I’m a Merthyr Boy
Being a Merthyr born and bred I grabbed at the chance to attend the design charrette held at Cyfarthfa Castle. Also, working in the History & Archaeology department at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, I thought attending this event would be beneficial for me in gaining an insight into how organisations cooperate on local heritage and afterwards I’d be able to report back to my colleagues on what I’ve learned.
(Please be aware that I no longer work for Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales)
I’ve never come across the word “charrette” before this event. It’s a North American term meaning:
- A public meeting or workshop devoted to a concerted effort to solve a problem or plan the design of something.
- A period of intense work, typically undertaken in order to meet a deadline.
Storm Brian invited himself to the event, but his menacing nature didn’t dampen anyone’s spirit with over fifty people in attendance at the old gymnasium; all like-minded people who were interested in making the event a success for Merthyr Tydfil and its people.
Out of nowhere came the loudest of whistles (provided by one of the organisers); a fitting entrance to the day. Did you know that the first ever steam whistle was invented in the Dowlais Ironworks by Adrian Stephens? (An early example of his work can be seen at Cyfarthfa Museum).
Carole-Anne Davies of Design Commission For Wales (DCFW) thanked everyone for coming to the charrette and asked that before the day begins to hold a minute silence to remember those who died in the Aberfan Disaster (21st October, 1966).
Cllr Kevin O’Neill told a brief story regarding Mr Glyn Gibbon, who had recently passed away aged 90, and how as a young man he went to British Columbia in Canada and had stumbled upon a steel bridge marked Dowlais; signifying the influence of the local area on the world.
Being a genealogy hobbyist myself I found Cllr Geraint Thomas’ presentation interesting as he showed the link between the ironworks and his family tree. This kind of knowledge does create a personal connection to a place and is another aspect of how local people can celebrate their industrial heritage; many local families have a sense of pride about their ancestors’ life in these notorious ironworks (I like to think that we, Merthyr people, weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths but with iron in our blood).
The history of Merthyr Tydfil (and Dowlais!) was told by probably one of the best home-grown historians, Hefin Jones of the Heritage Trust. Here are some of the historical accounts that were mentioned:
- The success of the ironworks in the earlier and middle parts of the 19th Century gave rise to the town’s population growth, which meant that in the space of 60 years the town’s population increased tenfold!
- Crawshay had “God Forgive Me” written on his tombstone (in Vaynor Cemetery) which has become an object infamous with local legend. And it still creates rumours and divided opinions including whether Crawshay wanted God’s forgiveness for how he treated his workers in the last years of his life or for cheating on his wife with other women and then not acknowledging his illegitimate children. However, from a historian’s point of view, Hefin believed it only to be a Victorian custom.
- He went on to mentioned Pont y Cafnau (meaning the bridge of troughs), which is the oldest cast iron bridge in the world and holds two statuses; a Grade II listed building and as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Unfortunately this bridge has no promotional presence and should be put on the map along with other landmarks – as Hefin put it, “It’s the oldest cast iron bridge in the world. You can’t get older than that!”
To explain why we needed a charrette and why in Merthyr Tydfil, Geraint Talfan Davies OBE had to firstly inform us of his background as Chair of a housing association, which had him campaign against the destruction of The Triangle in Pentrebach (originally housing the families of Plymouth ironworkers), even though the houses were grade II listed they were already “earmarked for clearance”[i] and demolished in 1977. This is another part of our industrial heritage and social history that we won’t be able to dig up!
He continued to talk about Gwyn Alf Williams, the Welsh historian, and how he campaigned for the Merthyr’s story and controversially how he thought jobs in Wales would consist of “wine waiters and museum attendants!” From a resident’s point of view I thought that this maybe an improvement since there’s hardly any jobs whatsoever!
In his finishing statement, he believed that this event would help to “bring alive Merthyr’s ghosts,” meaning that we could bring back the heritage we lost or parts that are at risk of disappearing and would help to tell their stories.
Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museums’ Director General, David Anderson spoke about the importance of inspiration and how a vision must be at the heart of the work, which he exemplified with the early stages of the Making History project at St Fagans, when those involved in the project weren’t afraid to change the rules if they believed that they had a broken model. He affirmed this belief by telling us that, “Social vision makes places work – not just objects.”
Group 5 was Number 1
Our task leader was Matthew Jones of Coombs Jones (architects + makers) and currently a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England.
My other group members were:
Lisabeth McLean of Canolfan Soar and Menter Iaith Merthyr Tudful, which looks at “promoting the use of Welsh on a community level.”[ii] She highlighted the importance of the Welsh language in local heritage, to which I agreed, as it’s a part of our history. Furthermore the Welsh Government’s 2050 vision for a million speakers will help solidify its future in the landscape.
- Did you know that over 68% of the population in Merthyr in 1891 could speak Welsh? But it was revealed that only 8.9% could speak Welsh in 2011 Census.
Ceinwen Statter, a Trustee of Merthyr Leisure Trust Ltd., told us how she came back to the town 10 years ago after moving away for 40 years for work and family reasons. Her local historic knowledge was extraordinary – a human encyclopaedia of Merthyr!
Adding another architect’s perspective to the group was Biba Dow of Dow Jones Architects, who is based in London but was looking at projects in the Cardiff and the wider area. Thanks to her we had our strong vision for Merthyr Tydfil – “Unlocking Our Legacy,” as she identified from our stories that there’s so much history in one town which didn’t only point towards historic buildings, for example, there’s a history of sport, music and literature in the town.
Richard Essex from Regeneration Skills Collective Wales (RSCW) has forty plus years in regeneration in the public, private and third sectors, which was beneficial to our efforts in regards to revitalising our heritage that was abandoned due to a lack of funding and interest.
