BBC Countryfile Magazine
PRESERVING HERITAGE IN BRICKS AND MORTAR
From the oldest farmhouse in Wales to chapels rich in history, presenter Will Millard reveals architectural heritage in peril in the latest programme in BBC Four’s Hidden Wales series. We ask him about the buildings that touched his heart
Your background is in anthropology and leading expeditions in West Papua and West Africa. What attracted you to this story of Wales?
We are all occasionally guilty of not fully appreciating the wonders that hide in plain sight. Growing up in the Fens, my village creeks and rivers were an endless source of childhood inspiration and human stories and, as much as exotic adventures have their obvious thrills and pulls, I never lost sight of how much those local places had influenced me growing up. Four years of making Hidden Wales proves just how many extraordinary places there are around all our homes.
Which building caught your imagination the most? Which would you most like to see restored?
Esgair Llewellyn on both counts. When it comes to the limited funding available to preserve our historic buildings, the castles and mansions of the upper classes get preferential treatment. The dwellings and workplaces of the working classes are too often overlooked. The walls of Esgair Llewellyn, a medieval cruckframed hall-house that is at least 500 years old, can tell the story of Welsh farming through the ages. The place is undeniably romantic, and one of the very few surviving examples of its kind, but if it hadn’t been for the care of just one sheep-farming family, it would have been lost forever.
Why is it important to save these historic buildings?
There is no replacement for being able to experience a building, physically, for yourself. History should be tactile; it isn’t the same looking at history in a book or on the internet. These places have an atmosphere and unique sense of presence that can only be experienced by going there. If kept standing, they have an enormous cultural value; especially in the really rural areas where they could yet provide a source of income, too.
Why is so much of Wales’ coal history being allowed to disappear?
I don’t think any of the industrial sites that provided the wealth of the Industrial Revolution are given anything like the respect they deserve. As someone whose family were coal miners, I think the government were incredibly shortsighted when it came to recycling those coal buildings and back-filling the mines; it feels to me as though they just wanted to erase their memory as quickly as possible. The Navigation Colliery, featured in our film, is among the exceptions in the Welsh Valleys. It was something of a show mine and is absolutely stunning, but, even so, it has had a difficult time since closure and is still very much at risk, despite the monumental efforts of local conservation group, Friends of the Crumlin Navigation Colliery.
Where could the investment come from to save these buildings? Will it mostly rely on private ownership?
In an ideal world it would come from us, charitable donations, or via government grants. Things like the slate landscape of Blaenau Ffestiniog receiving UNESCO World Heritage status obviously helps too, but for a lot of our endangered historic buildings, the onus slips on to the goodwill of volunteers or those private owners who have a real passion for heritage and the resources to invest. Sadly though, there is nowhere near enough of either of those types of people to save much more than a fraction of our most important buildings. However, I really do believe we are passionate enough about our history as a nation to do more, if we can only wake up to what we stand to lose today.
BBC Four’s Hidden Wales: Last Chance to Save with Will Millard is available on iPlayer.