Wales

£50m vision for Merthyr ironworks heritage tourism

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Media captionCo-author Geraint Talfan Davies said it was important to 'think big'

Up to £50m should be spent to build on Merthyr Tydfil's industrial past and make it a major tourist destination, a report has urged.

The town was the world's largest iron making centre 200 years ago.

A report for Design Commission for Wales believes Merthyr can learn from the success of Titanic Belfast and the Eden project in Cornwall.

The project is at an early stage but 60 architects, planners and heritage experts have already discussed ideas.

A centre-piece would be regenerating Cyfarthfa Castle, built for the Crawshay family, ironmasters in the 19th Century.

About 60,000 people already visit the castle each year but a more ambitiously conceived centre might be able to attract three to five times that number, says the report.

Titanic Belfast - which opened in 2012 to coincide with the centenary of the ship's sinking - had 771,038 visitors last year and Eden Project in Cornwall had more than a million visitors.

Image caption Merthyr's ironworks were the catalyst for the growth of Cardiff to the south too

What are Merthyr's main claims to heritage fame?

  • It was the world's largest producer of iron - Nelson is said to have preferred Merthyr's metal for his cannon
  • It was Wales' first truly industrial town and in the mid 19th Century was its largest town with more than 50,000 people
  • It was the home to a cluster of legendary ironmasters - Richard and William Crawshay, John Josiah Guest, Anthony Bacon, Richard Hill and Francis Homfray
  • The world's first steam locomotive-hauled railway journey took place in 1804 when Cornishman Richard Trevithick's engine was put on wheels and ran 9.75 miles (15.69 km) along a tram road at Penydarren ironworks. It carried 10 tons of iron, five wagons and 70 men
  • It is renowned as the "birthplace of the Welsh working class" and in 1831 the Merthyr "rising" saw Richard Lewis, known as Dic Penderyn, executed
  • Keir Hardie became the first ever Labour MP in 1900 and represented Merthyr for 15 years

The report's authors believe with a "bold vision" the town's place as a "crucible of the industrial revolution" could be interpreted for tourists from all over.

It would bring together other local heritage landmarks, including furnaces and the viaduct spanning the River Taff - but also link in with attractions such as the Blaenavon world heritage site and the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea.

Image caption Cyfarthfa Castle was the Crawshay family home and is now a museum

Co-author Geraint Talfan Davies said: "We are arguing in this report that it needs to be at a level that is commensurate with its place in history."

The report urges a visitor experience "of a scale and quality that would mark it out as a major national landmark, with international appeal".

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Image caption The Crawshay furnaces

It would include "dramatic" CGI reconstructions and displays, telling the story the growth of iron-making, difficult economic conditions and significant events such as the Merthyr Rising of 1831.

It proposes a new and distinctive building to replace the old school buildings behind the castle, for displays and exhibitions.

Amanda Spence from Design Commission for Wales said: "As an architect this is a real opportunity to make a real difference to Merthyr Tydfil and put it on the international map."

The proposal is to raise £50m from a variety of organisations and foundations, lottery sources as well as government.

Image caption A watercolour by Penry Williams in 1825 showing Cyfarthfa Castle above Merthyr town

Cllr Geraint Thomas, who leads the council's regeneration department, went to school at Cyfarthfa Castle as did many hundreds of others.

"Merthyr people are proud people. We want our town to be the best, the top of every league for the right reasons not for the wrong reasons.

"Merthyr Tydfil and the surrounding valleys created the world we live in. It was our blood, our sweat, our tears that paved the way for Cardiff and for London."

This is not the first time there have been proposals to develop Merthyr's heritage.

Image caption Work inside the Cyfarthfa ironworks at night, painted by Penry Williams in 1825

In 1995, there were plans for a heritage trail and there are already a number of walking trails around the area's industrial heritage sites but these latest proposals go much further.

In 2010, the town tried to become a world heritage site without success.

Heritage tourism is estimated at being worth £963m to the Welsh economy each year, supporting more than 40,000 jobs.

The people behind this argue with the right investment, Merthyr can raise its profile in Welsh tourism and not just be a place where heavy industry is in the past and forgotten.

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