Reclaiming the Past

Last Saturday, I attended the annual conference of Morol, the Institute of Welsh Maritime Historical Studies, in Cardiff’s glorious Pierhead building. This proved to be a stimulating and highly convivial affair, although the afternoon session was conducted against the backdrop of an almighty storm which caused flash flooding throughout Cardiff; indeed, the downpour was so torrential that it became quite difficult to hear some of the afternoon speakers. Luckily, I delivered my talk, on ‘Cardiff, Wales and Naval History’, well before the deluge began, as did Professor John Hines of Cardiff University, speaking on the archaeology of the city, and the broadcaster and writer Trevor Fishlock, who recounted some fascinating personal and historical anecdotes of the sea – notably of his passage in a yacht from Capetown to Melbourne via Antarctica. However, the talk which provoked the most response was that of Richard James of Maritime Heritage Wales, a relatively new body attempting to promote awareness and understanding of the country’s maritime past. His central point was that Wales has seriously neglected this important element of its heritage; for example, docklands have been turned over for redevelopment with little heed paid to their original role, and, in many cases, no extant interpretation of that role. This was very much the case in Cardiff, where the waterfront contains many trendy cafe-bars but no display panels explaining the history of the area. Indeed, one member of the audience observed pointedly that the much-vaunted regeneration of Cardiff Bay had involved filling in one of the most important and innovative 19th century wet docks in the world, then renaming the surviving depression ‘the Roald Dahl basin’, on the basis that the author was born, and spent the first eight years of his life, in the city; the approximate equivalent, perhaps, of renaming Edinburgh Castle ‘J K Rowling Towers’.

(Afficionados of science fiction will know the basin rather better as the site of Torchwood headquarters…)

Richard’s argument struck a real chord with me. In the conclusion of Britannia’s Dragon, for example, I complain that ‘local councils afflicted by a dearth of imagination and in thrall to rapacious developers can often think of nothing better to do with old docks than create in them largely empty marinas and populate the quaysides with blocks of ugly flats and national chain restaurants, usually providing little or no interpretation of the original heritage of the area’. True, this isn’t just a Welsh problem – I’ve referred in previous blogs to the phenomenally crass Gunwharf Quays development at Portsmouth, the dire disregard of the city’s naval heritage in Plymouth, and the completely inappropriate development proposed for the former royal dockyard site at Deptford. And yes, providing suitable, maritime-related alternatives for what are often very large sites can be difficult and expensive: the project to build a replica of the 17th century warship Lenox at Deptford, also referred to in previous posts, is a case in point, although Richard pointed out how the building and subsequent establishment as a tourist attraction of the replica famine ship Dunbrody has played an important part in regenerating New Ross in County Wexford. ‘World of Boats’, a new attraction in Cardiff docks which we explored at lunchtime, is an excellent example of appropriate, maritime heritage-related activity, but it occupies only a tiny fraction of the area – and not far away, yet another former dock is about to be transformed into ‘Porth Teigr’, full of yet more flats, shops, trendy cafe bars, and, umm, ‘the Dr Who Experience’. Yes, these are huge sites that clearly need commercial development to make them sustainable – but that doesn’t have to mean throwing the baby out with the bathwater and ignoring the previous heritage of the area.

On the other hand, it really isn’t difficult, or expensive, to provide good-quality interpretation of an area’s heritage. The week before last, we stayed in the Landmark Trust’s Saddell Castle on the Kintyre Peninsula (aka the castle in the background of Paul McCartney’s original Mull of Kintyre video). Saddell is a tiny place, but it has a good interpretation panel explaining the heritage of the village, especially of the ruined abbey which played an important part in the history of the Lords of the Isles. We also went across to the island of Islay and visited Finlaggan, the seat of the Lords, where a series of excellent display panels guide you around the site. These days, of course, it’s possible to harness digital technology, too – in the summer, we visited Lordenshaw in Northumberland, where interpretation of the fascinating Neolithic rock art can be accessed directly on mobile phones. Clearly, though, it needs initiative and direction to undertake such projects, and hopefully Maritime Heritage Wales and local organisations can provide it. There are already examples of good practice, such as the activities of the community heritage group in my own home town of Llanelli: they’re responsible for putting up over 40 blue plaques around the town, the latest of which – for the 19th century sports journalist John Graham Chambers, the actual writer of the ‘Marquess of Queensberry rules’ of boxing – has been sponsored by a certain historian and author. They’ve also put up a considerable number of large, detailed and well illustrated panels around the town, covering the history of particular areas: surely an example that other communities could and should follow.

To end on another positive note, Morol is launching a number of projects to improve awareness of maritime heritage in Wales. One, tied in to the World War I centenary, will investigate U-boat activity and wrecks in Welsh waters; another is the compilation of a Welsh maritime bibliography. I’ll be contributing to both of these projects, and, no doubt, will be blogging about their progress in the future!

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