Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Reviving Redruth (and environs)

Redruth, Camborne and the landscape around the towns is covered with the remnants of the mining industry. Once rich in copper and tin, it was an affluent and important area which can still be seen today in the beautiful local architecture – aside from the mines themselves, in Redruth there are many fine Victorian town houses and grand commercial buildings which are Grade-II listed. Indeed, the whole area is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Although towns such as Redruth and Camborne have fallen on hard times since the decline of the mining industry, there are many success stories in the area: The Great Flat Lode is one of Cornwall’s Mineral Tramway Trails which circles the hill of Carn Brea and includes many of the preserved old mines. The project cost £6m and was managed by Cornwall council.

Krowji is a fantastic local arts centre, the largest in Cornwall, converted from a Victorian grammar school, which had an additional building built next to it in 2015. The glorious roofless Old Church in nearby St Day was Sir John Betjeman’s favourite church and has recently been saved from developers after a 30-year battle by the local community. They are going to use it as a community arts space.

The site of the former Redruth brewery – which suffered two fires, in 2011 and 2013 – is currently being transformed into Kresen Kernow, an archive centre for all things Cornish, partly funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and will open in 2019. It is hoped the centre will reinforce Redruth in becoming a cultural destination to attract visitors.

The old Butter Market has recently been bought by Redruth Revival, a CIC of local business people whose aim is to support the regeneration of Redruth. Though, a year after buying the market, it still looks pretty empty (the idea is to transform it with local shops and office space), it just goes to show how change, whether it be removing plastic from our beaches or preserving an old building, often comes from local, passionate folk with a vision.

Redruth now looks like many impoverished high streets in Britain, with charity shops, fast food joints and boarded up buildings dominating the town centre. The vast, homogeneous, ugly retail parks springing up outside of town centres – putting local high street businesses at risk – don’t really benefit the local area at all: 90% of all profits immediately leave the vicinity.

In Redruth town centre, funding seems to have halted half way on several projects. There seems to be no irony intended with a ‘Welcome to Redruth’  sign printing on a building site hoarding over a large, empty lot with only a decade’s worth of buddleia to show for it. And irony doesn’t even come into it – for it must be a joke, right? – when further text informs us: ’This site improvement was created… to celebrate the town’s past, present and future’.

Furthermore, on the main high street, a sign on possibly the ugliest, most dilapidated building in the town proclaims – again with no irony intended – ‘The Redruth Community have improved the look of this building to enhance the town centre.’

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like funding has been forthcoming recently, and with Brexit imminent, the future doesn’t look great (many projects in the county, including new roads, were funded by the E.U., a fact which didn’t seem to dawn on the Cornish until the day after they voted in the referendum en masse to leave).

Redruth was recently the subject of a Channel 5 documentary, part of their Rich House Poor House series. It took a poor family from Redruth, heavily in debt and living in a small, rented council house, and a wealthy family from Newquay who owned a huge house and acres of land. They swapped houses for a week to experience how the other half live (about a third of Cornish households live in some of the most deprived areas of the UK). It was pretty standard fare, but ultimately fairly moving when the wealthy couple felt so upset by the poor couple’s living conditions that they paid off their £10K+ credit card debt – without ever having met the couple. That complete strangers should help them out with such a life changing gesture is staggering when presumably friends, family or government did nothing to lighten their burden. The kindness of strangers.

(On the flip side of things, the poor couple were living in an actual house, with a fairly large garden – two things most Londoners, say, won’t ever experience. The couple were amazed at the space around them in the Newquay house, yet within a mile or so of Redruth there is free access to beautiful beaches and stunning countryside, including Tehidy woods.)

When I recently moved to the area, two buildings immediately caught my attention – the Victorian fire station in Redruth and the Fuse Factory in Tuckingmill. Both are lovely and historically important buildings in a severe state of dilapidation.

The Grade II listed fire station was built in 1860 and has lovely brickwork with elegant window arches and a turret. In September the building will be up for auction, with a guide price of £20K. It will need at least another £100K to renovate it.

