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Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Future in doubt for our historic sites

HISTORY and heritage is vital to undrstanding who we are and from where we came. With several historic sites falling into disrepair, our heritage is in need of attention. EMMA PRESTON reports

TO stand amid the remains of a 13-century castle, a historic abbey or a disused ironworks factory is not simply a chance to admire an old building. It is to stand amidst history.

When we view these sites, often deteriorated beyond recognition, it can be hard to imagine that they once provided the homes, workplaces and places of worship of our own ancestors.

Here in south Cumbria, we are surrounded by reminders of this past, with hundreds of heritage sites dotted across the region.

Now English Heritage has warned that some of these ancient landmarks are under threat.

Its annual Heritage At Risk Register lists sites that have been earmarked by the government body for attention, because of their vulnerability to deterioration and disrepair.

Andrew Davison, inspector of ancient monuments and English Heritage team leader for Cumbria said: “The register identifies buildings and monuments, registered gardens, basically the whole of the English Heritage authority environment where, perhaps, they don’t have a use, they’re not being looked after, there is no owner or the owner, for whatever, reason can’t look after them.

“It doesn’t mean that they’re about to fall down or become completely derelict, but it does identify that there’s a problem there.”

In south Cumbria, one of the most worrying cases on the list is that of Gleaston Castle.

Built in the 13th century, and rebuilt after suffering serious damage in the 1316 Scottish raids, the castle was abandoned in the late 15th century and quickly fell into disrepair.

However, much of the original medieval building still survives, and the site is now occupied by a farm, with buildings dispersed amongst the ruins.

The deteriorating condition of the ruins has led to public access being withdrawn from the area. But for years, discussions about repairs to the castle came to nothing due to the scale and cost of the work needed.

Gleaston Castle is marked as high priority on the Heritage At Risk Register, with its condition recorded as “very bad” – the worst level.

Furness walking guide and historian John Murphy said: “I’m concerned that within Furness we have so many beautiful little castles, places like Gleaston Castle, that are being neglected. These places, because of their history, they’re so important, and I would love to see some investment in these buildings.”

However, Gleaston is marked as priority group “B” on the register, meaning that: “Though it is at immediate risk, a solution has been arranged and future work is already in planning to protect the castle.”

This comes after last year’s register marked it as priority “A” – meaning a solution had to be arranged as soon as possible.

This clearly demonstrates the sway that the Heritage At Risk Register can have on potential investors in ancient archaeological sites.

Mr Davison said: “The register concentrates the minds of the different organisations that might have a stake in a particular site, from the owner, to the local authority, to English Heritage, it concentrates all those minds on trying to find a solution.

“Technically, the responsibility is with the owner. On the other hand, inclusion in the register recognises that there’s a problem and that it may well be beyond their means, particularly if they’ve got no actual use for the building.

“So this list prioritises things. For example, English Heritage does make grants available for repairs to historic buildings and other sites. Similarly, people like the Heritage Lottery Fund or other grant-giving bodies, if something’s on the register, they tend to give it a degree of priority.”

A number of heritage sites across South Cumbria are suffering as their conditions deteriorate.

In Copeland, Calder Abbey is described on the register as being in a “poor” condition - the second worst state, and is in priority group “C” - slow decay, with no solution yet agreed.

Others on the list include the Winster Potash Kiln on Cartmel Fell, the stone circle at Birkrigg Common in Aldingham and countless cairnfields and dikes.

The Lowwood Gunpowder Works at Haverthwaite is said to be in a very bad state, and Millom Castle, a Grade I listed building, is described as being in a poor condition.

Rowena Pitt, secretary of the Millom and District Local History Society, said: “I have been round Millom castle and was impressed with the history and the tour. But all sites need funding and support, and things do deteriorate if you can’t afford to do anything with them, so I’m not really surprised.”

Millom mayor and Copeland Borough Councillor Doug Wilson said: “Millom Castle is a cause close to the hearts of many people here. People are aware of it, and because it’s not normally accessible, when it does open once a year for its heritage days it’s usually very well subscribed to.

“Heritage is extremely important, and it’s not just historical buildings, but also the industrial heritage here that matters, the history of the ironworks and the mines where many people in the area spent their working lives.”

The types of sites that Cllr Wilson marks as important to our understanding of our ancestry are amongst those featured on the Heritage At Risk Register. The Coniston Copper Mines are described on the list as being in “very bad” condition, while the Backbarrow Ironworks in Haverthwaite are listed as “poor”.

Work which had already started to conserve the ironworks has ground to a halt due to the economic crisis, and negotiations are taking place to try and ensure that the scheme is completed.

With the country’s finances going through a phase of uncertainty, it is unclear how many more of the register’s named sites will see the funding they need.

But Mr Murphy says it is essential that the government and other organisations continue to invest in our history.

Mr Murphy said: “Heritage is so important to teach the coming generations about the history of the Furness peninsula, and investment is essential to maintain that link with our past.”

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