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Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Today Historic England published an update to their Heritage at Risk register – “an annual snapshot of England’s historic environment”.  Have a look at:

".....from domestic buildings, to protected wrecks, archaeological ruins to industrial sites and places of worship."

In terms of categories under threat – and in order of risk:

1. Barrows
2. Residential buildings
3. Settlements

Though regionally priorities vary. 

In summary, progress is being made, but the challenge is still very significant.

A skim through the South East register highlights for me
  • The old Broadmore hospital which is planned to become a hotel
  • The 12th century barn at New Manor Farm at Broughton
  • The many at risk barrows in the Meon Valley, near Winchester
  • No. 6 Dock, Basin No.1, Portsmouth Dockyard
  • Brookwood Cemetery
  • The Amberley Limeworks near Horsham

It really brings home the fact that there is just so much out there!

The Tale of a Converted Victorian Swimming Baths

As a doctor of Archaeology, Export & General managing director Dr John Mitchell has a niche interest in the modern craze of “urban archaeology”; but the case of the Bristol Community Dance Centre is one building which he’d rather see preserved.

The Bristol Community Dance Centre is a converted Victorian swimming baths and spa-cum-dance studio; a monument to the fortitude of manager Alan Roberts who has run the premises since the 1980s; and a sentinel part of Bristol’s cultural landscape.

Both the studios and their custodian exude charm: Alan Roberts jokes that the ‘ravages of time’ have left their mark on him; but he isn’t intent on some cosmetic renovations of his own; it is the building that is in need of restoration.

The Bristol Community Dance Centre has been running for almost 30 years, during which time it has hosted performances by Disney, Elbow, Frank Bruno and other stars who regard the Studio One dancefloor as one of the best – if not the best – in Britain. The fact it was built over a former swimming pool makes it ideal for dance: the suspending metal springs beneath mitigate the risk of ankle splint injuries and conduce to more seamless dance manoeuvres. Both it, as well as the performance equipment in the studio, were fitted because of Alan’s tireless campaigning. During his stewardship a total of £1.5m in capital has been raised for fittings and renovations; having showed us the before and after photos of the building, it became clear that his contribution to not only salvaging the building from dilapidation – but also utilising it – has been a staggering feat.

Export & General have insured the studios almost since their inception, and we simply aren’t prepared to see its majesty crumble. It isn’t an exaggeration to say the Dance Centre has played a transformative role in Bristol’s community: Alan relates that a young local gangster - who regretted his life decisions and feared for his life to the extent he rarely went out - was taken to see the annual fandango and was so inspired that he joined the dance troupe, went abroad to dance and left his life of crime behind. This sense of purpose – Alan says – is an example of the magic of dance and drama, made more magic when set inside the soaring red brick walls, arching steel buttresses and vaulted ceilings of a listed Victorian baths. The question, then: isn’t the building owed a transformation of its own?

So Alan has spent thousands commissioning an architect to draw mock ups of what a renovated premises would look like. The results are simply stunning.

Plans include a plush new reception, glass veneers throughout the building including a glass balcony encompassing studio one and connecting the building’s 15 levels. The old tank and pump rooms would not only be restored, but given architectural significance: the Victorian bath tank would prop up a glass floor in the cafĂ©, so you can peer into its fathoms while sipping a latte. A new studio dedicated to flamenco dance would be constructed in the spacious pump room, surrounded by towering steel beams, and would be the only one of its kind in Britain. The charming bathhouse fixtures like the spring valves, which are still connected to the historic 14th century stream built by a Jewish sect running beneath the building, would be restored.

At Export & General we actively embrace innovation and heritage. While the two concepts may seem like uneasy bedfellows, we see Alan’s plans for the Dance Centre as a symbol of our ethos – and their realisation: its total embodiment.

Which is why we really rather like it, and hope it stays around. 

Monday, 19 October 2015

Attitudes Surrounding the Destruction of Palymra

E&G's Dr John Mitchell holds many opinions that are inappropriate for his day and age. He doesn't care for national treasure Steven Fry, could pass on David Attenborough (the other one was better, he avers with a sniff), sees no charm at all in foxes and regards them as vermin; perhaps most extreme of all, he is politically moderate.

So it was characteristic of him that - while I treated the news of the Ancient Roman/Syrian site of Palmyra with righteous indignation and disappointment - Dr John appeared not quite so distraught, saying that the fact everything was digitally recorded beforehand softened the blow.

Interpreting his position for flippancy, I laid into him with all the salivating relish of one of his bloodhounds:

How do you justify your indifference to other archaeologists? How does digital mapping compensate for the erasure of thousands of years of history? When are you paying me?

He answered that he can justify his position quite easily; that the archaeological profession is rooted in the paradox that to create history you must also destroy it (it would therefore be disingenuous not to take solace in the fact that there is a digital record); and not before I've purchased Employee Non-Payment insurance - a new package that he'd kindly tailor to my needs - and subsequently claim on it.