It’s sad to see a lovely Grade II listed building in such a sorry state, uncared for and abandoned. It brings the tone of the town down, it shows its history and beauty aren’t respected or cared for. Most of the time it feels that councils, developers and the insatiable need for profit are the enemy of history.

Though the fire station will inevitably be bought by a developer to be converted into flats or a house, I would like to see it used for the benefit of the community. My fantasy would be for it to be a gallery, cinema, shop, cafe, letterpress workshop and design studio. Why not? The town and area has a rich artistic heritage, with small galleries in town and Krowji up the road.

Look at St Ives – once a tacky seaside resort, until the Tate gallery came along and gentrification was only a matter of time. It’s the Bilbao effect: the Spanish port town was likewise impoverished until the Guggenheim museum was built there. A similar effect has since happened in many other UK towns from Margate to Bexhill-on-Sea.

(The problem with Redruth and Camborne is, of course, they don’t have beaches. Though the media have reported the recent over-crowding of many of Cornwall’s beautiful beaches (The Guardian blame Poldark, Instagram and the summer’s heatwave), tourism just doesn’t reach towns like Redruth, Camborne and dozens of other places inland. Good in a way, of course (St Ives is a nightmare at the moment but will be empty next month), but with the mining industry long gone, the county relies heavily on tourism.)

My other favourite building in the area, the former Fuse Factory in Tuckingmill, though it has been turned down for listing status twice, is part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage site and it’s thus a sacrilege for such a complex to be in left in its abandoned state. This important site once produced William Bickford’s safety fuse, responsible for saving many miner’s lives at home and overseas. The large complex covers an array of architecture including the zig zag-roof shaped factory itself and wonderfully ornate stonework entrances.

If the fuse factory was in London, it would long ago have been converted into cool artists studios or flats, selling for half a million apiece. Whilst Tuckingmill isn’t exactly Dalston, in the current housing crisis, I wouldn’t be completely adverse to the site being tastefully converted into flats and shops – keeping as much of the original architecture as possible and including a museum (in a similar manner to Heartlands; another fairly successful local regeneration programme where an old mine was preserved and housing built on the nearby empty land, half the area feels like an unfinished building site. Regeneration should not be dictated merely by profit; building houses is not enough to create or regenerate a community. A community needs life, events, the arts and local businesses to bring money back into the area). The now-roofless fuse factory itself I’d like to see converted into an Eden Project-style greenhouse with a cafe,  and the rest of the site some independent shops, a gallery and some grassland.

Buildings are like people: they need to be cared for and loved. Old, derelict buildings remind me how the UK treats its elderly — we forget their past, their former glories, and shuffle them into an old people’s home and forget about them, not realising that they were young and useful once.

I would like to see more regeneration come through culture – it happened with the Tate in St Ives, the Eden Project near St Austell and soon, hopefully, Kresen Kernow in Redruth. As well as its beaches, Cornwall has a rich arts scene, beautiful countryside, lovely architecture and a fascinating history.

It would be a shame for Cornwall and its towns to dull themselves down, reflecting so many high streets throughout the UK. Cornwall has a soul and heritage and pride that so many other places lack, and towns like Redruth and Camborne, that have truly suffered from a decline and struggled to get back on their feet could be the centre of a new confident Cornwall striding into its future, head held high once again. Let the artists and the creatives lead the way, putting their heart and soul and talent to bring these areas back to life and the future will be bright.

An abridged version of this post was sent to the Cornish Buildings Group for inclusion in their newsletter. Two recent posts, The old fire station, Redruth, Cornwall and The Fuse Factory, Tuckingmill, formed the basis of this post.


It's all Mine said...

So many great buildings! The mysterious 'Mining exchange' in Redruth is listed. Would love to see inside. I'm sure I saw that sign about improving the the building for the community well over 10 years ago. Classic.

Barnaby said...

Aye, that sounds about right.