Past, present, future: A focus on Britain’s heritage

Over 230 historic sites in various stages of degeneration across the UK were saved this year

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By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Thu 11 Nov 2021, 11:50 PM

Heritage is a living bridge across generations. It is all that has been passed to us by earlier generations, reflected in various levels of human values and endeavour: from physical spaces (land, buildings, structures), to national treasures in museums, to traditions, legends, environment, and aspects of culture. Unesco’s 1,154 World Heritage sites seek to preserve cultural and natural heritage considered to be of outstanding value to humanity. Besides such global efforts, countries have their own arrangements, but, as often highlighted by visitors and tourists, few have the sense of history, focus and funds to conserve heritage than Britain. Rajesh Panjwani, a leading tour operator from Bhopal visiting London, remarks, “We [in India] have our own vast history, we also have amazing castles, forts, structures and landscapes, but most are neglected or not well conserved. Here, even the smallest relic of the past is preserved and marketed to visitors so well, not only in London but also in smaller cities. Why can’t we promote our history and heritage like this?”

The work to preserve British heritage has been a constant endeavour over the centuries, involving a large number of government departments, councils, charity organisations, individuals and billions of pounds. New figures show that the Covid-19 pandemic did not overly hamper the task. According to Historic England, one of the leading organisations involved in heritage conservation, 223 sites were saved during this year, including the iconic Battersea Power Station in London; the Plumpton Rocks in North Yorkshire, one of the finest 18th century landscapes painted by JMW Turner; the Wellington Monument in Somerset, the world’s tallest three-sided obelisk to the Duke of Wellington, who defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815; and an extraordinary mock fort and dock built by the fifth Lord Byron as an ‘eye-catcher’ to be seen across the lake from his home in Nottinghamshire.

The conservation of historic environment and heritage assets is described as the “overarching aim” of the British government, for the quality of life they bring to this and future generations. Says Heritage Minister Nigel Huddleston: “We have supported the sector throughout the pandemic with our unprecedented Culture Recovery Fund and it is great news to see this investment, along with other financial support, having such a positive impact. Heritage helps us understand our past and bringing old buildings and sites back into public use helps us to level up communities, create growth and protect these important assets for future generations.”

Historic England maintains a Heritage at Risk Register, which is updated and released annually as part of its programme that identifies sites that are most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development. It is a yearly health-check of England’s most valued historic places and those most at risk of being lost forever.

Over the last year, 130 historic buildings and sites have been added to the register because of their deteriorating condition, such as the thatched cottage where English poet William Blake (1757-1827) wrote the words to the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ in West Sussex; one of the oldest windmills in England inspiring the work of eminent architect Lord Foster; and the remains of a wild natural garden created by legendary horticulturalist Ellen Willmott in Essex.

Bringing communities together

Says Duncan Wilson, chief executive of Historic England: “Our heritage is an anchor for us all in testing times. Despite the challenges we have all faced recently, this year’s Heritage at Risk Register demonstrates that looking after and investing in our historic places can bring communities together, contribute to the country’s economic recovery and help tackle climate change. Our historic places deserve attention, investment and a secure future. It is the varied tapestry of our historic places that helps us define who we are. In testing times such as these, heritage can give us a sense of continuity and bring us solace. We also know that investing in historic places can help boost our economic recovery. Many historic buildings and places need caring for, financial support, strong partnership working and community engagement to give them a brighter future.”

One of the sites saved recently was the 19th century Potternewton Mansion in Leeds, which has lived several lives and is now a Sikh gurdwara. It was originally built as a country house in 1817 for the wool merchant James Brown, but by the late 20th century it was used as a school for disabled children. It was later bought in 2006, in a dilapidated state, by the Sikh community, which restored it. An earlier grant ensured that a badly leaking roof could be repaired and one of the late Georgian rooms could be transformed into a space to display art from the local community, while recent funding has seen historic outbuildings brought back into use, with the aim to use them as a space to teach local children to learn to play traditional Sikh instruments.

