years including the Foot and Mouth crisis. We are in the middle of a rural farming area and flooding can also affect the road systems leading to us.
Encouraging the general public to visit a castle that on the face of it is “just a ruin” is a challenge but they have a happy surprise when they realise there is a lot more to it with the beautiful Great Hall filled with Tudor furniture, the exhibition room and lovely boxed gardens.
The difficult economics of the past years has had an impact so we keep the entrance fee low so we can be great value.
Have you worked with any industry bodies or consultants?
It depends what you mean by industry but certainly in heritage such as Historic England. Also, land agents WK Marshall (for advice on the best use of the land, grants etc.) and historical experts in various disciplines.
I have had 20 years in an above the line advertising agency and was a consultant myself.
Describe your average day mid-season
On a Saturday
08.00 – staff arrive to receive flowers and room dressers for a wedding.
08.00-09.00 – last minute tidying and arranging furniture, steaming glasses and checking all is perfect.
09.30 – catering team arrives.
11.00 – guests start to arrive for a wedding.
11.00 – ticket office opens for general public visitors.
12.00 – civil wedding in the Great Hall.
13.30 – formal wedding breakfast for 80 served in the marquee. Meanwhile visitors come for tours of the castle, cream teas or light lunches. Ice creams are going well as is the children’s dressing up box. Enquiries for school visit and weddings.
16.00 – last admission to the castle.
17.00 – security on the gate arrive. Musicians arrive.
18.00 – handfast for all wedding guests and some more just arriving for the evening event. Handfast set out in the castle grounds surrounded by lanterns.
19.30 – music and evening food for 120.
21.00 – ghost-hunters arrive who will take over the Great Hall.
00.00 – midnight close down for the night unless on extension.
02.00 – ghost-hunters leave and security locks up.
What do you enjoy about the business and why?
It is so varied, as Henry VIII arrives and a woman with owls queries school visits. The castle has to be fought for as a business and must be cared for constantly. You have to love it.
Burton upon Trent
Staffordshire DE13 9JF