Rhian Hâf’s presence was essential. As an artist (Glass Maker)[iii] from Caernarfon in North Wales it was interesting to see her concept of how we could link these historical sites together. She recognised that there’s an occurring theme in South Wales with trails (She constructed the diagram that we presented to everyone, which highlighted the heritage trail of the town with the re-introduction of the old tram).
How can we draw on Merthyr’s landscape and built heritage to become a world class visitor destination and experience?
This was the question put to everyone and was the first task of the charrette, which was further explained in the papers given out on arrival at the castle. Also, there were helpful suggestions in the programme which could support the brainstorming session including a brief on a SWOT analysis, examining themes and visions, encouraging sketching and diagrams, and more.
Here are a few weaknesses that we pointed out in regards to the borough which could have a negative impact on our vision for Merthyr’s heritage.
- There isn’t much awareness or support for people with a physical disability on accessing these sites. Biba highlighted the work that Rural Wales is doing to make trails and areas more accessible for those with a physical disability and mobility issues.
- There isn’t enough suitable and affordable hotels that could accommodate visitors.
- Marketing for activities and heritage attractions aren’t reaching a wider audience. We have great branding that supports the town including “We Love Merthyr,” “Iron Heart” (by David Appleyard) and “Merthyr Rising” (by Hwyl Hub), but this isn’t reaching people on a national and international level.
* There has been negative press of the town lately with Valley Cops, which focuses purely on the issues that every place in Britain experiences. This kind of media coverage has the town branded in the worst light and pushes us backwards in terms of progression, so every time somebody Google’s Merthyr Tydfil they’ll see the BBC One’s depiction of the town, then nobody will want to invest in it!
- Local bus services are almost non-existent after 6 o’clock in the evening; presently limiting what residents and visitors are able to do now! Also, the removal of the tourist information shop near the bus station doesn’t create a welcoming impression to visitors. The bus station is one of the key places where tourists are able to find out more about a location.
- There’s a lack of education in schools regarding Welsh history and local heritage!
- The new college should get more involved in the heritage sector, as conservation and reconstruction skills are highly sourced. * Ceinwen did point out that the Pontmorlais Scheme encouraged pupils to learn conservation techniques and to hopefully inspire them to carry on traditional skills.
- Bilingualism should be promoted in present and future heritage attractions.
- Giving local people the skills to tell their story would help in collecting local history and could act as a way of improving community participation in area. Additionally, it would create a sense of pride for those involved when they share their local connection through their own past or family’s story. * Casgliad y Werin Cymru – People’s Collection Wales is a prime example of being a collective database for the public in Wales to input their stories.
Here are some of the strengths of the borough:
- The Voluntary sector has a big presence in the borough. Although, the cuts to charities has had an impact on the services they provide to the community.
*Somebody did wonder whether these organisation are training local people to leave the town once they’ve gained their qualifications and experience. (Arguably wouldn’t this depend on the opportunities that are available in the area?)
- A key strength is that the people of Merthyr support their community and are great at fundraising for local charities and causes, which is exemplified with Mia Chambers’ “Rainbows Warrior Princess” campaign to raise funds for her to have treatment in America.
We’re from Merthyr, we’re not use to thinking big!
We were encouraged by DCFW and local councillors to “think big” with our ideas, as most groups including our own must have been concentrating on the social issues that faced the borough (and Wales) rather than what could be. * I’d say that this could be attributed to how Merthyr people think. As a people, like many Valleys people, we aren’t encouraged to “think big” with ideas.
When returning from our lunch and with the approval to break down any social restrictions – we got to work! Here are a few of our big ideas:
- Lisabeth had an excellent idea on using our heritage as a platform for the art and dramatics, as she suggested that the Cyfarthfa furnaces would be ideal as a theatre with the space being great for both acoustics and lighting.
- Getting international visitors from those in the Welsh Tract in America and from Donetsk (originally Hughesovka) in Ukraine would be profitable for both the local economy and tourism industry, which was voiced by Ceinwen, as she thought it was important to establish and strengthen ties overseas with Welsh descendants.
- Why don’t we have the Eisteddfod in Merthyr Tydfil? We held it in Merthyr back in 1881 and in 1901. If we’re celebrating our heritage, promoting bilingualism and encouraging international relations, then wouldn’t this prove successful for the borough and be an example for our neighbouring valleys to follow our lead?
- Installing an old fashioned tram in the town was a suggestion that received much praise during the group discussion. We linked this to transportation in the area and how both bus and train services should advertise and possibly lead to the tracks of the tram, which would take visitors on a trip that could run through the town, like it was before, or optimistically the tram could follow the original route of the old Merthyr Tramroad.
- Like the Taff trail there should be a Heritage trail which outlines all the heritage sites from Cyfarthfa Castle to Pont y Cafnau. Perhaps the heritage trail could show the loss of our local heritage via VR technology (including The Triangle, the Old Railway Station design by Brunel and others)? * Richard explained to us how he attended a heritage event in England that used virtual reality glasses that helped to interpret iron aged monuments.
I think that we all benefitted from attending the charrette. Although, I’m not sure our fingers and toes did (very cold!).
I hope that the ideas generated would be able to support future heritage projects in the area, but more importantly, any project in Merthyr should have the interest of the people of Merthyr at its heart! Nid cadarn ond brodyrdde!
[i] The Triangle, Pentrebach (sourced Oct 2017) http://www.coflein.gov.uk/en/site/410018/details/the-triangle-pentrebachpentre-bach-squarepentre-bach-triangle-merthyr-tydfil
[ii] Canolfan a Menter Gymraeg Merthyr Tudful (sourced Oct 2017) http://www.merthyrtudful.com/?lang=en
[iii] Rhian Hâf (sourced Oct 2017) http://rhianhaf.com/portfolio