Saving landmarks and ancient traditions

On 28 November 2022, The Times carried an intriguing headline, claiming that ‘A new Grade III listing for buildings would green cities’. It appeared above an article by Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action at the Institution of Structural Engineers, which is proving to be a powerful ally of the heritage sector in arguing for ‘extracting the most from existing structures through retrofit, refurbishment, and rehabilitation’.

Arnold argues that, in response to the 21st century’s greatest threat – climate breakdown – it is time to refresh the Town and Country Planning Act to make the reuse of existing buildings the default option, rather than demolition and replacement. Apparently 50,000 buildings are demolished every year in the UK, and the cement that goes into the construction of their replacements is responsible for around 3% of CO2 emissions annually, either from the gas emitted from limestone as it is calcined to create lime, or from the energy used to heat the kilns in which the lime is baked with clay to produce Ordinary Portland Cement, the material used in just about every new building around the globe.

Demolishing serviceable buildings is equivalent, Arnold argues, to the ‘single-use disposable cup’ mentality that is becoming unacceptable in many spheres of life. The law should change to ensure that a property may only be demolished if it is structurally unsafe. The greenest building is the one that already exists, as many architects now like to say.


Arnold’s unambiguous statement comes at a time when SAVE Britain’s Heritage is trying to persuade Marks & Spencer not to demolish the company’s flagship store and head office near Marble Arch. A public enquiry into the controversial proposal ended in November 2022, and the Planning Inspector’s findings are likely to be published within four months.

Scarcely was SAVE out of that enquiry than it was back in the High Court seeking a judicial review of a decision by Herefordshire County Council to allow the demolition of an unlisted Victorian school in the village of Garway. The demolition is opposed by members of the local community, who do not want to lose one of the last remaining historic buildings in the village: a neo-Gothic structure designed by local architect E H Lingen Barker and completed in 1877. Historic England has rejected an application to list the building, but has confirmed that it is of high local historic and architectural interest.

Meanwhile, back in London, the Angel Association is fighting plans for the partial demolition of the post-modern block that stands above Angel tube station on the junction of Islington High Street and City Road. The Association has branded the replacement plans as ‘dull, bland, and anonymous’, and has questioned the need for more office space when London is suffering from an oversupply.

The developers state that the new building would be ‘reimagined as a piece of exemplar architectural and sustainable design so as to contribute to a much-improved sense of “gateway” to Angel, Islington’, and that ‘the existing building is c.30 years since initial occupation, with many elements reaching or surpassing their original design life’. As well as being grammatically challenged, the developer’s statement shows just how far the Institution of Structural Engineers still has to go to win the hearts and minds of those they work for.

Whither the Museum of London?

Another prominent London landmark is facing an uncertain future, as the Museum of London (MoL) closes its doors ahead of a planned move to the former Smithfield General Market (see CA 391; quite why they have to close when the new museum will not open until 2026 is a mystery). SAVE Britain’s Heritage campaigned successfully to prevent the Smithfield buildings from being replaced by anonymous tower blocks in 2014, but it might now have to fight to save the original MoL building, designed by Powell & Moya and completed in 1976. The City of London wants to build a new office complex on the vacated museum site, but others see this as a test of the City’s climate-change policies.

right The original Museum of London building closed its doors for the final time in December 2022.
The original Museum of London building closed its doors for the final time in December 2022. IMAGE: Ethan Doyle White

Previously the site had been earmarked as a state-of-the-art home for the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), but funding for the £288m project was not forthcoming and the LSO’s music director, Sir Simon Rattle, perhaps sensing that the project was doomed, has now moved to a new post in Munich with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. The new development does not lack supporters, though: the New York practice Diller Scofidio + Renfro – renowned for their work on New York’s High Line, a linear park created from an elevated railway – have contributed to the design, which creates a new approach to the Barbican complex, with a raised green piazza and three tower blocks distinguished by plant-filled balconies. Perhaps the clinching argument is that the City needs the money from the office rental to fund the new museum.

This way to Llandegley International Airport

When I first started work in Wales in 2015, I was amused to see a prominent sign along the road from Rhayader to Radnor giving directions to Llandegley International Airport. Since Llandegley is a hamlet of 339 souls, the idea of an international airport in the mid-Wales countryside is patently absurd, so I concluded that this must be a witty protest about the number of propeller-bladed wind turbines marching across the hills of Powys.

Then, in November, Llandegley International hit the headlines: it turns out that the fake airport sign had nothing to do with windfarms and everything to do with one man’s sense of humour. Nicholas Whitehead, former editor of the Brecon and Radnor Express, says he put it there ‘to make people wonder and to bring a smile to their faces’, but after spending £25,000 on renting the advertising space from Wrexham Signs for the last 20 years, he has now decided to call it a day.

As well as sparking any number of rumours (for example, that the airport was really a secret fracking facility), the sign has its own Wikipedia page and a dedicated social media following. A local farmer says that he has ‘no end of people’ knocking on his door asking for directions, and one woman who recently moved to the area says she and her children spent hours searching in vain for an airport that has impeccable environmental credentials.

The sign is not listed (yet), but my own organisation (the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales) has made a photographic record of the sign, and it has an entry on Coflein, the National Monuments Record of Wales database. Enjoying such renown, it was hardly likely that such a national treasure would be allowed to disappear. In a just world, it would have been awarded the Turner Prize, and then the £25,000 prize money could have been used to conserve the sign. Instead, a crowdfunding campaign was launched that quickly raised £8,000 for a permanent replacement.

right Nicholas Whitehead’s sign directing would-be travellers to the fictional Llandegley International Airport.
Nicholas Whitehead’s sign directing would-be travellers to the fictional Llandegley International Airport. IMAGE: Chris Whitehouse CC BY-SA 2.0

The Feast of St Brigid

While those of us in the UK will get an extra one-off bank holiday in May for the coronation of Charles III, the good people of Ireland are benefiting from a new permanent bank holiday from 2023. The new bank holiday on 6 February has nothing whatsoever to do with fashionable good causes: instead, it will mark the Celtic feast of Imbolc, the beginning of spring and the Celtic New Year, marking the halfway point between the winter solstice and the equinox. It will also honour Brigid, the pre-Christian goddess of wisdom, poetry, and healing, as well as St Brigid (possibly a Christianised version of the deity) whose feast day occurs on 1 February. There is an astonishing amount of information about Brigid on the internet, all of which is speculative, since almost nothing is known about her, other than that the name might have Indo-European origins relating to sunlight, flame, and vigour – a female lifeforce, bringer of spring warmth and new growth well worth celebrating.

Sherds considers that there is something heartwarming about this recognition of very ancient traditions, but surely it does not go far enough. Why not mark the start of the other calendric festivals and their associated deities with holidays? Summer at the start of May, the solstice on 21 June, autumn at the start of August, winter at the start of November, and the winter solstice on 21 December. Time to bring back bonfires, dancing at dawn, May Day frolics, and the dressing of rivers, springs, and wells.