Simon Gwyn Roberts reflects on how Welsh identity looks and feels different in different parts of Wales and argues that in Anglo-Welsh border areas we might do well to celebrate cultural diversity at a micro scale, where it becomes about locality and what makes that locality distinctive.
In the sprawling suburban developments that have increasingly spread across the Welsh border from the Hollyoaks glitz of Chester in recent years, two trends have become noticeable. One is that the housing estates always revolve around the excellence of the transport links, particularly their proximity to major dual carriageways like the A55 that allow residents to access adjacent towns and cities in north west England; the second is that the naming strategies for these developments seem wilful and deliberate attempts to disregard all traces of the locality in which they have been built.
There are, for example, two huge new housing developments currently under construction in eastern Flintshire, which is now essentially a suburb of Chester. One rejoices in the name ‘Jasmine Park’ (or ‘Parc Jasmin’, if you prefer), while another is called ‘Heathlands’. There are, of course, no heaths in north Wales (try Devon or Dorset), and there is certainly no native jasmine (in Europe, let alone Flintshire – it is native to tropical and subtropical regions in Asia, Africa and Australasia).
It is easy to mock, and it is a common observation that housing developments frequently have inappropriate and pretentious names, but there is a serious point here. If we lose all references to locality and sense of place, we lose an obvious but important connection to the area in which we live. Many of the housing developments that have proliferated along the north east Wales border in recent years have turned those areas into dormitory communities, tasked largely with providing affordable accommodation for employees commuting daily into nearby English towns like Ellesmere Port and Warrington. In other words, they are already divorced from their immediate community and environment: the naming strategy seems likely to contribute to further estrangement with obvious implications for civic engagement.
It is, presumably, a practice driven by commercial imperatives. I am no expert, but would imagine that it is easier to sell a house called the ‘Hanbury’ than it is to sell a house called ‘Tŷ Mawr’, particularly when the location is sold largely on its proximity to Chester. But the complete lack of local references is more puzzling. Even if the Welsh language is removed entirely from the equation (this is, after all, a border area with low numbers of Welsh speakers) why can’t the developments make a nod to the area they find themselves in? Even villages just across the border in Cheshire would be preferable, and if there is an insistence on the English pastoral that seems to be de rigueur, there is an abundance of rustic quaintness to choose from just a few miles away: Dodleston, Bunbury, Cuddington, Tattenhall.
In recent years, a considerable amount of political and academic attention has been paid to the idea of placemaking: transforming uninspiring spaces into something more dynamic and human. The notion of ‘liveable’ cities like Copenhagen and Amsterdam, with their cycle lanes and green spaces, is a familiar part of political debate across Europe. The sense of community which this more enlightened approach can nourish has also been explored in the architectural sense by Kenneth Frampton’s concept of critical regionalism.
Frampton argues for buildings that acknowledge the geographical and cultural context in which they find themselves. Remarkably, this idea, that houses should ‘reflect local character’ is supposedly enshrined in national and local planning legislation. However, there seems little evidence of this in the badlands of the Anglo-Welsh Flintshire border (presumably a vernacular style of architecture, using local stone and traditional designs, would be less profitable than the standard Barrett boxes). But at least the naming strategies for these developments could acknowledge a small part of this debate by reflecting the cultural and geographical context in which the developments are being built. When global crises are so obvious, argues Reichert Powell in his recent book about the ways in which Appalachia is mediated by US political culture, critical regionalism can be a way of reconnecting and reasserting what the relationships among places should be.
The related concept of bioregionalism takes this a step further, with its celebration of ‘the particular, the unique and often indescribable features of a place’. That celebration may revolve around the arts, music and drama, but also the symbols and names which convey the feeling of place.
