Derek Jones discovers a town that can surprise and perhaps delight those who might previously have poured scorn on it
Cadw’s recent celebration of Dolgellau draws out the special qualities of a place whose position, size, shape and texture attract thousands of visitors every year, and quite right too. On the other hand, most of those visitors to north Wales would have to take a deep breath before taking themselves to Flint. Yet, between the 1780s and the 1840s it was a fashionable seaside report, well known for sea bathing and hot, medicinal baths.
In its 2009 publication Dolgellau: Understanding Urban Character, Cadw says, “‘There is history in every surviving detail – from chimneys to windows and doorsteps – and the survival of so many of these details is a rich resource for understanding the history of the town. These are qualities which combine to make Dolgellau an urban settlement of such distinctive character”.
However, by the mid 19th Century industrialisation caused Flint to described as “a nauseous town with old houses and the noxious fumes of chemical works”. Coal mining, an ironworks, several brickyards, and Courtaulds textile manufacture all came to Flint.
Today the town is a post-industrial settlement, and subject of a parallel 2009 Cadw volume, Flint: Understanding Urban Character. While a few paragraphs are devoted to the town’s Castle built by Edward I as part of his project to subjugate Wales, the main attention is given to its bright red brick housing and hitherto unsung shopping areas, art deco frontages and all. In it we discover that Flint is interesting and distinctive and by no means just an amorphous collection of houses and shops.
In particular, the housing areas have individual details and decoration, a character and sense of place all of their own. The town has survived the worst aspects of industrialisation and can now surprise and perhaps delight those of us who might previously have poured scorn on it. Some future Pevsner guide might now take a walk around the housing estates as well as documenting architecture in a narrow sense – although, I hasten to add, there is nothing wrong with pevsnerisation old-style!
Flint is unlikely ever to recover its reputation as a seaside resort, but that is not the point. in any case Flint: Understanding Urban Character is not intended as some form of holiday brochure. It is aimed at a more local audience and its decision makers, drawing attention to the individuality of the town and helping planners to appreciate what is already there before they embark on regeneration. Above all, it suggests that local citizens have a town of which they can be rightly proud.
The Dolgellau and Flint studies are two examples of a new departure for Cadw. No longer can the organisation be said to be only responsible for archaeological sites and historic monuments, important work though that will continue to be, it has also taken on board what is now known, infelicitously I think, as urban characterisation. Studies of the character of Aberdare, Caernarfon Waterfront and Denbigh, masterminded by Judith Althey, have now joined those on Dolgellau and Flint. Many more studies must surely follow. Equivalent studies in England have been under way for some time, following a lead taken by Brighton and Hove City Council.
It is fair to say that the words ‘urban characterisation’ are not yet on many people’s lips. My hunch is that, if they have been considered at all outside the towns so far studied, the discussion has been confined to local authority planning and conservation departments. To a limited extent this is fair enough since that is where the lessons of these reports must be applied, if regeneration and new building schemes are to be sensitive to history, tradition and existing building materials.
Yet, as Matthew Griffiths, chief executive of the Civic Trust for Wales, asked rhetorically at a meeting in Welshpool Town Hall recently, “Whose Town is it anyway?” The Trust had called together civic societies from across north and mid Wales for an evening devoted to introducing the concept of ‘urban characterisation’ to a wider audience. By the end of the evening it became clear that the whole point of urban characterisation would be lost if it became just another professional expertise.
We were in Powys, so, much attention was paid to one of its major settlements, Newtown. There are rich pickings of urban character to be had in this place which has been a new town twice over. ‘Old’ Newtown, represented on the night by Commercial Road, was characterised by its many three storey buildings and by the local brick, render and, often embellished painted stone with which it was constructed in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Its doors and door cases were notable, and its economy was highly dependent on corner shops.
Those who planned ‘new’ Newtown, the post-World War II development (of which Sycamore Drive was scrutinised as a particular example), were able to take advantage of the spectacular shape of the Severn Valley, building individual houses and terraces from which it was possible to see the town centre, making for a remarkably coherent sense of place. In addition they were able to vary the elevations of the new houses in ways which echoed previous Newtown practice, an object lesson for future planners.
It soon became obvious that non-professionals who had no previous knowledge of Newtown, or any architectural or historical qualification, were more adept at looking at the unique features of a town than they have previously been given credit. Granted, most of the participants came from civic societies who, it may be presumed, have some practice in looking critically at buildings and public spaces. They may now be inspired to walk beyond the town centre, noticing those features of suburbs and housing estates which make their own, hitherto unnoticed, contribution to the distinctiveness of a locality. Many of them have hitherto confined their attention to individual buildings considered to be under threat. The arrival of urban characterisation might induce them to look at whole neighbourhoods more widely.
Many civic societies and other interested groups may have to wait several years if not decades for the Cadw urban characterisation train to arrive in their town. Meanwhile, there is room for local people to take a fresh look at their territory, inspired by what has already been achieved in Aberdare and the other settlements so far covered by Cadw’s exercise.
In planning the Welshpool evening, Matthew Griffiths, made an inspired connection between urban characterisation and the People’s Collection, the newly launched website dedicated to telling the social history of Wales through the eyes of its people. It features artefacts, images, and texts, but also, potentially street-by-street documentation of towns throughout Wales, conveying to a much wider audience the very lessons which urban characterisation is beginning to teach us. The appearance of Rheinallt Ffoster-Jones from the People’s Collection on the same platform as Judith Althey suggested what ought to be a most fruitful meeting of disciplines, as well as a means of extending the participation of citizens in what has so far been a mostly professional exercise.
That, in the end, is the point. Urban characterisation is not just some kind of hobby for those interested in architecture or history. It has political significance. The more people recognise that the place where they live has a distinctive sense of place, and the more they take part in its documentation, the more civic pride is thereby engendered. The more, too, they may be inspired to take an active part in its politics which, they may find, is much more interesting than they thought!