This post comes from our Lecturer in History and Heritage, David Howell.
In south east Wales, at the start of August, the National Eisteddfod of Wales convened in Abergavenny. In writing that opening sentence, I fully appreciate that for many reading this blog, the notion of what a “National Eisteddfod” is, might be somewhat lost. This is after all, an event largely unique to Wales. It has made appearances in England over the years, in locations such as Liverpool and London, where significant Welsh ex-pat communities are to be found. Generally speaking though, the Eisteddfod is a mystery to most outside Wales, and equally so to many within. I’ll try and explain in due course, but for now I’m pleased to say, that I took part in this year’s Eisteddfod, launching a new national heritage trail.
In academia, and as an historian, you are frequently asked to lend support to history and heritage related causes and initiatives. Generally speaking, involvement in such activities are worthwhile endeavours, allowing for strong networking opportunities and (while a touch selfish) a profile boost. Involvement also presents an opportunity to push certain agendas, be they research related academic topics, or more politically motivated matters. Of course you certainly don’t have to go pushing agendas, and many charities, trusts and organisations looking for support would probably rather you pushed nothing but their own product. I, however, like to push; but knowing when and how hard to can be a tricky balancing act.
So it was that in early August, I was invited to help launch the Cistercian Way heritage trail. This has been a project bubbling for many years, and I have been involved in what could be described as a rescue effort, transferring years of research and trail information, into a new online platform (which is now live and accessible here). The Cistercian Way, much as the name might indicate, develops heritage routes based on pilgrim trails, linking the major Cistercian monastic sites of Wales together. As trails go, this one is somewhat epic, taking in the majority of the Welsh interior.
I was delighted to be asked to support the project and its launch. This largely stems from my belief that this element of Welsh religious history, indeed, Welsh religious history in general, has been understated, and perhaps even devalued in the national heritage strategies of Wales. It was this theme that I really wanted to cover in my launch speech, but how far should I go? Did I tiptoe around the issue of neglected heritage, of give an all-out anti-government blast? Getting the tone and content of this had to be pitched just right, this was, after all, the National Eisteddfod.
Perhaps here I should explain further just what this event is. I have distant memories of a series of Big Brother, where two Welsh speaking contestants were competing in the programme. One of them, Glyn (now a former Plaid Cymru election candidate), described the Eisteddfod as a competition in Wales, where people write poems, and if they write a really good one, they get given a chair. Well, its kind-of like that. There are poetry competitions, and the winner does indeed take home an ornately crafted chair, but it is, I’m glad to say, much more than that somewhat simplistic description.
The Eisteddfod is a major cultural festival, attracting over 100,000 visitors on an annual basis. It is, at heart, a celebration of Welsh culture, predominantly convened through the medium of the Welsh language. For Welsh speakers and those involved in culture, arts and political sectors on my side of the border, it is also arguably the single most important networking opportunity in the calendar year. It was for these reasons that the Cistercian Way would be launched there, in the relative limelight of the Eisteddfod audience. It was also why I wanted to be political, to an extent. The Eisteddfod provides a platform for a variety of issues, delivered in the Welsh language, that simple does not exist anywhere else. During the week, there was rarely a shortage of Welsh language campaigners, armed with megaphones harassing Welsh politicians – it’s just one of those things that the Eisteddfod (unofficially) is for.
So, how did I play it? “Committed but careful” would be the way I described my mini talk. I started with a celebratory note on the trail itself, offering (deserved) platitudes to the project and stating my belief in the inherent value of this particular form of heritage. I stressed that in Wales we are very good at telling stories about our past but (and this where things could have gotten tricky), we only tell a very narrow range of stories. It is well known and understood in Welsh heritage circles that we do our industrial, medieval (if its castles) and Roman periods pretty well, but other than that, heritage stories are fighting over each other for scraps of national attention. You can understand why. For tourists to Wales, the industrial revolution and castle building are the expectations – these are the cash cows of Welsh history, and are accordingly offered more and more attention, promotion and financial support. I understand the ‘why’ of it, but understanding leads to no lesser level of frustration with the situation.
It falls to enthusiastic volunteers to ensure that all the other, state neglected [you see, given a free hand, my language is far from ambiguous] heritage forms are preserved and given voice to. It is exactly what has been done with the Cistercian Way. More about the project can be found on the website, but essentially this was a volunteer led project, which has grown through external funding, and resulted in what can claim to be one of two all Wales walking paths, and the only all Wales heritage trail. It is something to be celebrated, but also something to be held up to the powers that be, so that their attention might be drawn to that which they currently overlook.
What I said during the launch amounted to finger pointing. Highlighting a shortcoming in state provision. Perhaps it was not particularly, on face value, controversial, but then, it is rare that a critical public word is heard against national heritage providers in Wales. For all the subtlety I employed, I was still nervous putting across these views. It was to my relief that there were many knowing nods giving, and supportive comments made afterwards, sharing my sentiments and frustrations.
I make no secret of my desire to push agendas. That which we, as historians, archaeologists and heritage professionals, feel passionate about, will always find ways of creeping into our output, and I see little point in denying this reality. We might want to question how much those personal preferences, personal agendas, should influence our work, be it through public outreach or through publication. Ultimately though, I like to view the historian as a guardian of their chosen parcel of the past. In order to safeguard what remains of their area of interest, I don’t think it is unfair for the historian to look to ruffle some feathers from time to time.