The importance of preserving and cherishing diversity is an integral part of post-devolution Welsh debate, familiar to all Welsh citizens for obvious and critically important reasons; but in these Anglo-Welsh border areas those big debates about Welsh language and identity are not necessarily the most urgent or relevant ones. Indeed, the notion of critical regionalism might be expanded into a more general celebration of cultural diversity on a micro scale, where it becomes about locality and what makes that locality distinctive. In Flintshire’s case, that might mean a celebration of ambiguity, of hybridity and a defining border identity: in the same way that Berwick upon Tweed celebrates its unique status and identity as a town that is neither fully English nor Scottish.
Emphasising difference on a micro scale might place a renewed emphasis on the regional, the diverse, the plural and the distinctive that is not introspective but offers the possibility of simultaneously reinventing and rearticulating international and local cultures and identities. Indeed, Jeremy Rifkin suggests that it may even represent a way out of what he calls the hypercapitalist conundrum where life experience itself is now commoditised: arguing that social movements, campaigning for cultural diversity, underscore the local and the historical and cannot be appropriated for profit. Here is one such campaign: if we want to ‘underscore the local and the historical’, as Rifkin urges, what better (and easier) place to start than a campaign to re-emphasise the regionally distinctive in these new housing developments?
For Rifkin, the stakes are high: If we lose the sense of place, the sense of being, we lose something irreplaceable and vital to us all as a species. His prognosis is that geography counts, and culture matters: ‘If you lose the rich cultural diversity of thousands of years, it’s as final and devastating as losing biodiversity’.
Back to those housing estate names. The trend for these ludicrous naming strategies, perhaps unsurprisingly, appears to be derived from the US – where such namings are even more common than they are here. Real examples include: Grove Park Circle (none of those), Ashford Crossing (no ash trees, no ashes, no ford, no crossing), Heather Hill (no heather, no hill).
But, if we take native American heritage out of the equation for a moment, at least the US can perhaps be excused for this in the wide open spaces of Arizona or Nevada. Here, there are real places and real histories beneath the bricks. Apart from Jasmine Park and Heathlands, consider the following recent Flintshire housing developments: ‘The Greyfriars’, The ‘Hanbury’, ‘The Cherryburn’, ‘The Roseberry’, ‘The Hatfield’ and the ‘Rufford Semi’ – all at Bennetts Row, Oakenholt, near Flint. ‘Archford’, ‘Milford’, ‘Cornell’ and ‘Cadleigh’ at Cheriton Close, Wepre, near Connah’s Quay. ‘The Cambridge’ and ‘The Harrogate’ at Gladstone Leigh, Hawarden. The Groves, a new development near Penyffordd. ‘Heritage Park’ in nearby Penymynydd (where you can select from the following properties: Chesham, Ashford, Lincoln, Mellor, Carlton, Warminster). Returning to Jasmine Park, the Tattershall, the Bredon and the Eastbury are all still available should you wish to relocate within earshot of the A55 and a particularly large branch of Tesco.
The highest-profile example of the trend has nothing to do with selling houses, or the desire to tap into the glitz of Cheshire. Instead, it’s the name of a new shopping development in Wrexham. Eagle’s Meadow must take the prize for the most misguided name of all: it is not a meadow, and there are no eagles there. Even if eagles were native to Flintshire, they would not hang out in a meadow.
With the exception of the unfathomable Eagle’s Meadow, these names seem designed to project a theme-park fantasy of pastoral Southern England. It seems utterly bizarre to export this to north east Wales. Market research must suggest that this is what sells, but I remain unconvinced. You wouldn’t get away with it in Caernarfon, thank God, or Brynamman for that matter: yet Flintshire has its own history and its own distinctive sense of identity, albeit not as obvious or easily identifiable. I come away with the uneasy feeling that planning guidance prioritising localism is selectively applied, and that Flintshire is perhaps considered less culturally sensitive than other parts of Wales (and perhaps Northern England too).
One can only imagine what housing developers along the Flintshire-Cheshire border might like to do to make the inconveniently named border town of ‘Penymynydd’ a tad more commercially attractive: the day it changes to ‘Hillcrest’, I am moving to Caernarfon.