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Opening of restored Grade II-listed, 17th-century timber-framed building at 160 King Street, Great Yarmouth, as a social enterprise restaurant with affordable housing above. Photo by Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, 2021
Opening of restored Grade II-listed, 17th-century timber-framed building at 160 King Street, Great Yarmouth, as a social enterprise restaurant with affordable housing above. Photo by Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust, 2021

What heritage means today

6 September 2021
UK

Depending on whom you ask, ‘heritage’ is an industry that makes an important contribution to the UK’s economy, a collective noun for the culture that shapes our national identity, or a problematic barrier of exclusion. The word conjures in different minds the best or the worst of history – heroic generals and pioneering thinkers, or slave traders and unthinking agents of empire. The word ‘heritage’ traditionally has been applied to the remnants of rich, white, male lives to the exclusion of others including the poor, women and people of colour. Castles, public monuments and country houses set amid landscaped estates have long been recognised as heritage, whereas most of the thousands of historic buildings that occupy our town and city centres were for a long time labelled merely ‘old’: the boundary between ‘historic’ and ‘heritage’ coinciding with grandeur, ambition and power on a national stage.  

Rightly, the heritage sector has sought in recent years and decades to broaden the stories that historic sites tell. Across the country long-dormant service wings have been restored, and re-enactors today share anecdotes gleaned from generations of cooks and scullery maids, footmen and farm workers, as well as those of the lords and ladies in the salons. Some historic houses have dug into their histories to also share the previously hidden life stories of men and women of colour or whose sexuality we would today term LGBTQ+. Historic industrial sites have also expanded their repertoire from a focus only on the Great Men whose engineering genius forged the Industrial Revolution to talk also about the mechanics who tended the extraordinary machines, the women and children who ran them on payment of pennies a day, and even the broader social impacts connected to the site. A memorable visit to an old pumping station, now adapted as the Cambridge Museum of Technology, underlined for me the remarkable impact basic sanitation could have on public health in Victorian England – almost overnight after the Station’s 1894 opening, local cholera deaths plummeted.

These efforts from the sector have started to shift how we define heritage, but more can still be done. One way we could further encourage and embed this new broader understanding of history would be to extend our idea of what counts as worth-saving and celebrating to include the thousands of ‘ordinary’ historic buildings that dot our urban and rural landscape. These are the buildings that featured in the daily lives of townspeople and workers in the past, such as high street shops and company cottages, smaller industrial sites such as kilns and warehouses, banks, theatres and tenement housing. These buildings offer instructive lessons about the ways we used to live, if we are prepared to listen. And because there are just too many of them to all be museums or heritage centres, they may also offer different kinds of opportunity for experiencing heritage: across the country, hundreds of these buildings are in use today as offices, workspaces and studios, venues,  shops and cafés, and homes. These are living, active sites servicing community needs and wants while preserving our connection to the past.

Image: Volunteers on ‘Clean Up Day’ at the former Yorkshire & Lancashire Bank in Bacup, Lancashire, which is being adapted into affordable accommodation and co-working spaces. Photo by Valley Heritage, 2020

This year for Heritage Open Days the AHF is highlighting our innovative Heritage Development Trusts that are working in communities across England to undertake this critical work, broadening our understanding of heritage and adapting buildings for the use of today’s communities. In Coventry and Great Yarmouth, in Sunderland and Bacup, Lancashire, medieval gateways, seventeenth-century merchants’ houses, early department stores and former banks will be open to visit free of charge. Visitors will be invited into these buildings and invited to think about them as valuable sites of local heritage, to learn about those who occupied these historic spaces throughout centuries and to share their own stories and views on what ‘heritage’ means to them. Many of our HDTs will also share their plans for renovating and adapting these and other historic buildings into restaurants, housing units, studio spaces and music venues – activities rooted in community engagement and local need – and how these projects are aiming to breathe new life into town centres. Together, we hope to continue to challenge preconceived notions around what counts as heritage, who heritage is for, and what contribution heritage can make within our communities.

Image: Before and after, Grade II-listed former Binns Department Store into a music and arts venue. Photo by Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust

Across the UK, thousands of historic buildings lie dormant – at best, underused, at worst, falling into disrepair and blighting neighbourhoods – but with the right partnerships bringing together funding, expertise and community engagement these same buildings can become active sites catalysing fresh investment, increased footfall, and renewed civic pride. Communities are learning that the well-loved buildings that define our unique towns can be reimagined to provide homes for community business and enterprise and space for essential services. Their conservation can revitalise our streetscapes and bring people back into our towns. Historic buildings can do this while broadening our ideas about what heritage is, what stories historic sites can tell, and what role heritage can play in our future.

We are proud to support communities and third-sector organisations as they seek to explore the possibilities in their towns and regions. To learn more and get involved, visit the links below or our website and get in touch!

Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Head of Programmes and Impact

Image: Concert at PopRecs, Sunderland, to raise community funding for adapting the Grade II-listed former Binns Department Store into a music and arts venue. Photo by Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust, 2018

Heritage Open Days and Heritage Development Trusts

Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust is hosting tours of several of its sites, including two medieval towers and other sites in the historic centre of the town. To register, visit:

Great Yarmouth Medieval Town Wall and Historic Town Centre Tour | Heritage Open Days.

Heritage Lincolnshire is hosting tours of two very different historic buildings – a Franciscan friary in Lincoln, Greyfriars, Lincoln, and a 20th-century pumping station (on a site which dates back to 1638), Black Sluice Pumping Station, Boston.

Historic Coventry Trust: For information and booking related to Heritage Open Days events at sites across Coventry from 11-19 September 2021, and for other events throughout the year, visit: https://www.historiccoventrytrust.org.uk/whats-on/.

Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust: TWBPT is hosting events at several of their sites, including Dunston Staiths and 172-5 High Street West, Sunderland.

Valley Heritage is hosting Hard Hat Tours at the former Lancashire & Yorkshire Bank, Bacup, where construction work has now started on conversion to co-working spaces and accommodation for young people at risk of homelessness.