Friday, 21 August 2015

Bersham Ironworks, near Wrexham

I follow a blog called archaeodeath, by Prof. Howard Williams from the University of Chester, partly for his thoughts on the memorials of death as seen through the lens of archaeology, and partly because of his posts about North Wales - he quite often visits sites I'm familiar with.

One of these is Bersham Ironworks. I spent a couple of seasons, back in the 1980s, digging at this site. I took the job to get out of my clerical position with the Met Police, and to get into the career that I had trained for at university. The main attraction at the time was the promise of half the season at Caergwrle Castle. I thought medieval archaeology would be much more interesting than an 18thC ironworks.
Caergwrle was great fun - it's one of my favourite castles - but Bersham proved to be fascinating too, and I really enjoyed working there.

And now it's closed. All that work we did, all that fascinating archaeology we uncovered, the visitor centre in the old mill that was, for a while, a tourist attraction - all locked up and deserted.

Prof Williams calls it Zombie Heritage.
This is the mill (used, like many small mills, up until 1947). I remember the very hot day we went into the mill race underneath there, right into the tunnel. Just to the side is the hillside where a local dowser predicted we'd find a wall - and we did, just where he said, though it wasn't on any of the plans, and we weren't expecting it. I remember our team's surveying being compared to the late 18thC map of the site, and the difference being only the width of a pencil line, even though they were measuring in chains. I remember the funeral party, who'd just come from the crematorium up the road, who came to look round, in their smart clothes - I suppose it was understandable that they seemed slightly spaced out.
I remember shifting vast heaps of bricks, and emptying out a pit that was full of the broken up sand moulds that were used to make big cauldrons - it took us about three days, and we rubbed banana skins on our hands when they caused a rash (which worked surprisingly well - none of us bothered with gloves for the job). And when we had emptied the pit, we found it was exactly the right shape for an experimental engine that Wilkinson had built.

And now Wrexham Council have closed it, and other heritage sites like Minera Lead Mines, to save a bit of money because of Austerity.

"Together they provoke a sense of sorrow at the loss of the past that is not simply sad, but tragic. These sites have been brought back to life, conserved, opened to the public only to be then shut and put into stasis: left to rot. They were made viable as heritage attractions and as natural conservation areas drawing visitors local and from further afield, and yet they became unsustainable in the face of local government funding cuts in our age of austerity. They may be open on demand for specific visits, and for activities for local kids, but they are not open in any real and proper sense."

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