Grange Court is unique in its design and architecture, and is decorated in ornate, grotesque and often bizarre carvings, giving it II* listed status, putting Grange Court in the top 5.5% of listed buildings. In the mid-nineteenth century, its location in the town centre was proving an inconvenience. The decision was made to dismantle the building and store it awaiting a buyer. It then spent three years in pieces in a local builder’s yard, until purchased at auction and re-built on the edge of the Grange, then the town’s cricket pitch. Refurbishment saw the ground floor closed in, creating two downstairs reception rooms, and a 3 storey brick extension on the back. Over the course of nearly eighty years, its occupant’s added, adapted or removed bits, all to make the home fit for purpose; the Victorian’s – as we know – generally didn’t hold the same emphasis on conservation and preservation as we do now.

The property went up for sale again in 1937 as the last family moved out. Rumours grew that Sir Randolph Hearst wanted to buy Grange Court and move it to St Donat’s Castle, which he had bought in 1925. As these rumours strengthened, public opposition grew, and pressure was placed upon Leominster Borough Council to make a Compulsory Purchase and save Grange Court for the future. The council paid £3000 and took over the property, under whose ownership it remains until April 2013 when ownership transfers to LARC Development Trust.

LARC, formerly Leominster Area Regeneration Company, is a local charitable trust. Since the mid-1990s LARC have been responsible for projects such as re-paving the pavements, refurbishing shop-fronts, and supporting community groups, as well as building a railway bridge, installing a roundabout on the A49, and developing a new enterprise park. In the mid-2000s, it became clear that the council were to move out of Grange Court as the building did not meet even the most basic of access standards. LARC proposed to redevelop the building as a hub owned and run by the community to involve them in its history and heritage, and create a place to work, play and learn. LARC and Herefordshire Council agreed to transfer the ownership of the building for £1 upon the project completion.

Work began in 2010. Working in partnership with Herefordshire Council, LARC has raised over £3million from the Community Asset Fund, Big Lottery, ERDF, Social Investment Business, DEFRA RDPE, and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The redevelopment has added two wings of offices to the rear, created light and open spaces for interpretation, and, crucially, is now entirely accessible for people with disabilities, including a fully equipped wet room with hoist enabling independent use of facilities.

Working with the design consultants Imagemakers, the interpretation of the building is centred upon telling its stories. Grange Court is not a museum. There is not an array of objects and artefacts. Instead, Grange Court is developing a range of accessible panels that are not too wordy, illustration-focused, and mostly tactile and interactive. Guides will be storytellers, passing on tales of Grange Court to listeners. Visitors will be encouraged to join in the discussion, sharing their memories, knowledge, and thoughts about Grange Court, its past and its future. Formal learning will have a definite link to the curriculum, however all activities will promote creativity and imagination. The point is, while certain facts about Grange Court are clear and accepted there is still much that is unknown. So why not express this uncertainty in the form of a story and then say, ‘this is what we think, what do you think?’

The history of Grange Court and its wider context is still a key part of the story. The project has relied on volunteers whose knowledge and research has been indispensable. Without a solid historical base, the integrity of Grange Court is perhaps undermined. The bulk of information will be stored on hand-held NFC-enabled tablets. Visitors will have the option to tap-on at various points throughout the building and then can choose to read more in-depth history, watch a video, explore a carving in more detail, or play a game.

The benefit of using tablets is that the content is constantly updateable. There is no limit to the number of NFC points around the building, or the number of pages each tablet point opens. It enables Grange Court to grow and change, and presents infinite options for future projects, such as developing a town-wide app, or an age group specific tour, or tours tailored to specific schools or interest groups. There is potential for Grange Court to have something new or different to share on every visit. Eventually, the tablet tour will be available via the website, enabling visitors to use their own tablets and smart phones, and also accessible to those who can’t otherwise get to Grange Court.

There will be challenges to using tablets, primarily security and user apprehension. All tablets will be security marked and locked to the app. Visitors will also be asked to leave a deposit, perhaps a credit card, to discourage theft as far as possible. As for user accessibility, this is an opportunity for learning for many people unused to new technology. The tour has been designed to be simple and clear, and visitors will be shown exactly how they are used upon collection. Volunteers who are trained to help will ‘float’ around the building should problems arise. The benefits of using tablets far outweigh the challenges. Grange Court will be one of the trail-blazers in 21st Century community-led heritage interpretation.

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