There have been a number of recent news stories relating to the historic environment. In mid-October the Guardian suggested a closure of Anglican churches is on the cards following the publication of the report of the Church Buildings Review Group.
Historic England also published its review of the heritage estate, reporting an improvement in the numbers of heritage items considered at risk - 5,534, which is 300 less than in 2014.
Industrial heritage items are, however, considered among the most vulnerable. Thirty seven are railway-related sites including the original terminus of the London and Birmingham Railway, Curzon Street, and the iconic Dunston Staiths on the Tyne. Francis Thompson’s station at South Wingfield, the sole survivor of the North Midland Railway stations is another with an insecure future.
Unsurprisingly, many of the structures under threat are religious buildings, ranging from prehistoric barrows to twentieth century hangars. Seventy eight per cent of the Church of England’s 15,700 churches are listed. They therefore have some statutory protection and provide a hub for a range of community activities.
For industrial and civil engineering works, the future is less certain, covering as they do a range of structures with often limited aesthetic appeal. These challenges were discussed at the last meeting of the ICEPanel for Historical Engineering Works.
Peter Darley spoke about works at the former London and Birmingham station and yards around Camden, and the Panel visited the development at King’s Cross Station. In both cases the high value of London property is making possible development of an enormous heritage area that had been neglected since the demise of rail freight traffic 60 years ago, with the likely preservation and enhancement of many buildings.
Even the former gasholder guide frames have been relocated for reuse.
A positive visit was also made to Marc Brunel’s Thames Tunnel shaft in Rotherhithe. Here, an enterprising charity is creating a venue over the London Overground after many years campaigning.
In contrast is David Kirkaldy’s testing works in Southwark Street. Now nearly 150 years old it was the world’s first commercial materials testing station - used by engineers from across the world. The testing equipment is still insitu and listed. Unfortunately it was leased to a trust at a time when the London property market was relatively sane. The trust now finds it cannot afford a commercial rent. Recent proposals for the reuse of its “host” building are unlikely to permit the trust to continue to display its museum objects or show visitors around.
Electrification of the Great Western and Midland lines is also affecting many masonry overbridges, in part because of the British interpretation of European regulations.
To reach the best solution, asset owners and their advisors should engage with statutory bodies and historical experts early on. When planning infrastructure for the future, we cannot conserve everything but where possible plans should strike a balance between meeting the needs of society, and respecting its heritage.