The Leeds Castle foundation will have a new chief executive in March, its board has announced. She is Helen Bonser-Wilton, the current chief executive of the Mary Rose Trust in Portsmouth, where she has led its transformation from long-term project into a successful and sustainable business.
Leeds Castle, regarded by many as ‘the loveliest castle in the world’, is one of the nation’s most popular attractions with more than half a million visitors every year (Covid-permitting). After what has been a very challenging year for the castle like every other heritage site, Bonser-Wilton’s appointment is seen as the start of another exciting chapter in its long and distinguished history.
Her successes at the Mary Rose include the development of new visitor experiences, building on the trust’s archaeological and scientific reputation and the launch of a new joint trading venture with Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. Bonser-Wilton brings a strong background in commercial businesses and the management of heritage attractions, including 13 years at the National Trust, where she was project director at Tyntesfield, Bristol, national change programme director and operations director in the south-west.
She succeeds Sir David Steel who led the Leeds Castle team for five successful years, including the celebration of its 900th anniversary. Last year, Sir David was appointed by HM the Queen as Governor of Gibraltar.
Since last March, financial director Robin Richman has guided the castle through an unprecedented period of challenge created by the pandemic. Robin will continue in his role as deputy chief executive and financial director.
Niall Dickson CBE, the chairman of the Leeds Castle Foundation, the charity responsible for the castle and its estate, said: “We are very much looking forward to Helen joining us in March. She brings a wealth of experience and a great track record.
“Leeds Castle enriches the lives of our many visitors and guests and Helen’s arrival will enable us to build on what has been achieved and create an exciting future, preserving this national icon and developing the experience for everyone who comes here.
“As we move into this new chapter, I want to pay tribute to Robin, his senior team and, indeed, to all our staff and volunteers who have helped to steer us through this traumatic time. They have not only safeguarded our assets but have continued to provide a much-valued safe haven for our visitors.”
Bonser-Wilton said: “I am delighted to be joining the team at Leeds Castle and to have the opportunity to drive forward a strategic vision for this astonishingly beautiful and much-loved heritage site. Leeds Castle is a key player in the Kent and south-east visitor economy, but the Covid-19 crisis has wrought huge damage on our income.
“As a charity that relies on income from visitors, we need the support of the public more than ever now to care for this extraordinary place. We will be developing our offer to encourage more visiting during this season, as well as caring for the unique heritage assets so that future generations can enjoy them as much as the current one.”