The intangible heritage of Wales

The Welsh government will pass the historic environment bill in early 2016, but is Welsh heritage just bricks and mortar.

Alun shaping a pot
Alun shaping a pot

In a cluttered workshop on the premises of his pottery business, Alun Jenkins does what he has been doing for the better part of the last 45 years. Bent over a wheel wearing a thick apron, his hands covered in brown clay, he carefully shapes a pot occasionally looking over glasses perched at the end of his nose “I was born into a pottery family, I have been doing this for a long time,” he replies with a serious expression.


Alun is one amongst many a Welsh artist that have kept Welsh heritage and tradition alive with their life long dedication to it. Although he receives help from Cadw, the Welsh governments historic environment service, there are many like him that don’t.  Even with the passing of the Welsh historic environment bill, which will become law next year, many artist still face difficulty in promoting and popularizing their craft. Historian Dr. David R Howell, investigating the bill for BBC News says, “heritage is a messy word, meaning a lot of very different things to different people”. He argues that this particular bill considers heritage to be all about “buildings, sites and structures” and says “you’ll find no mention of our intangible heritage in this legislation”.


The historic environment bill is aimed at safeguarding the built heritage of Wales and will particularly focus on tougher action against those causing damage to Welsh Monuments. Wales has the highest number of castles per square kilometer for any country in Europe and according to Dr. Oriel Prizeman, a professor at Cardiff University, monuments are a critical part of Welsh heritage, “built heritage in wales in certain periods of its history is quite extraordinary and some of its archaeology is really world class”. The bill will no doubt be beneficial to built heritage in Wales and as Dr. Prizeman says “will help with managing the conservation of built heritage”.


There is however a feeling amongst Welsh musicians that the government is not doing enough to safeguard Wales’s intangible heritage. According to Welsh singer Blanche Rowen, a manger at Trac, “the Welsh government are involved with what we do, but don’t do as much as we’d like them to.” The Government is more preoccupied with built Welsh heritage and spends a lot more money to protect and conserve it. Blanch says, “intangible heritage is not taken as seriously as built heritage and it should be, we at Trac are very fortunate to be funded by the arts council of Wales, they get their money through the Welsh government and the Welsh government are allocated arts money from the Westminster government, so we are all dependent ultimately on Westminster.”

There is a feeling amongst many artists that the government in London should allot more money to safeguard intangible Welsh traditions that go back centuries and are an integral part of Welsh identity. Wales is known as the land of song, proven by the fact that Welsh musicians produced more than a third of the best selling classical music in the UK from 2005-10.


Although most of Wales’s centuries old music traditions have survived, the same cannot be said for other old Welsh traditions. A lot of the folk dancing traditions of Wales have unfortunately been lost. Huw Williams is a Welsh folk dancer who has been performing since 1972 and specializes in Welsh clog dancing, “Welsh clog dancing was done mostly by men, other areas had women dancing it as well, but not in Wales.”  Traditional Welsh dances were where people went to meet partners Huw says, “When farmers used to meet in a barn for a dance it was a social occasion, a celebration.”

Many Welsh dancing traditions have been lost; the church saw dancing as sinful and corrupt, which led to a decline in dancing in the 18th and 19th century.  Huw says, ”the church took over the communities, a lot of the dancing that people did was associated with beer, which became frowned upon by the religious movement.” Much of the traditional Welsh folk dancing of today has been reconstructed in the modern times, especially after the First World War.


Heritage is constantly changing, there are additions to it all the time, Alun says the biggest change to their pottery business was over the past two-three generations, when his grandfather was running the pottery after the First World War. The pottery tradition in Wales goes back more than five centuries, with some of the most beautiful works being produced between 1813 and 1826. Ewenny Pottery, run by Alun, has the distinction of being the oldest family pottery in Wales; “before us the pottery here was run by a family called Morgan and my ancestor married into that family”. Their roots can be traced as far back as 1610, although the earliest record of clay being used on their site is 1427.


Alun says their pottery is associated with wales as they have been here a long time, “whenever possible we use local material and people associate us with Wales ” he says wiping his clay covered hands on his apron. Alun says he’s coming to the end of his working life and he wishes the business will keep thriving and that his daughter will take it forward, “My daughter is art trained, she studied at the Royal College of art in London and she is bringing in her own ideas and designs.”


As we look to the future it is always nice to know that our roots stretch deep, as one day Alun’s daughter will be at the helm of his pottery business and make changes to it that are required to keep pace with the future, so will Welsh heritage change, to incorporate new and contemporary bits of culture, but it will forever have a rich past that it can be proud of, while heading towards a glorious future that will add to, and hopefully safeguard all its heritage, both built and intangible.