Precautions at Craigdarroch Castle, from banisters to masks

Craigdarroch Castle, one of Victoria’s most popular tourism attractions, has made major changes to the way it operates amid the pandemic.

The 130-year-old landmark, which reopened on June 15, is only offering guided tours with a maximum of eight people at a time. The “facilitated” tours are about 20 minutes apart and each group is contained to one floor at a time in the 41Ú2-storey castle, said Craigdarroch executive director John Hughes.

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Visitors and groups are encouraged to book ahead. Walk-ins can join groups at various times. Masks are mandatory.

A major change involves the castle closing on Thursdays for crews to remove and refinish all the castle’s banisters with temporary finishing. Hughes said it’s a major undertaking as the “sacrificial finishings” are applied to protect the historic finish on the ornate banisters, which are constantly being cleaned with disinfectants mandated under the province’s COVID-19 cleaning protocols.

The castle has 87 stairs to its tower, ascending about 18 metres.

Visitors are guided up through the main stairwells and return to the ground floor via the so-called servant’s stairway. Those handrails will also be refinished weekly.

The new protocol for admission and spacing will limit the castle to about 100 people a day.

During a normal tourist season, Craigdarroch would see about 100 people per hour — between 600 and 800 visitors overall over the course of a 10-hour day, Hughes said.

Since opening, Hughes said the castle has seen about 50 people per day. He isn’t sure what the numbers might be in the weeks ahead.

“There are a lot of unknowns,” Hughes said.

“We’re dealing with people’s comfort levels and many are a bit tentative about expanding bubbles. Phase 3 [of the province’s reopening plan] might see a pent-up demand manifest itself.”

Hughes said making masks mandatory was essential. He said “we can’t adjust doorways or halls” because of the castle’s historic designation. Hand-sanitizers and distancing signs are other additions to the castle.

Craigdarroch Castle is considered a “bonanza castle” — massive houses built for entrepreneurs who became wealthy during the industrial age. In this case, Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant who made his fortune from Vancouver Island coal, built Craigdarroch between 1887 and 1890 on a hill in Rockland overlooking Victoria.

He died in 1889, before it was finished, and left it to his wife, Joan, who lived in the castle until her death in 1908.

It later served as a military hospital, college and music conservatory.

Writer and history enthusiast Moira Dann has been named president of the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society. Dann was elected during the society’s first virtual annual general meeting.

Former broadcaster Robin Adair and financial adviser Barbara Armstrong were also named to the board. Amy Hinrichs and Hans Pellikaan were re-elected to their roles as vice-president and secretary, respectively, and Kevan King was elected treasurer.

Dann is a former journalist with CBC and the Globe and Mail and author of The Mothers of Confederation. She works as communications manager at the James Bay Community Project and has written a book about Craigdarroch, which will be published by Touchwood Editions in 2021. Dann previously served six years on the Craigdarroch board between 2013 and 2019.

Peter Van Giesen, who had served as board president, and Stephen Lyons, who had served as treasurer, retired from the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society.

The newly elected board members will join Paula Carey, Crystal Cook, Patricia Foster, Cameron Glazier, Cheryl Hebb and Claudia Malacrida.

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