How red tape stands in the way of preserving the heritage of Wales’ historic mills
Anyone wanting to get a sense of the magnitude of the industrial revolution in Wales should visit Tanygrisiau near Blaenau Ffestiniog, in Gwynedd.
On a hike up the side of a mountain range here, the industry’s effect is in plain sight, machinery lays in abandon throughout a landscape favoured by hardy plants such as gorse, and up a sheer staircase fashioned from slate, rows of worker’s stone dwellings lie in ruin.
Climbing and exploring these peaks is both equally fascinating and unnerving, feeling almost apocalyptic, as if the workers one day just stopped coming.
Dafydd Walters has lived in Tanygrisiau his whole life and about 30 years ago he bought Moelwyn Mill, an early eighteenth-century water-driven fulling mill, one of two known fulling mills in Wales to survive with its machinery intact.
The mill is a two-storey building, with a slate roof, flagged on the south side by a large overshot water wheel. When Dafydd initially bought the mill, he had so many plans- however, these have been stalled at every turn.
Dafydd said: “I wanted to turn the mill into a museum, but just couldn’t get the planning permission. There are no grants and the lottery just won’t entertain the idea. The council has also failed.
“Initially I was planning on bringing my sheep down and shearing them for schools, as well as showcasing the museum. There are thousands of artefacts in the mill. They want Blaenau to be a tourist destination, it’s really disappointing.”
The area in which Blaenau Ffestiniog sits, the Slate Landscape of northwest Wales, recently won Unesco Heritage status, representing an exceptional example of an industrial landscape which was shaped by the quarrying, mining and transportation of slate from 1780 to around 1940.
This was a time when the region produced around a third of the world’s output for roofing slates and slabs. There are parts of this landscape that have lain very much untouched since this time.
Around the closure of the mines, many workers moved to find work elsewhere, some of which were hired in America, to pass on their innovative and adaptive technologies such as waterpower.
Standing on top of one of the momentous ranges and taking in the view, the contrast between the visual impact of that proud industrial heritage on the landscape and the helplessness of not being able to get one water wheel turning again was rather stark.
Down in the south west of Wales the situation was similar. Here, one of Wales’ best-known mills, Melin Tregwynt has faced similar red-tape issues in their pursuit to utilise the water wheel again in a bid to become a more sustainable business.
The water wheel initially powered the mill with the help of the stream, Glethe Goch and has recently been restored. However red tape from Natural Resources Wales has meant that it remains unused.
This was noticeable when I travelled down to Melin Tregwynt and followed the stream across its land, listening to the trickle and gush of water as it travelled over rocks, animating the landscape around it. However, when I visited the water wheel it stood stock still, seeming all the more immobile in contrast to the fluidity of the water in the stream I had just followed.
Owner Amanda Griffiths said: “We want to be more sustainable and have solar power on site, as well as a plan to use the water wheel again. We did restore this, but getting permission from Natural Resource Wales to use it, is very costly and time-consuming so we have to put this development on hold for now.
“Obviously we have used it before – it seems sad that despite it being used for 100 years there are no ancestral rights to enable us to start harnessing the water power again.”
The immobile water wheel seems a particularly compelling metaphor in the conversation around fusing Wales’ heritage with sustainability. Amanda explains that pragmatically the water wheel was the next logical step in their regenerative and sustainability journey. However planning permission from Natural Resource Wales has been difficult to navigate, requiring expert advice and significant extra costs.
Ashley Lansdown, National Resource Wales Water Resources Permitting Team Leader said: “The current high cost of electricity means that there is increased interest in generating electricity at home and historical water mills provide one such opportunity.
“Owners thinking about restoring a mill and developing a hydropower scheme should be aware that they may need to apply for an abstraction or transfer licence from NRW to allow water to be taken from a river for power generation. The activity might also require an impoundment licence.
“Some mill sites may appear to have a historical right to abstract water but current primary legislation (including the Water Resources Act 1991 and Water Act 2003) is likely to supersede this.
“We recommend that anyone wishing to secure protected rights to legally abstract water for their mill leat/race seek professional advice or submit a pre-application enquiry to us to clarify permitting requirements as Melin Tregwynt has done.”
While it is understandable that Natural Resource Wales have processes in place to protect nature conservation, protected species, their habitats and any changes to the river flows, policy must also take into account ancestral and heritage links and advances in sustainability.
Sustainability is a key driver for both of these mills, one sustaining heritage, the other sustaining the environment, both equally important. Culture and heritage are thematic in the conversation around mills and require preservation and agency to ensure they are protected moving forward or face losing age-old innovation and artefacts forever.
It is pertinent to mention that Scotland is being far more proactive in its journey to conserve heritage and sustainability. In 2009, Knockando Woollen Mill in the Spey Valley in Scotland received a grant of £1.3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to conserve it as a centre for training as well as a tourist attraction and sustainable working mill. Today this stands proud as a way of retaining its longstanding heritage.
Glasgow City Council has also set aside £250,000 for repairs to some of the city’s heritage buildings and with 130 listed properties in Glasgow on the Building’s Risk Register, this fund will go towards preserving and enhancing the city’s heritage. Since its inception, Glasgow’s City Heritage Trust, which is an independent charity, has invested £14.6m, which has gone a long way in boosting heritage, education and skills training.
The juxtaposition between what Scotland is doing and what is happening in Wales feels at odds. While Wales also has a heritage fund, SMEs and individuals have shared that the hoops they have to jump through to give back to their communities are off-putting.
If we are to take a stance on preserving Welsh heritage, there has to be an easier way through for those wanting to make a difference in their communities.
Back in Tan-y-grisiau, a buzzard catches my eye, circling its prey softly. Without a sound it swoops down touching the ground, at one with its environment. I steady myself against a stone wall – years old, hand-laid, stone-by-stone. My mind takes me back to Dafydd, someone the community should be proud of.
Dafydd’s museum in Tanygrisiau has the ability to attract many visitors, particularly now the area has won Unesco status. Melin Tregwynt currently employs 42 local people in their mill alone, and Dafydd’s vision has the ability to do the same in an area that genuinely needs it.
Dafydd said: “Tanygrisiau is a special place, steeped in history. To commemorate five very important men in Welsh history I have placed slate plaques throughout the village.
“In the 1900’s Tanygrisiau children’s choir were world-renowned – this needs to be remembered.”
This place in Wales is steeped in history. I have seen the plaques in the village, felt the love and loss of what was being lost – the language, the younger generations leaving to find work elsewhere. I heard it in Dafydd’s voice, and witnessed it in the landscape.
These individuals and businesses are speaking up for their communities, and flying a flag for heritage preservation for all of Wales. The question is what will the government do to help them make it happen?
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