Stepping across the threshold of Wales’ heritage

Derek Jones points to ways the Open Doors initiative might develop in future

European Heritage Days (Journees Europennes du Patrimoire) are 25 years old today. Like many good things in the field of cultural development, they were the brainchild of Jacques Lang, the French Minister of Culture, who, at a meeting with his peers in Granada in 1985, suggested that there was scope for an annual international celebration of architectural heritage and culture. He further suggested that the Council of Europe could usefully inspire individual countries to take part and act as a general clearing house for ideas across the continent. The idea quickly took off, with Sweden, Scotland and Ireland following the French lead. By 2010, some 49 countries were participating, Russia, Azerbaijan, Serbia and Montenegro being among the latest to climb on board.

Wales has been organising Heritage Days since 1995, when the Civic Trust for Wales was invited by Cadw to coordinate and publicise events across the country. With their encouragement, along with that of certain exemplary local authorities, the number of cities, towns and villages taking part has grown every year. This September some 300 local manifestations (buildings opened up, tours, walks, exhibitions) of Lang’s vision have been organised, a good many by voluntary organisations such as civic societies. It is not too much to claim that Open Doors, the generic title of heritage days in Wales, is being increasingly recognised as an established part of the annual cultural scene.

Open Doors cannot match the achievements of the National Eisteddfod or the Royal Welsh Show. However, it is far from insignificant and, what’s more, its nature, as a federation of essentially local initiatives, gives a definite edge to Welsh cultural democracy. On the other hand, unless it grows in reach and ambition over the next five years it could easily wither into decline.

Lang’s core idea was that historic buildings should be open and accessible to members of the public. Nothing very remarkable in that, you might reasonably argue, as it is part of Cadw’s job description. The difference is that Lang insisted that, for a certain number of days in September each year, entry should be free. This is for the very good reason that many historic buildings are not visited by people who are materially, environmentally or culturally deprived, much as the same people would not go to an art gallery, a theatre, an opera or an orchestral concert.

Cadw had to swallow hard before it could contemplate the loss of revenue which this essential precondition involved. However, the die was cast, and it is good to note that such major sites as Beaumaris, Caerphilly, Chepstow, Conwy, Harlech and White Castle have, in principle, been open this year to people who would not previously have darkened their doors, including, one hopes, locals as well as tourists.

Some caution is in order. We don’t know what proportion of those who crossed the threshold of these castles during September would have done so even if they had had to pay. After all, visiting historic sites is part of a way of life for many middle class people, and one of the reasons they go on holiday. Merely opening the doors for free will not necessarily persuade the rest to try a new experience. Nor can we be sure that the usual methods of exposition adequately convey the meaning of castles and their place in the history of Wales. Still, Open Doors is a start, a loss leader for Cadw perhaps. Physically, it is a step across the drawbridges. Intellectually, it is the beginning of an appreciation of the enclosed space, as well as the sheer size (and, paradoxically, beauty) of buildings designed as instruments of control.

The popularity of television programmes which take viewers ‘behind closed doors’ has provided an obvious spur for the organisers of Open Doors. Of course, the many grand houses which are natural candidates for these celebratory days prompt similar kinds of reflection about their original owners and their attitudes to the ‘lower classes’. How comfortable do culturally deprived people feel in surroundings of comparative affluence and material splendour? Nobody would suggest that the Powys Castles of this world should be excluded from Open Doors weekends, but it is perhaps even important that more ordinary houses are included in the range of properties which are opened up. Examples are Rose Cottage in Ruthin, a medieval timber-framed hall house which only has three rooms, Llanfyllin Workhouse, and the excellently preserved servants’ quarters at Erddig Hall, Wrexham, which provide a wider social context.

