A bridge too far

Getting listed by Unesco as a World Heritage Site is quite an accolade, but there can be a downside to all the attention it brings, says Hugh Pearman

Let us now be happy for the little town of Trevor in north Wales. Trevor, along with other towns in the vicinity such as Ruabon and Wrexham, is one of those products of the Industrial Revolution from which industry has pretty much departed. But as we all know, it’s only a matter of time before post-industrial wastelands turn into something else. And so Trevor finds itself at the centre of a brand-new Unesco-sanctioned World Heritage Site.

This puts Trevor on a par with Stonehenge, the Taj Mahal and the ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru. What, you may ask, is so great about Trevor? It’s an okay kind of a place – hilly, nothing special. It’s what’s just outside this little mineral-extraction settlement that has attracted the attention of Unesco. And this is stupendous. Trevor has the good fortune to be at one end of the 200-year old Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a work of Georgian engineering genius by Thomas Telford and William Jessop. The product of the canal-building mania of the late-18th century, it finally opened in 1805 and is quite the most elegant way to cross a valley – high in the air, in a boat, in a slender cast-iron trough full of water. It is still in full use. I’m ecstatic about Pontcysyllte’s international recognition, as I have loved it since I was a boy. I’ll come clean – a piece I wrote about this marvellous structure in the Wall Street Journal was quoted in the bid documentation to Unesco, so I see this as quite a result. This off-pitch rurbanian area can only gain from the tourist attention it will now receive as the coachloads of tourists make a new detour from Snowdon. But there is also a downside.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, to give it its full name, does not like too much in the way of change to happen to its World Heritage Sites. Of course, you don’t want a power station to be built next to the Taj Mahal, or a Travelodge next to Stonehenge. But what about living, changing, cities? Not so long ago, Unesco was making noises about Liverpool’s waterfront and the area around the Tower of London. The threat was that insensitive new buildings were destroying their settings and that their World Heritage status would be removed if things went too far.

It’s not a bluff. The same Unesco meeting that placed Trevor on the list also removed Dresden’s Elbe Valley, because of a new four-lane road bridge being built there. This attitude disturbs me – because when the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct was built, it was the most extreme possible intervention in the landscape. It’s old now, so we accept it.

But we’d better not build anything much in its vicinity now, or else the heritage police may remove their imprimatur – and the tourist revenue that goes with it.
What now for Trevor? Design folksiness beckons. People will don the clothes of the old boatpeople to greet the tourists. Legions of dreadful local artists and craftspersons will get commissions for signposts and benches. Even before the Unesco decision, quite a bit of this was already going on – which is not quite the spirit of the great Georgian engineers, really, is it? They were progressives and functionalists, not preserve-in-aspic merchants. I’m still glad their great aqueduct now has international recognition, but in a funny way, I also wish it, and the little town of Trevor, had remained neglected and forgotten. Because this is what I really do hate so much about the impact of the heritage industry.

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