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Heritage is what we make of it

February 11, 2014

I once heard a quote that I've since become fond of using myself from time to time. I'm probably paraphrasing but it goes along the lines of 'Conservation is how you safeguard things for the future. Preservation is what you do to dead stuff".

 

That thought popped back into my mind while leaving the Ffwrnes theatre on Saturday night. I already had a glow from Swansea's 3-0 win over Cardiff. A cracking performance by the Six Counties Big Band rounded things off nicely.

 

Theatr Fwrness, Llanelli

 

 

I plan to write more in coming weeks about Llanelli's gem of a theatre venue, but what dawned on me as we emerged on to Stepney Street was the transformation that has happened to this part of the town.

 

Speaking as an infrequent visitor, I found it easy to park directly off the main road, where it's a short walk across a lively pedestrianised section to the theatre, cinema, pub and restaurant all located in close proximity.

 

I found myself comparing this positive experience with the tortuous route needed to access Parc Tawe and the dead frontages you encounter in Princess Way when evening falls.

 

What made most of an impression is the clever mixture of a modern functional entertainment centre and the old school hall and chapel located opposite. Not only were the older buildings both up-lit to best effect, they added a welcoming note so lacking in the empty, echoing spaces that are increasingly a depressing part of Swansea's cityscape.

 

I'm never one to argue against urban open spaces, but what Llanelli has shown is that a creative approach to regeneration and heritage can be something more than bleak conservation areas and a few blue plaques.

 

It's often said that nostalgia isn't what is used to be. It's funny how I find myself agreeing with this sentiment more with each passing year.

 

Yet I also belong to a school of thought that says our heritage is essentially what each generation decides to make of it. Personal experience teaches us that the result of hanging on to everything that holds a memory simply makes for an over-full attic.

 

If you are a Facebook user then I recommend a visit to a page entitled "So you think you know about Swansea", managed by photographer John 'Boogie' Williams. It offers a fascinating shared combination of images peppered with reminisces and insights by members.

 

The message to be gained from reading the entries is that our local history is as much a sense of our own personal journeys as it is a series of dates and events. I warn you though that the site can be addictive.

 

The same can be said of the excellent "Swansea, Your Story" project. This is a scheme coordinated by another local photographer, Royston Kneath, who has gained funding from the Heritage Lottery to digitise as many photographs as possible of Swansea's past.

 

It's no accident that it's often people with photographic expertise who are behind historical projects of this kind. If our heritage can't always be rescued then it can at least be recorded and possibly even revisited in some cases.

 

I've been reading how software engineers are pioneering a method of compositing old photographs to create a virtual walk-through experience. I love the idea of navigating my way through Swansea's pre-war streets.

 

I became a local history nerd when circumstances took me to the old Swansea Reference Library many years ago. It was there I discovered correspondence from 1821 between Mr William Kirkhouse, an engineer, and local landowner Charles Henry Smith over how work was progressing on the re-sinking of Scott's Pit in Heol Las.

 

This part of our early industrial heritage is one of several hundred listed structures in the locality. It has been safeguarded, but many others are in a parlous state and local authorities are grappling with how to tackle this problem at a time of dwindling resources.

 

I think Swansea East AM Mike Hedges is on the right track in arguing that it is unrealistic to suggest that a large proportion of these buildings can ever be restored to their original condition. It is far more practical to get their protected status removed by 'de-listing' to enable re-use or redevelopment for other purposes rather than foster dereliction and decay.

 

I know there are some who disagree with this view and I respect the passion involved. Something we can all agree upon however is that when we stop caring about the past we also stop learning from it. I hope we never make that mistake.

 

 

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