I hasten to add that people from all social classes are likely to enjoy the magnificently restored and colourful Plas Mawr in Conwy, and Nant Clwyd y Dre in Ruthin, both of which housed the gentry. Part of their appeal, however, is the efforts the restorers have made to recreate the everyday atmosphere of these buildings. Moreover, Nant Clwyd House has been opened up every year for the past six (and is now, open, if you pay, throughout the year. Local people in particular, some of whom pay an annual visit to the house during Open Doors weekends, have thereby been able to observe the process of restoration. Observation has been supplemented by demonstrations of practical skills such as stone masonry and lathe and plaster work. This year Recclesia Ltd, which organises these demonstrations, has also set up shop at Dr Evan Pierce Memorial Garden in Denbigh. Here, Open Doors weekends are a springboard for a wider experience. Surely, during the next five years, we will go beyond merely looking at inert buildings, important and interesting as it is to see them.

Jacques Lang’s original vision may not have run to this kind of imaginative development, but he would surely approve of it. The same principle is at work at New Tredegar, where, over Open Doors weekends, local volunteers operate the machinery at The Winding House. Even more ‘hands on’, this year the people of Wrexham had their last chance to climb the spoil heap at Bersham Colliery before it is removed. Of course, it is a pity that this relic of the industrial revolution will no longer be there to educate succeeding generations about its physical and environmental cost.

In an entirely different context, Ruthin has mounted geological tours, which concentrate on building materials, but not just in a conventional manner; ‘The Stones of Ruthin’ also includes the examination of kerbstones – and gravestones. Next time you go walking the streets, look down at the kerb and see how many fossils you can spot!

The bedrock of Open Doors was always the vast number of churches and chapels, many of them locked for most of the year, but opened up ‘for one day only’ during the festival. The Friends of Friendless Churches have an annual field day in Anglesey. And, from the list provided by Swansea Open House, it appears that well nigh all the churches on the Gower peninsula are unlocked. Extraordinarily enough for a country whose history has been so coloured by the rise (and fall) of chapels, few of them can normally be examined unless you happen to be a member or attend a funeral. Many of their doors are now unlocked every September, revealing some astounding spaces. Sorry to go on about Ruthin, but that is where I live, and I do urge anyone who can to look inside Capel Tabernacl next September – they will find a veritable cathedral among chapels, and, potentially a concert venue, or theatre in the round.

Even in this area of life, it is necessary to keep on the lookout for new opportunities to extend the range of Open Doors. I note, for instance, that the Dharmavajna Buddhist Centre in Swansea has been open this year, as well as the Reform Synagogue in Moira Terrace, Cardiff, and, stretching the meaning of religion a little, the Masonic Hall in Guildford Crescent Cardiff. If the doors of a secret society can be opened a crack, who knows where next our curiosity might take us. Meanwhile, Wales’ newest mosque has recently been established in the old Miners’ Institute in the centre of Wrexham. The Muslim community intend to keep a room for the display of local mining memorabilia – potentially, a fascinating conjunction for next year and subsequently.

Already, the word open is taking people into wider realms, and, so long as the architectural nub of the matter is not lost, who can complain about that? Torfaen Civic Centre has been part of the programme for the first time this year. County Hall in Swansea had already blazed a trail, showing off its committee rooms, council chamber, and registrar’s office. County Hall in Cardiff has not yet quite matched that, but it is, after all, a major architectural feature of our capital city and worth a close look at the outside which has been provided this year. Obviously enough, most people go to civic offices to complain or to obtain information. Open Doors is beginning to introduce a new element to the experience. It’s a very long term hope, naturally, but could these visits perhaps, eventually, have political implications, giving people a better idea of what goes on in their name.

The next step, surely, is to people the council chambers and to introduce actual council meetings into the programme. Meanwhile, curiously enough, the Welsh Government has not yet made its own contribution to Open Doors. Is it too much to hope that next year Alun Ffred Jones, the Culture Minister (and, therefore, ultimately, responsible for the Open Doors programme) himself might lead some tours of the Senedd building and committee rooms? Yes, I know that members of the public can attend debates and be shown round by their AMs at any time, but it would be symbolically right for the Minister actually to be seen taking part in an Open Doors event rather than simply providing the money for the Civic Trust and its partners to do the work. The Trust is, of course, part-funded by the Welsh Government, indirectly through Cadw. Just as interesting, why not involve Richard Rogers himself?