Much as I hate to admit it, what he said made rather a lot of sense. I had never thought that way about archaeologists: I had been led to believe that creation, rather than destruction, was the order of the day. But now that Dr John mentions it, is the position of archaeologists regarding Palmyra entirely honest?

I know nothing at all about archaeology, but if I imagine myself in their shoes I think the one thing I'd learn is that nothing lasts. Creating history would be exhilarating, yes, but wouldn't the prevailing lesson be that of impermanence? In the digital age, we have the ability to upload things into the great cloud; we can immortalise things in the data that we record. It is far harder to destroy this data than duplicate it; logically, it is more reasonable to expect to preserve things as data in the cloud than to expect them to weather physical threats on the ground.

Dr John is not ambivalent about Palmyra, but is right to find salvation in the digital age. Digital mapping may be less authentic than the real deal - but archaeologists deal in destruction as well as creation - and it would be dishonest not to bear this in mind.

The tourist blight on Machu Picchu

The ancient city of Machu Picchu is indisputably the most well-known South American archaeological landmark.

Built in 1450 BC in the Chilean mountains, the city is a symbol of the surpassing innovation of the Incans; its situation at high-altitude (it is one of the highest of South America’s ancient cities) makes the importance it had to the Incan economy all the more impressive.

So it is natural that Macchu Picchu has become the destination of choice for discerning middle class tourists who want to broaden their horizons; experiencing both the wonder of an ancient city in ruins, as well as the pristine jungle – complete with rare wildflower species and critters that are too large for their own good – on the three-hour long trek up to the site.

So it is hard to imagine such a place as this should be sullied by the tendrils of Western travel, but it has.

While I was there I spoke to a local, our sherpa for the trek up to the site, who told me (after some hesitation: the economy heavily relies on tourism, and it is a cardinal rule to make tourists feel as welcome as possible) that over the last decade or so the site has been increasingly beset by pollution from tourists.

The trail, on which he lugged my gear as we spoke, for example had been eroded by the sheer number of trekkers; though quotas had been enforced by the Chilean government, this trail is partly made of stone which is as old as the city itself. Parts of it had, indeed, been eroded – I began to feel guilty about even walking it.

The trail itself is fringed by an iridescent array of wildflowers. They smelt fantastic, had large drooping petals and with hues from pink, to blue, to green and even black. But - related my sherpa – they were apparently too beautiful for tourists to resist picking them along the trail, and we walked treading strewn wildflowers underfoot.

Surely tourists are not all that bad? – I asked my sherpa, who asked to remain anonymous, somewhat hopefully. He replied that for the local city of Cuzco, at which he lives and most tourists stay to get to Macchu Picchu, they have been an economic boon. New hotels, including a Hilton, have been sprouting there and local traders’ pockets have been steadily swelling over the last decade: red Alpaca wool coats in native striped patterns in particular sell very well, as do an assortment of brass trinkets including jugs, and ceramics.

But every silver lining has a cloud. New hotels with sleeker operations are bringing jobs, but are pricing local bed & breakfasts and family-run inns out of business. The luxury hotels also impair the once rugged and more authentic experience of tourism in the area, he said, and bring a sense of entitlement which feeds back into his job. Expecting to have every whim catered for, and more besides, tourists expect him to lug more and more items of baggage up the trail, packed with heavy equipment. My sherpa is impressively robust, and seems oblivious to the weight he carries which often exceeds 15kg, but I offer to carry a couple of bags after he tells me this.

Besides Cuzco and the jungle trail, Macchu Picchu is also feeling the strain of tourist numbers. Once we arrive – our attention immediately captured by the soaring peak of limestone rock jutting out North of the site, and the wraith-like clouds encircling it – I notice both visual and aural pollution. Children and tweens chase each other around the site and down the narrow alleys which comprise its old streets. Despite having recently been enjoined by the local tourist board to wear clothing in muted colours, I still spot raincoats in shocking colours. The sheer number of people - of which, make no mistake, I was one – all but ruins the serenity of the site. An older Canadian tourist who visited the site when its popularity was burgeoning in the seventies says that back then you could traipse around Macchu Picchu while it was almost deserted, hearing nothing but the whispering breeze and call of songbirds. This had been replaced by the din of camera shutters and chatter. 

The site is still beautiful, and took my breath away. The local people were lovely, and forthcoming. My sherpa especially so - their only expectation is a meagre wage and that tourists appreciate the majesty of a site they've known since they began work hauling luggage as children. But my trip home was still tinged with melancholy - not only because I was leaving, but because I would hesitate to return and know I'd contributed to infrastructural strain. 

Having arrived back in England, I heard of a new £28 million plan to rescue Macchu Picchu from excess tourist numbers. Measures include security cameras to cope with stealing, which is rife, ten minute visiting slots and a more stringent quota. 

I was slightly relieved. It could only be for the best.