George Hawkins is Head of Facilities & Capital Development at The Reader, a national charity that wants to bring about a Reading Revolution so that everyone can experience and enjoy great literature. It is also home to The Calder Stones, reopening this summer after a £5 million+ refurbishment with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Liverpool City Council and others.

George Hawkins spoke to Hans Thompson and Maxwell Malden.

Hans: I'm interested in your forecast for visitor numbers. Do you have any idea of previous visitors, or any idea of public interest when they were in the glass vestibule in the park?

George: We don’t have proper park visitor numbers – however when we first arrived at Calderstones, only 65% of local people we encountered had even heard of the Calder Stones, and only 5% could speak with any confidence or accuracy of their heritage significance. Local myths abounded that they were somehow fake, not real, or “something to do with the druids”. Anecdotally, the Calder Stones were steadily slipping from public awareness, having been locked away and only periodically available for people to view. There was a small band of well-informed locals who cared about them and were generally aware of their significance, and the local public sector for many years had been aware of the poor situation of the Calder Stones and some efforts had been made to move towards improving things, including a previous unsuccessful Heritage Lottery Fund (now National Lottery Heritage Fund) bid.

We do hope to increase visitor numbers to our site to 44,000 in the first year with at least 6,000 engaging directly in programmed activity at Calderstones. We would expect all programme visitors and many general site visitors to have some exposure to the Calder Stones and opportunity to learn about their heritage significance.

Hans: How do you foresee the Calder Stones being viewed or understood in their new location? Will they be a "destination" attraction, or something stumbled upon by the visitor? Please would you describe or give a little context about the surrounding operations within The Reader complex and its setup and how the stones fit within that?

George: The Reader Mansion House is a place where anyone can come to experience literature, find and share meaning, be nourished, develop new skills, explore creativity and, above all, feel valued as part of ‘something real’. The Mansion House is home to the International Centre for Shared Reading – a centre of excellence that is open to anyone who wants to begin or develop their Shared Reading practice.

The Reader at Calderstones, offers a working model of a community that has literature, art, heritage, wellbeing activities, food and fun at its heart. It’s the first community of its kind in the UK and indeed, the world - a place where everyone can come to find something real to take home at the end of the day.

The Calder Stones form a central part of our vision. They are the earliest evidence of people making meaning together in our place – what we do is help people to come together to create shared meaning through Shared Reading and, at Calderstones, other complimentary activities that fit with our ethos. We view the Calder Stones as very much a destination attraction, they are the centrepiece of our heritage visitor offer and we expect as our profile increases to attract visitors specifically to see them. However, in practice, many visitors will stumble upon them, given the nature of our visitors and the way people flows work on-site. Many of our visitors are going to be families coming to make use of the beautiful greenspace of the park, and will come to us for refreshment and toilet facilities, we want those visitors, many of whom will not be aware of the Calder Stones, to discover them, their stories and meaning.

Hans: Have you any ideas about interpretation of the stones when on display? What information will you present with them? Will there be contextual exhibits or exhibitions?

George: We will not be crowding the Stones themselves with interpretation information – there are two interpretive boards to be mounted in the courtyard adjacent to the Calder Stones. However, the bulk of interpretation will be in the adjoining exhibition space, where we have a dedicated permanent exhibition designed to tell the stories of the Calder Stones in as accessible a way as possible, including the national and global context at the time, what we know of the people who built them, the significance of the carved markings and the context in the development of human use of written language. This has been designed working with skilled interpretation specialists Leach Studios, and includes interactive elements designed for younger children, and audio visual elements to bring the stories to life. This is mirrored in an adjoining space where we are telling the stories of the house and wider park.

Hans: What has the public reaction been so far since the project began? Has your promotion made a difference to visitor numbers and discussions about the stones? How do you monitor this?

George: We had some initial resistance to changes being made within the park – Calderstones is loved locally, and people are very protective of it. However, we have been able to build real support within the community and there is huge excitement about the project. We will not know if our projected visitor numbers to the Mansion House are right until the project is complete and the programme up and running, but we now run regular heritage walks and talks, a dozen Shared Reading groups each week, other group activities such as knit and knatter, and there is real anticipation in the community.

Hans: How exactly did the funding for the project operate?

George: The overall costs of the project, including capital and programme costs were met through grant funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund, Tudor Trust, Garfield Weston Foundation and other independent charitable funders, and an investment from our Landlord and partners Liverpool City Council. Each funder supported the project for their own reasons – National Lottery Heritage Fund were most interested in a sustainable future for the Calder Stones, with a good level of public engagement.

Hans: Do you have any concerns or worries about the project and the stones' future that you feel comfortable to share?

George: I hope the Calder Stones become the attraction we think they will and that ultimately their new home is good for their fabric in the long term - though it certainly would struggle to be as bad as the Harthill Vestibule Greenhouse. I worry that there might be vandalism of the Calder Stones by making them more visible to the public. However, we have worked hard to design something that prevents this as far as possible, while ensuring the public are able to get close to the stones.

Max: Can you talk about the new layout of the Calder Stones- how you arrived at this?

George: The layout was the subject of a lot of thought and consideration. The starting point was a need to remove them from the misleading circular arrangement, which they had been placed in during the 19th Century, and which had often caused confusion with people thinking they were a stone circle, as such. We consulted with the community and local experts, including from National Museums Liverpool, early in the project, which established that suggestions such as separating the stones from one another to create a kind of sculpture park were not right, nor did it seem quite right to bring them inside the Mansion House. Operational and security concerns led us to conclude the only sustainable approach was to have them in a purpose built enclosure that stands alongside, but not actually inside, the Mansion House.

We settled on the layout of two ranks of three in consultation with experts and stakeholders in the Calder Stones including Merseyside Archeological Society, National Museums Liverpool, and Historic England, as well as individual academics and experts who have worked with the stones. The main thought was losing the circle, and hinting at the idea of the passageway of the passage grave without putting too much of an interpretation on them. When it came to the individual layout, we took the approach that we do not have clear evidence of the internal layout of the passage grave, therefore we designed the layout to maximize visual impact for visitors, and have the most substantive markings pointing inwards to a visitor walking between the stones.

Our Architect, Austin Smith Lord, designed the enclosure, taking inspiration from Neolithic passage graves such as that at Barclodiad Y Gawres and Bryn Celli Ddu on Anglesey.

Interview with George Hawkins, The Reader