Just round the corner is the Wales Millennium Centre, an iconic modern building if ever there was one, and an ideal candidate to demonstrate that Heritage Weekends do not only refer to ancient buildings. The architect, Jonathan Adams, is, presumably, still available to talk about his handiwork, and should be asked to do so, at least once a year, for some time to come. More than that, openness should be extended to the backstage, the rehearsal rooms, wardrobes and the rest. It might even be possible to arrange for a lucky few to attend a rehearsal. This year, Ruthin people were invited to attend Choir Practice at St Peter’s Church, 700 years old this year. Where the Millennium Arts Centre takes a lead, Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold, for example, might be persuaded to follow. Meanwhile, Wales’ oldest theatre, the Grand, in Swansea, designed by William Hope in 1897, and now entirely restored and refurbished, was open for inspection this year.

Some of us with long memories of the history of broadcasting may have reflected that the decision to use the title Open Doors was not, as a matter of fact, entirely original. Open Door was a long running series on BBC-2 in which, with technical assistance, members of the public were invited to plan and present, their own programmes. As it happened I co-presented the pilot programme from a housing estate in South London, though it was the hardly the pinnacle of my career. So-called access television has long since bitten the dust, but perhaps there remains a faint trace of its vision in the readiness of the BBC to show people round Broadcasting House in Cardiff. More ambitiously, the South Wales Evening Post allowed people in to watch an edition of the paper being put to bed, well beyond the architectural essence of European Heritage Days, but surely a valid extension. Architecture does not exist in a cultural or political vacuum.

In a similar fashion many local organisations have been unwilling to be confined by the notion that heritage days are all about getting inside buildings. I get a tremendous kick every year when I see knots of people, in different parts of Ruthin, being shown round the town on thematic tours. Crime and punishment has readily suggested itself as a theme in a town which has the site of an execution, an old gaol, and two former courthouses within its boundaries. Medieval Ruthin is also explored, and, most popular of all, Roger Edwards, a local historian and former local headmaster, conducts tours of the streets, one street per year, jogging people’s memories about the recent history of the shops, pubs and public buildings. It is a fascinating way to explore the social and economic history of a town or locality. You have to book for these tours but, as you might expect, the pied-piper effect comes into play, and why not? Town and neighbourhood tours are now commonplace in Open Doors Weekends.

The number of Open Doors events across Wales has increased every year for the last 15, but there are some immediate threats to their future. Although they do not cost a lot in comparison with mainstream services, they might be ready targets for local authorities which are strapped for cash. Of course, the strongest local programmes, often in small and compassable market towns, will survive the loss of public subsidy, and, on past form, devise yet more ingenious and imaginative ideas for enriching the concept. The problems may well be greatest in the bigger towns and cities, where it may sometimes seem difficult to know where to start and, consequently where the energy and resources of the local authority are most needed.

On the other hand, the record of Swansea is absolutely magnificent with no less than 33 venues and events open this year. In Cardiff, too, the Llandaff Society has put together a rich programme. We have to hope that the city authorities have taken note and will, incrementally, help other ‘villages in the city’ to follow suit. There surely ought also to be scope for such important settlements as Aberystwyth, Merthyr Tydfil, Newport and Wrexham, where Open Doors has hardly begun, to take a leaf or two out of Swansea’s book.

Voluntary organisations and local authorities, which have not yet taken the plunge, will find that there is no shortage of creative energy when it comes to the celebration of the architectural and cultural riches on their doorsteps.

For a full national list of what took place this year, go to Civic Trust for Wales/Open Doors 2010

Derek Jones is vice chair of the Civic Trust for Wales.

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