As of 2021, the Heritage at Risk Register has 4,985 assets; the breakdown includes 1,459 buildings or structures, 2,001 non-structural archaeological sites, 923 places of worship, 104 registered parks and gardens, 491 conservation areas, 3 battlefields and 4 protected wreck sites. They come in many forms; from grand to simple buildings and structures, to large visible earthworks and less visible buried remains. Many issues threaten the sites, from environmental to human impact.

Besides Historic England and the National Trust, the number of organisations involved in heritage conservation includes English Heritage, Landmark Trust and SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Historic England is the UK government’s advisor on England’s historic environment. As an arms-length body funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, its statutory role is to advise government on heritage and planning matters. It is an organisation of architectural, scientific and archaeological specialists, who advise on listing and planning cases, conduct research and run a national archive, while its website and events provide ways for the public to engage in history.

Historic England describes itself as the public body that helps people care for, enjoy and celebrate England’s spectacular historic environment, from beaches and battlefields to parks and pie shops: “We protect, champion and save the places that define who we are where we’ve come from as a nation. We care passionately about the stories they tell, the ideas they represent and the people who live, work and play among them. Working with communities and specialists we share our passion, knowledge and skills to inspire interest, care and conservation, so everyone can keep enjoying and looking after the history that surrounds us all.”

Saving iconic structures in 2021

Restoring the Wellington Monument in Somerset was a joint endeavour of Historic England, National Trust and others, costing £3.1 million, completed in September. Standing high on the Blackdown Hills, the monument at 175ft is the tallest three-sided obelisk in the world. Although commissioned soon after the Duke’s military success at Waterloo in 1815, progress on the monument’s construction was erratic, having run out of funding and being twice struck by lightning. A further phase of building followed the Duke’s death in 1852, but the monument was not completed to its current height until 1892.

Despite regular repairs since coming to the National Trust in the 1930s, the monument again fell into disrepair. It was placed on the Heritage at Risk register in 2016. John Ette, partnerships team leader at Historic England, says: “We are delighted that the Wellington Monument is now fully repaired and standing proud in the Somerset landscape. This is a significant achievement given the scale of the monument and conservation challenges it faced. We hope that this unique and special part of our national heritage can now be enjoyed for generations to come.”

The decommissioned coal-fired Battersea Power Station on the banks of the Thames has long been a London icon. It was built from 1929 onwards and at its peak supplied one-fifths of London’s electricity. The power station gradually closed and was vacant by 1983. Following decades of sitting derelict, it was added to the Heritage at Risk Register in 1991.

An ambitious redevelopment plan is now in its final stages, offering a mix of uses inside and around the main building including new retail, leisure and dining experiences alongside contemporary housing and office space. Extensive and highly-skilled conservation work has taken place across the site to preserve and enhance its historic features and spaces, including the rebuilding of the famous chimneys which was completed in 2017.

Says Simon Murphy, CEO of the Battersea Power Station Development Company: “Following several years of careful and complex restoration, we are delighted that the power station has been removed from the Heritage at Risk Register. As custodians of the power station, our shareholders and all of the team are extremely proud to have brought one of the capital’s greatest icons back to life and future-proofing it for generations to come. We have worked closely with Historic England, Wandsworth Council, heritage architects Purcell and Wilkinson Eyre to ensure that the building was treated sensitively and with the respect it deserves throughout the restoration process. It is thanks to the vision of our shareholders and these key partnerships that we are celebrating this important milestone as we countdown to the power station’s doors opening to the public for the first time in history next year.”

Also saved during the year was the Lincoln Castle, considered one of England’s greatest castles, where both kings and convicts have walked. It often found itself at the centre of national events, including its role in preventing the future King Louis VIII of France also taking the English crown in 1217. It served as a prison in modern times. A major programme of masonry repairs completed in 2015 helped rescue the castle and ensure it could develop as a major visitor attraction.

