A CHERISHED outdoor education centre in Northumberland is to close as part of a council’s cost-saving drive.
Northumberland County Council is to close its operations at historic Ford Castle, near Wooler, as it strives to make around £45m of savings this financial year.
The council has been operating the castle as an outdoor residential training centre for young people for more than 50 years, having leased it from Ford and Etal Estates since 1956.
The site has also been available as a wedding or conference venue and for private hire, and has self-catered holiday accommodation.
Earlier this year, the council confirmed it was considering giving up the lease on the castle, because of its financial situation. Now it has confirmed the site will close its doors at the end of August.
The council says “the castle has been trading at a significant loss, and despite concerted efforts to turn the situation around the loss is rising.”
A total of 14 staff are employed at the castle – four full time, nine part time and one casual – and the authority said it would be looking to redeploy workers or help them find alternative employment.
There are 48 bookings in place up until the closure, and the council said it intends to honour “as many school and private bookings as possible”.
Council bosses say they will work with the estates and the local community to find an alternative future use for the castle.
Frank Jordan, head of commercial and property services at the authority, said: “This has been a very difficult decision for us. The council has been involved in running activities at Ford Castle for around 55 years and it is a much-loved and enjoyed facility.
“However in the light of savings that are required, and the drive to secure as many front-line services as possible, we are unable to continue to underwrite the services at Ford Castle.
“We will be working alongside Ford and Etal Estates and community representatives to explore options for the future use of the castle.
“This will include consideration of alternative uses that are financially sustainable and fit with the historic nature of the building, allow community access and support local business.
“We fully appreciate the importance of employment and business opportunities in rural communities and will be doing everything we can to redeploy staff or help them to find alternative employment.”
Lord James Joicey, whose family owns Ford and Etal Estates, last night said: “I was saddened to hear of the council’s decision but sympathise with their predicament. I understand that in tough economic times such as these, difficult decisions have to be made.”
The council had been urged not to proceed with the closure of the castle by Ford Parish Council, county councillor for Wooler Anthony Murray and Phil Hearne, the executive director of the Northumberland Church of England Academy.
Last night, parish council chairman David Lockie said: “I am very disappointed. I do quite understand that the council has got a very difficult budget to balance, to be fair to them. It was just the news that we were dreading.
“We would rather hope the estate will find a constructive use for it but it is a big building.
“It will be a big blow to the people that work there and we sympathise very much with them.”
The county council says schools that have bookings and others affected by the closure will be contacted directly to discuss the situation.
Did you visit Ford Castle during your schooldays? Contact The Journal on 01670 822 762.