Meeting Report February 2018
On the coldest night of the year so far we welcomed Neil Redfern, Principal Inspector of Ancient Monuments for Historic England, to deliver an illustrated talk entitled "Heritage Management - Preservation or Creativity" Neil has worked for Historic England for 16 years and so has a wealth of experience under his belt, and living in York he is no stranger to ancient buildings.
Neil began his talk by explaining the role of Historic England in caring for our ancient monuments, old buildings and significant sites throughout the British Isles, and swiftly pointed out that his responsibility only extended as far as the Yorkshire borders. However with a county of this size so rich in heritage this was a job which kept him busy.
He told us about the history of the organisation, which began in 1913 and was initially only responsible for ancient monuments such as Stonehenge and similar sites. Over the decades this remit was extended to include country houses, large and small, gardens and areas of land which held some significance. In more recent years other buildings which on their own would not have been regarded as significant, have come under their care because of their association with a particular person or event. A prime example of this which he showed us was the 1930's Liverpool semi which was the home of John Lennon.
He also explained that attitudes to preservation and conservation have changed throughout the years, and nowadays the organisation might take a different approach to managing a site than previously, when it was more likely that a building would be restored to its original appearance where possible. For example with a medieval abbey, later additions to the site from different periods would have been removed because they were not in keeping with the original. In this way Neil explained the complexity of the decisions which have to be made, and the approach to take in managing a site or building which comes into its care.
He went on to explain how decisions are now made by looking at four values of a site - evidential value, what can be known about it by inspecting it, - historical value, how it connects the past to the present, - aesthetic value - people's response and reaction to it, and - communal value - what it means to people in the way of experiences or memories. Then came the surprise of the evening as Neil divided the audience into groups and asked us to look at statements or photographs of different sites and select which category they belonged to. Although totally unexpected this proved to be the highlight of the evening and much lively discussion ensued. Whilst we found the exercise difficult with many differing opinions, at the end of it we found ourselves much more in accord with our answers, and Neil expressed his delight that we had learned to look at the statements or photos with new eyes. Whilst this was a new experience for us all, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and felt we had gained much insight into the work of Historic England and how decisions on how and what to preserve are met.
Neil ended his talk by explaining that being able to talk to groups such as ours within the community helped make his job much easier and commended us for the work the society had done which resulted in the local site of the First World War munitions site at Barnbow being scheduled as an ancient monument.