Crumbling but still loved: What can be done to save parts of our national heritage from collapse?

Video report by Hamish Auskerry on ITV Wales' current affairs programme Sharp End

Nearly 15% of all historic "scheduled" monuments in Wales are designated "at risk" by the Welsh Government's historic environment service, Cadw.

That means up to 600 historically or cultural significant structures around the country could be lost forever, if something is not done to preserve them.

Ruperra Castle in Caerphilly county is one such monument.

"It was built in 1626 by Sir Thomas Morgan of Machen and Charles I stayed here - it's so significant", Charlotte Rogers of the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust tells me.

There was a major fire in 1785 that destroyed the castle. It was rebuilt and had its heyday in the victorian era. The military was stationed there during the Second World War but in 1941, the castle was gutted by fire. The structure has never recovered.

Charlotte Rogers is a trustee of the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust

According to Cadw, “Ruperra Castle is a rare example of a substantial Jacobean Renaissance mock castle... The monument is of national importance for its potential to enhance our knowledge of post-medieval social, domestic, and political life and architectural design".

And yet after nearly 400 years, Ruperra Castle was recently described by Caerphilly Borough County Council as "structurally unsound with multiple failures - loss may follow in short term" in their 2022 Buildings at Risk Register and Strategy.

The structure is unique in Wales, and only a handful of others with a similar design exist in England. That is why a group of passionate campaigners are fighting to protect the castle, before it is lost entirely.

"It's architecturally unique, it's the only one of its kind", Charlotte tells me from our vantage point at the side of a farm track looking over at the castle.

"People come to marvel at its beauty. When we take people for walks they are wowed by its beauty. And it's not just the castle, it's all the surrounding buildings. It has a bothy, a stables and a magnificent MacKenzie and Moncur glasshouse that's just still standing.

"But all of these are buildings at risk now".

Ruperra Castle once hosted Charles I for four nights due to the castle's prestige in Wales

Charlotte and her fellow volunteers at the trust hope desperately to be able to celebrate the castle's 400 year anniversary in 2026, but time is running out to secure its structural future.

ITV Cymru Wales filmed up close to the castle in 2010 when it went on the open market for around £1.5 million. The man who bought it, Hydar Alkhafaji, says work has been done to protect the stonework on the castle's south porch using funding from Cadw and from SAVE Britain’s Heritage. He said more work is planned.

In a statement, Mr Alkhafaji said: "Throughout our work to preserve Ruperra we have maintained close dialogue with Cadw and Caerphilly County Borough Council.  We have also commissioned specialist advice on the heritage and ecological values of Ruperra and used this to inform proposals for both the buildings and the parkland setting".

Responsibility for safeguarding and promoting Wales' vast heritage falls on Cadw. I asked the Deputy Minister for Arts, Culture and Tourism, Dawn Bowden MS whether it was time for Cadw to use enforcement powers to commission a full structural survey for Ruperra.

Watch the Deputy Minister's response here:

Ruperra Castle is well off the beaten-track in the Caerphilly borough countryside. It could easily have been forgotten had it not been for the campaigning of the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust.

They recently secured more than 10,000 signatures on their petition calling for conservation management plans to be made compulsory for all larger and more complex scheduled monuments at risk in Wales.

The popularity of the petition led to them being granted a Plenary debate in the Senedd in October, where members from all main parties showed support for their campaign. But the Deputy Minister for Arts, Culture and Tourism has rejected their call for a change in the law.

"Such a proposal would be disproportionate in scale and cost because in many cases the objective of a conservation management plan is just unachievable", the Deputy Minister told me.

Dawn Bowden MS went on to say that if the law was changed to make them compulsory, it would drive away people from being willing to buy and own scheduled monuments in Wales, thereby having a further detrimental impact.

Dr Elaine Davey is an expert in architectural history

Cardiff-based architectural historian Dr Elaine Davey says something does have to change with the law to protect heritage buildings in Wales.

"How worried should we be about the potential loss of large parts of our history?," I asked her.

"I think we should be extremely worried because it's the old 'Joni Mitchell', you don't know what you've got until it's gone".

Dr Elaine is also a trustee of Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust, and feels passionate about the potential of the site for inspiring people's love of history.

"It's not a question of keeping these buildings in aspic. Of course they've got to have a future purpose, of course they've got to pay for themselves but there are a lot of examples where the fortunes of these properties has been turned around and they've become a focus of local and wider pride".

"So in your view, does more need to be done to support those efforts by organisations like Cadw and the Welsh Government?", I asked Dr Elaine.

"Yes I think so and I think the legislation needs to be geared up a bit because - as I've been raging on about for years - when does active neglect become a heritage crime? It's just wrong that we're not treasuring these things."

Ruperra Castle is also a Grade 2* Listed Building. As many as 8.5% of Wales' listed buildings are at risk, from a total of just over 30,000.

In January 2023, Caerphilly County Borough Council approved proposals for conversion of outbuildings next to the castle for residential use. The castle's preservation trust was dismayed commitments to preserving the castle itself were not conditions placed on the approval proposal.

The private owner, Mr Alkhafaji told us: "The Stable Courtyard and Bothy are separately listed and we have obtained consent for their preservation.  Works are programmed to start next year and the stables will remain in use for their original purpose.  

"Creating the future for such a complex and significant place as Ruperra cannot be rushed and involves a very considerable financial investment.  

"Although local people may not yet see change they can be reassured that a lot of work has been undertaken to stabilise the  condition of the heritage and to prepare the way for appropriate future works to be carried out".

The rare MacKenzie and Moncur glasshouse is also in a state of disrepair

Charlotte from the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust says she is hopeful that a future is possible for the site, and says her colleagues want to work constructively with the owner, Caerphilly Council and Cadw to make positive change.

"We recognise that you may not be able to fully restore it, it would cost a lot to do that but we'd love to see a roof go on it, we'd love to see it stable, we'd love to see it as no longer a danger to the public right of way next to it and also to the other listed building right next to it.

Charlotte continued, "We'd love to see it opened up to the community so everyone can get a little bit closer snd enjoy its beauty and our local heritage".

A lot has changed on the site of the castle over the last nearly 400 years. It was once fit for a king's visit, now it very much shows its age.

There is seemingly an agreement from all parties that work is necessary to protect its future. But like many historic buildings in Wales, it is still at risk of decline to a point of no return and with it, an evocative and unique part of our national heritage.

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