Nationally funded institutions like the British Museum, often take the line that they are helping other countries protect their heritage, by “looking after” items such as the Parthenon Marbles. It seems though, that often, less attention is given to maintaining the UK’s heritage than should be. I’ve commented before on the failure to build any sort of suitable building for the Stone Henge visitor centre , despite commenting on the Greeks lack of a proper Acropolis Museum in the past – but there are many other similar cases across the country.
If Britain fails to protect its heritage we’ll have nothing left but ghosts
The Welsh mining settlement of Dylife once thrived but now it lies forgotten, like so much of our industrial past
Simon Jenkins Thursday 1 September 2011 20.29 BST
Fling off the cares of the world this autumn and climb up from the tidy mid-Welsh town of Llanidloes, north over the mountain road towards Machynlleth. Near a wild summit you enter a moonscape of old mineral workings and slag heaps. Here metals were mined in Roman times, and here the Victorians erected reputedly the largest wheel in Britain, the Martha pump, to serve what by the 1860s was the most productive lead mine in Wales’s “wild west”.
At the time the settlement of Dylife boasted three places of worship, three inns, a school and a thousand inhabitants. Then, in the 1880s, prices fell and the ore lodes were exhausted. Between the wars the place emptied and the buildings collapsed or were demolished. Today only ghosts flit the high mountain air. A lonely inn remains, the Star, amid a community of sheep.
Dylife laughs to scorn the idea of overcrowded Britain. It has returned to mother nature, its scarred hillsides dribbling streams from drowned pits and shafts. Over the surrounding moors, a more intrusive industry is marching past, the first of the 800 wind turbines sought by Wales’s new leader, Carwyn Jones, to turn the Cambrian Mountains – still unprotected by national park status – into an industrial landscape the size of Glamorgan, festooned with turbines and lines of pylons down the Severn and Wye valleys. Jones should go down in history as the great desecrater of rural Wales – all just to win English subsidies to a handful of rich farmers.
Dylife has had few obituaries. David Bick wrote about it in 1975 and I recently discovered a local account by Michael Brown, a Hereford tree surgeon adept at abseiling down mine shafts and disinterring old iron. His study appeared in 2005 and is a remarkable excavation, in every sense of the word. These amateur archaeologists are the unsung heroes of disappearing Britain, inquiring where scholars fear to tread, summoning to life a vanished past that escaped notice and thus official protection.
Since the 17th century Wales’s rural economy was richly supplemented with mineral extraction. By the Victorian age, not just coal and slate but iron, lead, copper, zinc and even gold were keeping Wales prosperous at a time when Ireland and Scotland were experiencing famine, clearance and depopulation. Obvious memorials are the miners’ chapels still scattered across the uplands, long after the communities they served have gone. A more vigorous survival was Welsh middle-class life, and with it the Welsh language itself.
The Dylife mine was sufficiently celebrated (and profitable) to attract the attention of such radicals as Richard Cobden and John Bright, who in 1858 put together a consortium to buy it outright for £24,000. Output peaked in the 1860s, but then declined in the face of foreign competition and a fall in the price of lead. Production limped on into the 1920s. There was reputedly a large barbed-wire dump on the site during the second world war, to string across mid-Wales to stop a German invasion inland from Cardigan Bay. Any Wehrmacht officer who chose this route to glory would have deserved more than an Iron Cross.
When I first wandered these lonely acres as a boy, Dylife’s church, big house, sheds and workings were still partly standing. They were certainly capable of restoration. Already Coalbrookdale in Shropshire was proving that industrial archaeology could be a popular draw, with the founding of the Ironbridge Gorge museum. I envisaged a similar future for Dylife.
At the time I was campaigning for another ghost settlement, the slate quarry of Bryneglwys in the shadow of Cader Idris in Snowdonia. The site was served by the narrow-gauge Tal-y-llyn railway. The old quarry had been in use until 1946, its first-grade slates used to roof the Houses of Parliament. A smaller settlement than Dylife survived on terraces and levels along the hillside, with the quarry town of Abergynolwyn in the valley below. Apples grew in the orchard of the manager’s house. Tally books lay abandoned on office shelves and the dressing sheds were stacked with uncut slates. There were overnight barracks and even a shed called the Savoy Cafe. To an adventurous boy, the place was magic.
In 1977 the Forestry Commission arrived at Bryneglwys. The devastation then wrought by this dreadful body has yet to see a “truth and reconciliation” commission. It bulldozed Bryneglwys to the ground. It surrounded the site with barbed wire and pattern-bombed it with conifer saplings. They marched down the old high street, respecting no contour. The commission refused requests to spare even a fragment of the old place in an orgy of obliteration. Streams were acidified and became spate torrents. Fish vanished. A diverse mountain ecology was destroyed. Conifers rose even through the manager’s parlour, Wales denied even its Angkor Wat.
Attempts are now being made to make amends. There are signs pointing to the site of Bryneglwys for tourists pouring up the Tal-y-llyn railway line, now scene of the August race-the-train marathon. There are occasional guided tours. But there is no way these ghosts can come back to life. We attack multinationals for doing such things abroad. We ignore the beams in our own eye.
The failure to guard the relics of Britain’s status as cradle of the industrial revolution was a cultural scandal of the past generation. The value now attached to Coalbrookdale, Saltaire and Liverpool docks makes the loss of other sites the more piteous. The great iron foundries of Dowlais are no more. Tower Hamlets council demolished London docks in Wapping, to clear the site for Rupert Murdoch’s printing works. A desperate effort is needed to save some of the great Lancashire and Yorkshire cloth mills for posterity. These were not just fine buildings but emblems of Britain’s technological and trading sophistication, as the British Museum and the Royal Albert Hall are of its cultural prowess.
One of Dylife’s pits is guarded as an ancient monument. With Brown’s book in hand and a good map, it is possible to walk the terrain and enjoy the mountain air, though the site is at present near meaningless to any but the most expert and intrepid. I am sure the old workings could be restored and reinterpreted, and the layout of the former settlement indicated to visitors. Unlike Bryneglwys, Dylife is not beyond recall.
The Victorians restored Britain’s medieval churches and castles, to honour the nation’s former religious and military greatness. They showed a confidence both in the past and in the contribution an awareness of it might make in the future. The Americans have done likewise with the derelict gold and silver mines of “wild west” Colorado, much to the delight of the tourist industry. There is no reason for Britain to neglect similar relics of its past.
If England’s taxpayers are to desecrate mid-Wales’s horizons with turbines, for a paltry gain in energy, at least some of the money should be diverted to respecting its industrial landscape. Otherwise we shall be reduced to imposing preservation orders on ghosts.