South Yorkshire's Conisbrough is building for the future

Conisbrough, a former mining town, has not one but two of South Yorkshire's most significant buildings. Jo Haywood visits both PHOTOGRAPHS BY GRAHAM LINDLEY

The community was badly hit by the dramatic demise of the steel and mining industries and local facilities came under great strain. It was a far cry from the 1930s when 6,000 men worked down four shafts and the colliery company owned 1,700 homes in the neighbourhood. But the community managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps. It even managed to source enough funding for a purpose-built community meeting place - the Ivanhoe Centre - which was built in the centre of the town in the summer of 1997.

Twelve years on, the community is having to dig deep again. But only the foolish or forgetful would bet against the people of Conisbrough. Digging deep is in their genes.

A All former mining towns have a past, but it is rarely a happy history. Loss of life and livelihood are common themes as people look back with pride but little affection.

In Conisbrough, however, the community has more to look back on than mining. It is home to two of the county's most important historical buildings: Conisbrough Castle, which was the inspiration for Sir Walter Scott's classic novel Ivanhoe, and St Peter's Church, which is the oldest building in South Yorkshire.

The castle is a prominent though not dominant aspect of the town, sitting about half way up the steep hill on which Conisbrough enjoys pride of place.

If you're feeling particularly energetic, you can climb to the top of the keep for far-reaching views across Yorkshire from Emley Moor in the west to the docks at Goole in the east. If not, you can keep your feet planted firmly on the ground and simply admire the 12th century cylindrical keep itself. By the mid 1500s the castle was in a poor state of repair.

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A contemporary survey recorded that the gates, both timber and stonework, the bridge and about 55m of walling between the tower and the gate had fallen. It stayed that way until Doncaster Council joined forces with the Dartington Trust in 1986 to found the Ivanhoe Trust with the aim of assisting economic, social and environmental regeneration in the Dearne Valley communities.

This led to English Heritage handing over the day-to-day running of the castle to the Trust in 1988. After five long centuries of neglect this unique limestone structure underwent a programme of improvement. The Trust installed two new floors and a roof in 1994, giving the castle a much-needed makeover.

It is now regarded as one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in Europe, attracting more than 35,000 visitors a year. Unfortunately, healthy visitor numbers don't necessarily equate to a healthy bank balance and it still remains a fairly low key attraction. So low in fact that English Heritage reclaimed the day-to-day running in April last year. St Peter's Church in Conisbrough also errs on the side of modesty when it comes to selling itself. It is South Yorkshire's oldest building, but you won't find it on any well-trodden tourist trails. It hides its light very well.

The preaching cross outside the church is believed to originate from around 335 AD, some 300 years before St Columba and St Aidan 'Christianised' the area. The cross acted as a meeting point for Christians until around 540 AD, when the first wooden church was built. It was officially accepted in 1982 that St Peter's was the oldest building in South Yorkshire with an estimated date of 740-750 AD.

Today, it acts as a historical anchor for the town, surrounded by shops but not overpowered by them. The High Street, which lives up to its name by clinging precariously to the crest of the precipitous hill, and the othertwo sides of the town centre triangle, Church Street and West Street, are not over-burdened with big names and have more than their fair share of boarded up windows, a timely reminder of the fallout created by the omnipotent credit crunch. But the people of Conisbrough have been through tough times before.