Mention Wales to anyone and they are bound to think of rugby teams, the Fron choir, Snowdonia and the International Eisteddfod. Rarely though will one think of historic architecture, landscapes, parks and gardens. Yet for those who are interested in the subject, the country is peppered with a surprising richness of heritage property often of Georgian origin. Whilst you will not find a Blenheim or Chatsworth in Wales, you will find houses and gardens that are not one whit less inspiring, frequently set in breath taking surroundings.
Wales has an excellent, if often overshadowed, heritage of Georgian buildings. A great deal of the beauty and character of Welsh market towns and rural buildings is due to their Georgian architecture. The simplicity, elegance and harmony of the many stone and whitewashed 18th and early 19th Century buildings, with their sash windows, are central to the identity of rural Wales.
Wales has some really fine Georgian buildings ranging from chapels, industrial buildings and houses – large and small. These buildings are a reflection of the social and economic change taking place at the time as society was beginning to experience the emergence of industrialisation; as science was applied to agricultural practises resulting in improvements to crops and production, and as Non-conformity was gaining in popularity. The 18th century saw the flowering of the Enlightenment, and the increase in wealth – although certainly not experienced by everyone – was nevertheless impacting on the style and size of the buildings in the landscape.
Some of our notable Georgian houses are additions to or complete re-builds of existing houses and some of the owners were at pains to build houses that reflected their ancestry, status and wealth. Influential architects like John Nash were helping create houses and public buildings of great quality. One of the best examples is the National Trust property at Llanerchaeron where the sharp divisions between family and servant are so clearly demarcated.
Although most of the towns in Wales expanded during the 19th century there are several places such as Carmarthen and Montgomery where some really very good examples of urban or semi-urban Georgian architecture can be found. Elegant and spacious the town houses were often constructed by the local landed gentry anxious to establish their presence in the expanding towns.
The period saw the appearance of some of the best architecture of the time including the outstanding Orangery (said to be the largest in the world) at Margam Park (1787), attributed to Anthony Keck. Owners and architects also turned their attention to re-vamping interiors and the medieval Chirk Castle was given what can only be described as a substantial ‘make-over’ in the decade up to 1773.
The built heritage of 18th century industrialisation is reflected in some of its bridges. Among the most notable is the famous “arch of stone” at Pontypridd (1756) and the very rare bridge at Pontycafnau (1793) in Merthyr Tydfil, the first cast iron railway bridge in the world. There are a number of late 18th and early 19th century iron furnaces still extant including the remarkable survivals at Blaenafon that are complete with its casting houses, water balance lift and late 18th century workers’ housing.
At Bersham near Wrexham John Wilkinson’s Boring Mill Building has been preserved. It was here in 1775 that he developed his machine for boring out cannon and ultimately the cylinders Boulton & Watts |Steam Engines.
It is still occasionally possible to come across a small rural building that has not been over modernised but these are now very rare. So many of the buildings were essentially transient. They were often built out of very poor quality materials and suffered from weathering and lack of maintenance. Understandably so perhaps, given the poor wages and living conditions of the average cottager. There is a greater likelihood of finding good examples in north-west Wales where the presence of slate and hard stone has given greater permanence to the smaller buildings.
Higher up the social ladder the buildings of the tenant farmer tended to be constructed out of better quality materials. Therefore are many good examples of ‘Georgian’ farmhouses with their accompanying flanking barns albeit that many of the un-listed houses may have been ‘modernised’.
Barn conversion is one of the most controversial subjects in the re-use of historic buildings. It is possible to produce a very good quality, energy sustainable house out of a barn but it is so often dependent on the sensitivity of the conversion. It is here that the skills of a good Conservation Architect are much needed.
The buildings and structures of the 18th century are important in their own right but can be enhanced by their surrounding landscapes. Many of the richer houses were set in formal and informal landscaping schemes reflecting the status and aspirations of their owners and creators. Walled gardens, glass houses, parterres, elegant parkland with ‘eye-catcher’ buildings, water courses and lakes were all part of the process to impress and express position and importance.
Farms and cottages, many tucked in the lee of hills for weather protection and close to good supplies of water, so often reflect a powerful sense of place and are so much part of our rich legacy.
Whenever possible the ideal solution is to seek to retain the essential historic qualities of building and landscape and at the same time ensure that they have a viable and sustainable future. Not always the easiest of challenges.