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R ecent history has not been kind to Merthyr Tydfil. The decline of the sprawling ironworks turned a crucible of the Industrial Revolution into a place of high unemployment and social deprivation. The area continues to be battered by Covid-19.
But brighter times may be ahead after the unveiling of a hugely ambitious 20-year masterplan to create a 100-hectare (250-acre) heritage park with the aim of bringing to life Merthyr’s extraordinary history, healing a scarred landscape, drawing in half a million visitors a year and creating hundreds of new jobs.
Designers who have worked on world-class projects including the Louvre Pyramid have drawn up the multimillion-pound “Cyfarthfa Plan”, which is billed as a chance to revive Merthyr and the wider south Wales area.
At its centre is a scheme to update a museum at Cyfarthfa Castle, formerly the home of one of the families that grew rich from the ironworks, but now in need of urgent repair.
Another urgent project detailed in the plan is saving the 200-year-old Cyfarthfa furnaces, a scheduled ancient monument considered of world importance but in danger of being lost.Artist’s impression of the furnaces at night. Photograph: Gustavson Porter + Bowman
Additional eye-catching proposals include a new “iron way”, a dramatic high-level 495-metre walkway connecting the castle and the furnaces, to echo a 19th-century aqueduct that spanned the valley.
There are plans for a “glassway” entrance to the east of the castle, which will be a reminder of impressive 19th-century greenhouses, plus a three-hectare community vegetable garden and meadows.
There is also a strong emphasis on education, with a site at the confluence of the Taff and Taf Fechan rivers reserved for a possible new environmental institute.
Geraint Thomas, the cabinet member for regeneration at Merthyr Tydfil county borough council, said the report was “visionary”.
He said: “For many years Merthyr has been a sleeping giant in the south Wales valleys, and this is a plan like no other I have seen. It will be an immense industrial heritage park of 100 hectares that is going to create up to 200 full-time jobs.”
Some wonder why the project is being launched in the midst of a pandemic. The answer is that the repairs to the castle and furnaces are urgent, and the hope is the development will help Merthyr rebuild after Covid.The approach to the ‘glassway’. Photograph: Gustavson Porter + Bowman
Commissioned by Merthyr council, the plan says the story of these valleys is one of change. It says: “They were once wild and green environments of forests and farmlands.” Between the 18th and 20th century the area was transformed into “a pandemonium of iron, steel and coal.” Since the decline of industry, the natural world had made a comeback, and the new plan will build on this regreening.
The team behind the plan is led by Ian Ritchie Architects, which was involved in the Louvre Pyramid project. The landscape architects involved, Gustafson Porter + Bowman, are also working on the design of a 16-hectare landscape around the Eiffel Tower.
A new company has been formed – the Cyfarthfa Foundation – to take the scheme forward, and it is seeking charitable status. The project will not come cheap, with the development of Cyfartha Castle into a modern museum alone costing around £50m.
There has already been support from the Welsh government and the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and other sponsors, philanthropists, trusts and foundations are being sought.
Ian Ritchie, the principal of Ian Ritchie Architects, said: “We all need space and we all need hope, and we all need things that will inspire us. Within this plan, and within this community, lies an energy that will carry people through to a happier place.”