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Report urges £50m investment in national industrial heritage centre for Merthyr Tydfil

Merthyr Tydfil’s Cyfarthfa Castle, its park and the surrounding areas should be developed as an industrial heritage centre of international significance, in line with its place in history, according to a report published last week (Wednesday 9 May) by the Design Commission for Wales.

The report follows on a ‘visioning exercise’ last year that brought together over 60 creative minds – architects, landscape architects, planners, museum and heritage specialists and artists, as well as local community groups – to appraise Cyfarthfa’s regeneration potential.

The event was organised by the Design Commission for Wales and the Welsh School of Architecture and supported by Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council (MTCBC), Merthyr Leisure Trust, Merthyr Heritage Trust and the south Wales-based Design Circle of the Royal Society of Architects of Wales.

The report says Cyfarthfa Castle and the estate east and west of the River Taff needs investment on a scale that recognises its historical importance nationally and internationally, as well as its potential to act as an anchor project for a Valleys Regional Park.

The Cyfarthfa ironworks, together with three other works in the town – Dowlais, Penydarren and Plymouth – employed thousands and propelled Wales into a global industrial economy, characterised by investment in new ideas, technologies and techniques, making Merthyr Tydfil’s name in the late 18th and 19th centuries synonymous with innovation.

The report envisages

  • an investment of at least £50m over the next decade to develop a modern interpretive centre that would showcase Merthyr Tydfil’s standing as the world’s largest centre of iron production in the 18th and 19th centuries;
  • a visitor attraction capable of quadrupling the current annual 60,000+ visitors to the castle by combining high quality historical narrative and visual spectacle, using the latest technologies and CGI to create immersive displays;
  • a high quality landscape development plan to upgrade the existing Cyfarthfa Park and the area west of the River Taff stretching from the historic Crawshay furnaces to the Cefn Coed-y-Cymmer viaduct – giving Merthyr an open space that could function as a major venue for open air events;
  • an architectural competition for the design of a new museum/exhibition centre adjacent to the castle;
  • adoption of the highest standards in building and landscape design, curation, storytelling, display and the commissioning of public art;
  • the creation of an annual framework of public events that would take advantage of Merthyr Tydfil’s location at the junction of the A470 and A 465 roads.
  • the development becoming a standard setter, extending the values and principles underlying the scheme to the development of the rest of Merthyr and beyond.

The proposals will be presented to Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, heritage bodies and other stakeholders at a special meeting at Redhouse Cymru, Merthyr Tydfil (Wednesday 9 May).

Councillor Geraint Thomas, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Public Protection, said:

“This report sets out a really bold vision for Merthyr’s industrial heritage that befits our place in the history of Wales and of the industrial revolution as a whole. It shows a level of ambition for Merthyr Tydfil and the heritage of all the south Wales valleys to which I am sure the Council and the whole community will respond positively. This is a project of national significance and we are working towards realising it alongside a range of funding organisations, including the Welsh Government.”

The Welsh Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, Alun Davies AM, said:

“This report demonstrates what is possible given a bold and imaginative approach to our history and our heritage assets. The reports sets out a powerful case for a visitor attraction that could be transformative in its effect on the image and economy of the town and a powerful addition to Wales’s tourist industry. I look forward to working with Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council to see what can be done to realise these ambitions”.

Geraint Talfan Davies, project advisor to Design Commission for Wales, said:

“Merthyr Tydfil has resources of powerful loyalty to the place and pride in its history. The presiding impulse from all participants in this exercise was to raise the town’s projection to the world today to a position truly commensurate with its international importance in our industrial, social and political history. We hope that these proposals will help Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, the Welsh Government and the whole community to bridge that gap and to achieve the transformation for which Merthyr Tydfil has waited for too long.

“The involvement of the Design Commission for Wales has been an important signal. The watchword must be quality. The clear message that came from the ideas day was this, ‘Whatever you do, try to make it the best in the world.’”

The report says the development could also carve out a place for itself as a destination comparable with similar places in Europe – an anchor site on the European Routes of Industrial Heritage – as well as a major contribution to a city region better balanced between its coast and hinterland. In time it might also become an extension of the World Heritage site at Blaenavon.

It also argues that a development on this scale would be timely, responding to wider policy developments such as the Valleys Taskforce’s recent proposals for a Valleys landscape park, the emergence of a Cardiff Capital Region, developing tourism strategies and the Well-being of Future Generations Act.