British Archaeology, no 29, November 1997: Essay

Devolution, castles and Welsh identity

Conservation in Wales should favour buildings that reflect Welsh society as a whole, says David Austin

For those of us who had a chance to vote for new forms of governance in Wales and Scotland a few weeks ago, the political world is shifting under our feet. As night follows day, our cultural agencies – especially those in the business of the past, such as Cadw (Welsh Historic Monuments) – will soon have to move their objectives in tune with the new sense of national identity that is beginning to emerge.

In Wales, this will be no easy task, not least because ‘Welsh national identity’ is a complicated thing. Wales is not one place, nor was it in the past. Simply look at the maps of how Wales voted in the recent referendum, and the polarities quickly emerge. There were the Marches, the Vale of Glamorgan and Pembrokeshire with their anglicised traditions, which voted no. And there were the ‘heartlands’ of Dyfed, western Powys, Gwynedd and the freshly reclaimed southern Welsh valleys, which voted yes. Indeed, the voting map looks like an atlas of the early 12th century when the Anglo-Normans were establishing their Englishries, castles and towns throughout the very same no-voting regions.

These are not the only divisions in Wales, either. There is also the age-old rivalry between North and South; the re sentment of the rural poor of the West for the agrarian rich of the South and East; the dichotomy between urban and rural, between upland and lowland; the deep suspicion of Cardiff and its motives; let alone the complex divisions of class and opportunity which lie at the heart of western capitalist democracies like ours.

As our cultural heritage agencies in Wales go about making their numerous decisions about what buildings and monuments to promote and what to ignore, what to restore and what to let go, all of these varied aspects of Welshness ought – you might think – to be taken into consideration.

At the moment, however, they are not considered at all; nor is there much indication that they will be in the future. There has simply been almost no strategic thinking over recent years about how to reflect Welsh complexity in developing a sense of Welsh cultural identity. There have, of course, been immense resources spent on supporting the Welsh language, but beyond that the enterprise looks thin.

In the case of historic buildings and monuments, you will look in vain for strategy documents from Cadw. So we cast around for what they have done, as a measure of what they feel they should be doing. At Flint, Caernarfon and Conwy, for example, they have for decades been demolishing the vernacular architecture of the past few centuries to reveal these towns’ medieval walls. One 19th century house was demolished just recently in Conwy for this reason at a cost of £30,000.

The reasons given for these demolitions are, presumably, that they preserve and reveal what is ‘historically valuable’, and are acts of common sense, neutral heritage management. However, they are only ‘common sense’ if one accepts without question assumptions that date back over half a century – for instance, that the older the building, the more valuable it is, and that fortifications are particularly worth keeping. And they are only ‘neutral’ if we ignore what these places mean. They are the key symbols of English supremacy in Wales, whereas what has been pulled down – such as the 19th century drill hall of the Royal Welsh Fusilliers in Flint – are themselves elements of complex and interesting Welsh history.

It would not be right to characterise this as ‘English’ or even simply bureaucratic behaviour. The local council at Carmarthen, for example, where the final decisive ‘yes’ declaration came for the Welsh Assembly, recently decided to do the same thing with the sparse remains of its own English royal castle, in the process demolishing 18th and 19th century houses built against its walls. This was in the wellmeaning but unthinking name of improving urban amenity and tourism.

It is not that Welsh policy on its cultural heritage consciously favours the English aspects of its history or that it is not wellmeaning; it is rather that no one has given serious thought to what we are trying to deliver as the historical core of Welsh cultural identity.

In 1993, the Chairman of the Historic Buildings Council for Wales, Tom Lloyd, told the Welsh Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons that the primary criterion for giving renovation grants to buildings was to preserve ‘the better type of architecture’. The consequence is that much of its money goes to a rich man’s club of genteel housing. What we need is for people in his position to re-examine these fundamental criteria and give some hard thought to delivering a landscape of buildings true to Welsh society as a whole.

David Austin is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Wales, Lampeter. He is a specialist in medieval castles, and was born in England.

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997