However, in recent years, the castle’s walls had become at risk due to the sloping banks on which they stand, which have been disturbed by tree growth and extreme weather, among other things. The castle was added to the Heritage at Risk Register in 2020, and a major programme of stabilisation and repair works began. Urgent works have now been completed, and although further conservation work is still needed on parts of the castle’s walls, Historic England says the Lincoln Castle stands ready for the next chapter in a story extending back over a thousand years.

In central London, a Victorian-era Ladies and Gentlemen’s public conveniences or water closet (WC) at Guilford Place has been sensitively transformed into a cosy wine and charcuterie bar. The decorative railings and underground spaces date back to the late 19th century; many original features survive and have been converted to suit their new use, including the wooden stalls forming the booths and upholstered porcelain urinals used as additional seating.

Structures in the at-risk in-tray

New at-risk structures added to the register include William Blake’s home in Felpham, West Sussex, for which a fund-raising campaign has been launched locally. The 17th-century thatched brick-and-flint cottage was home to Blake and his wife Catherine from 1800 to 1803. In recent years, the cottage was purchased by The Blake Cottage Trust, which applied to Historic England to put it on the Register due to the decay and failure of part of the thatch, roof structure and supporting masonry. The trust is keen to restore and renovate the cottage in time for the 200th anniversary of Blake’s death in 2027. One of the only two surviving homes of the poet and artist, it was here that Blake wrote the hymn Jerusalem with the famous opening lines:

“And did those feet in ancient time /

Walk upon Englands mountains green: /

And was the holy Lamb of God, /

On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”

It was also while living at the cottage that Blake was accused and put on trial for treason following an altercation with a soldier in August 1803. Alma Howell, inspector of historic buildings at Historic England, says: “I think Blake’s Cottage is one of the most important places in English literary history”.

Warley Place in Essex features the evocative remains of a natural garden created by Ellen Willmott (1857-1934), one of Britain’s most influential women horticulturalists and an early exponent of ‘wild gardening’. She moved to Warley Place with her parents in1875 and transformed the grounds into one of the most celebrated gardens in the country. Described by garden designer, photographer and artist Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) as ‘the greatest living gardener’, Willmott was an influential member of the RoyalHorticultural Society and a recipient of the first Victoria Medal of Honour. More than 60 plants have been named in honour of either Willmott or Warley Place, among them a tulip, narcissus, phlox, bellflower, anemone, sweet pea, wallflower, iris, lily, lilac and several roses. Having dedicated her life and much of her money to her famous garden, she was almost penniless when she died in 1934.

The house was demolished in 1939 and the gardens fell into dereliction for over 40 years. Since 1977, the Essex Wildlife Trust has managed much of the site as a nature reserve, but urgent action is needed to repair ruinous structures, uncover hidden architectural features and save the essential beauty of Willmott’s famous garden, as well as enhancing the wildlife value of this important nature reserve.

In south Cambridgeshire, Bourn Mill, one of the oldest windmills in England is at risk of collapse. Its main post is believed to be from a tree felled after AD 1515, probably making it the earliest mill main post yet dated in England. An open trestle post mill, it is rotated around a central post, a simple but impressive task carried out by two or three people. John Cook, the first recorded owner, sold the mill in 1636 to Thomas Cook of Longstowe.

From 1701 to 1875, the mill was owned by baker John Bishop and his family. Their initials are carved into the interior side timber of the mill. The last miller was George Papworth, whose father was landlord of the village pub.

The mill became redundant in 1926 and was sold for £45, before passing

into the care of local charity Cambridgeshire Past, Present & Future in 1932. The mill provided inspiration for the work of one of Britain’s eminent architects, Lord Foster, who prepared drawings of the mill whilst studying architecture at Manchester University. Now, the mill is at risk of collapse due to rotting in its central supporting beams (cross trees).

(Prasun is a journalist based in London. He tweets @PrasunSonwalkar)

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