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Letters: What future for the Custom House

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It is encouraging to see the range of historic buildings behind 1 King Street, King’s Lynn, gradually being renovated prior to being re-occupied as dwellings.

For the past 30 years most of these buildings stood empty under owner Roger Gawn, making a poor background to the setting of Lynn’s most attractive building, the Custom House.

It seems the roles of these buildings may be reversed. It is now the Custom House that stands empty, and in danger of neglect.

The Custom House in King's Lynn (33608915)
The Custom House in King's Lynn (33608915)

Designed and built by local architect Henry Bell and financed by the town’s MP Sir John Turner in 1683, the Custom House began life as a merchant exchange. It is widely considered a perfect building of its type.

In 1717 it was bought by the Crown for £800, and used for collecting taxes from traders shipping goods in and out of the harbour. When the excisemen moved to King’s Lynn Docks in 1989, the building was auctioned off by HM Treasury. A bid from King’s Lynn Preservation Trust and the Civic Society was ignored, and it was bought by Roger Gawn, keen to augment his Purfleet portfolio. Unsurprisingly, he left it empty and neglected for a decade.

The borough council then took it on under a repairing lease from Mr Gawn, and used it as the town’s Tourist Information Centre – a brilliant and successful new use.

But last year the borough council moved the TIC out of the Custom House. There has been no indication of what future might be being sought for this Grade-I listed building in a key riverfront location.

The borough’s lease on the Custom House still has years to run. A building of such quality demands urgent attention if it is not to do serious damage to King’s Lynn’s aspiration to build on its wealth of history to make a successful future.

Landmark Trust, English Heritage, the National Trust and many private owners of historic buildings have made them into holiday lets with considerable success. Surely the Borough Council should pursue this and other ideas to find a new use for the Custom House. There is already living accommodation on the upper floors, and I am sure many people would love to experience living there.

The current situation at Shakespeare’s Guildhall also does not bode well for the reputation King’s Lynn is seeking. Again, there is an owner – the National Trust – seemingly unappreciative of the historical value of its property and content to leave its future in the hands of the corough council.

As leaseholder for both these buildings the borough council has a responsibility to engage with the freeholders and other interested parties to plan for them a realistic and thriving future.

Talks are currently taking place on Shakespeare’s Guildhall, I believe. But the future of the Custom House now needs urgent attention.

Ken Hill,

King Staithe Square, Lynn

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