Preserving heritage at risk

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

Heritage at risk

The Ffestiniog Railway, the Flying Scotsman, the Bluebell Line, and 150 or so others contribute £600m a year to the UK economy and employ 4,000 people. Heritage rail is vital for the tourism economy of such towns and villages as Porthmadog, Goathland, and Buckfastleigh, whose railways attract film crews as well as thousands of visitors. But they all consume high-quality steam coal, and the Heritage Railway Association (HRA) is worried that the UK will run out of its reserves before 2025 – the anniversary of the world’s first public steam railway service, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Shipping coal from South Africa, Australia, Colombia, and the USA results in five times more CO2 emissions than domestically mined coal. But there is almost no domestic production anymore. Ffos-Y-Fran, near Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, is the only large-scale mine in the UK producing coal of the required quality, but its permission to mine expired in September 2022. Controversially, the mine’s owners have ignored the closure notice and are appealing against it to Welsh ministers.

Heritage railways use around 30,000 tonnes of coal a year, equivalent to the amount a coal-fired power station (all now closed) would have used in a week. Alternative fuels for heritage steam locomotives are being researched and developed, but at present none can completely replace the need for coal.

HRA Chief Executive Steve Oates argues that overall CO2 emissions will rise if steam coal has to be imported. Referring to the Talyllyn Railway, formed in 1950 as the world’s first heritage railway, he told the press that, ‘Wales was the birthplace of railway preservation and helps people the world over appreciate stunning scenery without dependency upon the private car – let’s hope the Welsh Government will now look sensibly at the controlled extraction of high-quality UK steam coal specifically for responsible, low-volume users like heritage rail.’

Talyllyn Railway, formed in 1950, is the world’s oldest heritage railway. With almost no domestic coal production anymore, this and other heritage railways may have to use imported coal, which will result in more CO2 emissions; the same applies to traction engines. Image: Peter Trimming (CC BY-SA 2.0)

More YHA hostels to close

Sherds is willing to bet that several CA readers treasure ancient Youth Hostels Association (YHA) membership cards – souvenirs of youthful hikes around the Lake District, Eryri National Park, or the North Yorkshire Moors. Fifty years ago, the red triangles on the OS map denoting a YHA hostel were spaced at intervals of 12 to 17 miles (a comfortable day’s hike), allowing many a holiday to be spent walking from one to the next. Membership reached a peak of 250,000 in the 1950s, with more than 300 hostels in England and Wales. Today there are just 150 left, many of them spaced so far apart that you would have to use a car to get to them, breaking what was once a fundamental rule of hostelling (waived in the 1960s): that, to stay in one, you had to travel on foot or by bike.

The YHA announced in July that it was selling 20 of its remaining hostels and that 30 more were at risk – meaning a potential loss of a third of the surviving estate. Hostels in the Derbyshire plague village of Eyam, Poppit Sands in west Wales, Minehead and Cheddar in Somerset, Kington in Herefordshire, and Haworth in West Yorkshire are all due to close. Efforts to encourage greater usage – smaller rooms, beds with duvets, cooked meals, and bars serving alcohol – have not had the desired impact, but the YHA also cites a huge reduction in overseas visitors (especially school parties) since the UK parted company with the EU.

And the footpaths themselves

Archaeologist and CA contributor Jim Leary has warned in his newly published book, Footmarks (see review on p.50), that footpaths themselves are at risk. He asks us to cherish them for their historic worth, keep them alive by walking them, and work towards better protection. He wants to see an audit of holloways as a first step towards their designation as ancient monuments. Some of them – still in use today for their original purpose – have been shown by archaeologist Martin Bell to date back to the Bronze Age or earlier (CA 367).

Writing in the Guardian (6 July), Jim cites a recent pilot project led by Natural England to scan and map all the holloways in Dorset, and assess their ecological and cultural value. A report was promised into the feasibility of rolling the project out to the rest of England, but none has appeared. That may be because Natural England is itself ‘at risk’. Prospect, the main union representing Natural England staff, reports that grant in aid from the Government has fallen by 49 per cent in six years and almost 66 per cent over a decade. To stay within budget, the agency has capped pay and recruitment and has lost 25 per cent of its staff since 2010. As the global climate and ecological crisis escalates, it seems as if Natural England’s expertise is being eroded just when it is needed most.

Churches and chapels

Places of worship are perhaps Europe’s most endangered form of heritage. In France, President Macron’s former culture minister, Roselyne Bachelot, has angered heritage campaigners by advocating a programme of mass demolition of 19th-century churches so that the limited budget for church conservation might be concentrated on a smaller number of buildings. There are 100,000 places of worship in France, of which 42,300 remain in religious use, and a third of those were built in the 19th century. Critics of Ms Bachelot have denounced her proposal as ‘miserable and defeatist’. President Macron launched a UK-style Heritage Lottery Fund (the Fondation du Patrimoine) in 2017 to raise funding for French monuments.

Across Europe as a whole, redundant churches are in great demand by developers, who have converted them into homes and offices, hotels, shops, wall-climbing clubs, and circus schools. By far the majority, however, have ended up as breweries, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs – nearly always involving the gutting of the interiors and often in contradiction to the values of the church. For example, the Spirito nightclub, located in a deconsecrated church in Brussels, uses a logo of a priest kissing a nun.

The Catholic Church has responded with some thoughts on the reuse of its churches. Vatican guidelines advise against commercial conversion ‘for speculative aims’ in favour of reuse for cultural or social purposes, such as ‘museums, conference halls, bookshops, libraries, archives, art studios, Caritas centres, clinics, and soup kitchens’. Transformation into private homes is also justified in the case of ‘more modest buildings with no architectural value’.

Libraries, Indian restaurants, and brown bars

Converting churches to libraries might be seen as replacing one form of heritage at risk with another. In a debate at the Hay Literary Festival in June, author and former Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman argued that libraries should be ‘ringfenced and protected’ from spending cuts. ‘I lived in my local library as a child,’ she said, adding, ‘libraries being closed and librarians being laid off, it’s such a wrong thing to do. This government’s always talking about social mobility, equalising, making a level playing field between people. Well, one of the things that should be ringfenced and protected, then, is libraries. They saved my life. They are the reason I became a writer.’

Also in decline, according to Jessica Murray, writing in the Guardian, are the UK’s curry houses. Birmingham’s famous Balti Triangle, once home to dozens of competing restaurants, now has only four. The UK currently has about 8,000 Indian restaurants, compared to 12,000 in 2011. Aktar Islam, founder of Michelin-starred Indian restaurant Opheem, suggests this is the fault of the restaurants themselves for failing to evolve. He argues that diners no longer want ‘British curry’, they want provenance and authenticity, and Indian food that ‘is closer to the real thing’.

But even authenticity is no guarantee of survival: campaigners in the Netherlands are lobbying for listed status for the nation’s traditional bruine kroegen, or ‘brown bars’, so-called because of the characteristic tobacco-stained ceiling and walls. Some (like Amsterdam’s Café de Druif, the Grape Café) are more than four centuries old. Nationally, bruine kroeg numbers have fallen from 12,065 in 2007 to 8,260 at the end of 2022. Why? Campaigners blame takeover by big chains, who convert them into juice bars or wine bars, undermining their local community function and their heritage. Spokesman Lian Heinhuis says, ‘I would start by banning whitewash on the walls.’

The Oranjeboom Café in Velp is one of the few bruine kroegen, or ‘brown bars’ still operating in the Netherlands. Image: Arnhem Tom Ordelman (CC BY-SA 3.0)