Opening a door to our heritage

Derek Jones applauds an initiative celebrating Wales’ contemporary and historical architecture

If, culturally, August in Wales means the National Eisteddfod, September seems to be increasingly recognised as the month of Open Doors. This year some 300 buildings will be opening their doors, free, all over Wales. In all 500 events are taking place. Last year some 90,000 people visited one venue or another.

The Civic Trust for Wales estimates that, at £10 per visitor, the Welsh economy will benefit to the tune of £900,000 over four weeks. Not bad for an institution which is a mere 17 years old in comparison with the Eisteddfod, founded in 1861.

Of course the Eisteddfod and Open Doors are not really comparable. The Eisteddfod is a national event, spread over a week, which takes place once a year in different parts of Wales. In contrast, the focus of Open Doors is local. However, it is linked with similar events, across the rest of the UK and Europe, held under the auspices of the Council of Europe. The Eisteddfod is a celebration of language, music and poetry, while Open Doors is a festival of architecture, historic and contemporary.

Wales is not short of historic architecture worth celebrating: castles, cathedrals, churches and synagogues, stately homes, town houses, workers’ cottages, handsome seaside promenades, former lead mines, iron and steel works, and building along our canals. All of them are well represented in this year’s Open Doors. Modern architecture, the heritage of the future, is naturally less in evidence. However, good examples include the Senedd building and Ruthin’s Craft Centre.

People may walk past some of these buildings every day and never see beyond the front door. Most places opening their doors for a weekend offer guided tours by competent experts, and some extend the experience with walking tours (a modern equivalent to beating the bounds) and formal lectures.

Opening doors satisfies curiosity. More importantly, it enriches a sense of place. Multiplied across Wales, Open Doors makes a significant contribution to national identity. Future developments might include twinning arrangements between places in different parts of Wales so that experience can be shared and the unity of north, mid and south Wales enhanced.

There is a tendency to judge Open Doors merely on the number of buildings opened up, activities planned, or on the number of participants. What about the quality of the presentations and tours? After 17 years, some serious evaluation of these questions would be appropriate. Year by year the number of institutions, local authorities and voluntary organisations taking part increases, but there are some notable absences. For instance, outside Brecon, there is not much going on in mid Wales, while Flintshire, Carmarthenshire, and even the Vale of Glamorgan look a bit thin. Some concerted fieldwork may be required in both areas.

At the same time the increasing participation of national institutions should be chalked up. As is to be expected, Cadw plays a big part, with, for example, Neath Abbey and Rhuddlan Castle making their debuts this year. Swansea Castle, now restored by Cadw and its partners, will be open for the first time in 40 years. In Cardiff not only the Senedd building, but also the Cardiff Story and BBC Wales studios will be open for inspection.

Denbighshire rarely comes top of the Welsh ratings, yet the Civic Trust for Wales, which coordinates Open Doors, reckons that the county has developed an ideal partnership between voluntary organisations and county and town councils. A most attractive bilingual illustrated brochure has been published covering events in Bodelwyddan, Denbigh, Llangollen, Rhuddlan, Ruthin and St Asaph. Denbigh, Llangollen and Ruthin have dedicated weekends during the month, featuring at Ruthin, for example buildings, walking tours – Slow Walks round Ruthin – and baking, pate manufacture and book binding demonstrations.

Former Culture Minister Alun Ffred Jones will give a lecture in Ruthin during their weekend (on 23 September), Stories on our Streets: The relevance of heritage in the development of a small market town in north Wales. This is obviously appropriate as Ruthin, like many other towns across Wales, has an increasing number of empty shops and pubs. The  potential of the Heritage Industry (not a particularly happy phrase) for job creation also needs exploration. Similar discussions need to be raised for city centres and suburban communities.

The Civic Trust for Wales made an inspired move some years ago when it decided to ditch the clumsily named ‘European Heritage Days’ in favour of Open Doors, which has all the right resonance, belonging with such other metaphors as Open House, Open Minds, Open Books, and, not least, the Open Society. It’s an optimistic name, but, so far at least, Wales has lived up to it.

Derek Jones is a freelance writer, formerly chair of Ruthin Civic Society and a board member of the Civic Trust for Wales.

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