Is Heritage still on the agenda in the Isle of Man?

IHBC Executive Committee Meeting in the Isle of Man (September 2016)

The IHBC North West Executive Committee gathers together quarterly to review and discuss the issues facing the heritage industry and to look at ways in which to contribute to the objectives of the organisation.  In September 2016, the branch was invited to visit the Isle of Man where, there is a concern heritage is being missed off the agenda!

To help reinvigorate interest, a unique initiative known as the ‘Isle of Architecture’ has been spearheaded to recognise and appreciate the islands’ built heritage with a year-long series of events from July 2016 – July 2017 ( Billed as an exciting celebration of the built environment, the organisers are exploring innovative ways to encourage the community to understand what makes their towns and villages special by running lectures, workshops, exhibitions and music gigs.

Prior to our committee meeting, we were taken by our host Ashey Petit (IoM IHBC representative and local architect) to soak up the atmosphere of Castletown, the ancient capital where we took advantage of the bright weather to walk through the narrow, medieval streets lined with brightly painted fisherman’s cottages and Georgian townhouses. The main feature however was Castle Rushen, one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world.

Dating from 1265 and further fortified during the 13th and 16th centuries, Castle Rushen is built of limetone. It has been home to Kings and the ‘Lord of Man’ including the seat of the Stanley’s who were one of the great families of England, also known under another title – the Earl of Derby. Falling into disrepair during the 18th century after it was converted to a prison, the British Crown handed over Castle Rushen to the Manx Government in 1929. Control of the Castle was, however, vested in both the Manx Museum and National Trust in 1988 when the restoration and redisplay of Castle Rushen was undertaken by Manx National Heritage.

Following the tour, we headed to the quaint Malew Church for the IHBC North West Executive Committee meeting. This remarkable building dates from a similar period to the Castle, with medieval fabric remaining to the west gable ( Set within a largely 18th century interior, we began to discuss the issues facing conservation in the North West, particularly in the Isle of Man.

Following the meeting, the committee members were invited to contribute to an evening workshop held at the Manx Museum in Douglas to discuss the difficulty of embedding the principles of conservation in the planning process (at a time when the Conservation Officer has been seconded to the Economic Development section).  A group of approximately 60 participants were in attendance at the workshop and arranged in smaller groups of ten. Each table was accompanied by a committee member where conservation and regeneration was discussed.

The table I sat at was primarily concerned on how to engage with the local community on the subject of conservation areas, particularly on how to rationalise them and regain significance. The group, consisting of town planners, architects and members of the local community were all very pragmatic and aware of heritage, its benefits and its place in the planning process. My impression was that each member of the group were experienced and full of integrity and that knew what needed to be done but perhaps needed some fresh ideas, reassurance and support on how to carry it out.

From the workshop, it was evident there is a strong concern growing that the Islands’ built heritage is losing its status and relevance and that the planning department is largely focused on new development at the cost of local distinctiveness and sense of place. It was collectively felt that this is not a positive move but both the IHBC North West Branch and the local community are hopeful that key Government officers will take on board the economic and social benefits of history and heritage. Our IoM representative will continue to keep us updated on the progress within the Isle of Man. Watch this space!

Contributed by Diane Vaughton, Conservation Officer at Preston City Council

Photographs of the Isle of Man visit can be found here (courtesy of Crispin Edwards):