Tour offers view on preservation

Welsh young planners gained an insight into heritage conservation techniques on a tour of an historic building museum, Wayne Reynolds reports.

As a profession, we often face challenges in how to allow for the adaptation of historic buildings to provide contemporary uses.

However, in the case of Pen-Rhiw Chapel in Wales, which was first opened in 1777, its most recent use presented an intriguing conundrum. How do you manage a building traditionally designed to accommodate a small number of visitors each week in such a way that it can cope with almost 650,000 visitors a year?

The chapel, first thought to have been used as an agricultural barn, is just one of more than 40 historic buildings from across Wales that have been reconstructed in their traditional form at St Fagan's National History Museum, visited recently by a group from Young Planners Cymru. The attraction opened in 1948 and is regarded as one of Europe's most outstanding open air museums, displaying buildings and ancient monuments dating back to the 13th century.

Curator Gerallt Nash and the museum's project manager Janet Wilding introduced the ethos of the park by explaining that a degree of flexibility is required to maintain the vernacular character of the buildings while also allowing for the high number of visitors. For example, suitable flooring materials must be used or underfloor heating installed to reduce the effect of changes in humidity during the day. This both protects the fabric of the buildings and helps to control maintenance costs.

An extensive mix of traditional craftsmanship is required to reconstruct these old buildings and bring them back into useful life. Therefore, the museum operates its own staff training programme to develop and preserve skills. These include pottery, stonemasonry, weaving, woodcraft and even baking - as the young planners were happy to discover when the smell of freshly baked bread emerged from the large wood-fired ovens at the Derwen Bakehouse, originally built in Aberystwyth in 1900.

Suitably refreshed by a selection of cakes, the group continued through the exhibits, taking in traditional farmhouses, watermills and early 19th century commercial premises as well as the magnificent St Fagan's Castle, a late 16th century manor house donated to the museum's collection in 1946 by the Earl of Plymouth.

The tour ended at the recently reconstructed St Teilo Church, which is believed to have been first built during the 13th century and modified to its current form around 1520. During the initial dismantling of the church, a series of wall paintings were uncovered under layers of lime wash. These were dated to the early 16th century. They have since been restored using medieval techniques and the church is now on display to visitors in its pre-Reformation splendour.

The tour concluded as the young planners learned that the museum, in its quest to collect a range of heritage buildings and monuments, is currently seeking a terraced group of shops to help in the growth of the small urban quarter in the park.

Wayne Reynolds is a planning officer in the development control section at Cardiff Council and a licentiate representative on the RTPI general assembly. If you wish to get involved in future Young Planners Cymru events, please email info@youngplannerscymru.org.uk. If anyone is aware of any heritage buildings at risk or if any historic buildings of special architectural or cultural merit appear in danger of being lost, please email Gerallt.Nash@museumwales.ac.uk


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