Conserving cultural heritage: tradition meets technology

Welsh heritage site and farmhouse Yr Ysgwrn in north Wales recently received a Conservation Award at the prestigious Creative Europe-supported European Heritage/ Europa Nostra Awards 2019, recognised for its ambitious and sensitive restoration project.

Yr Ysgwrn was once the home of Hedd Wyn, a Welsh-language poet who was killed during World War I. He was posthumously awarded the bard’s chair, known as ‘The Black Chair’ (Y Gadair Ddu), at the 1917 National Eisteddfod, which was hand carved by a Belgian refugee. The chair has since become a national icon, symbolising the loss of an entire generation of young men to war.

Watch this video essay to see how traditional craft and restoration techniques combined with cutting edge technology, such as 3D scanning, to preserve this treasure for future generations, and make cultural heritage accessible to wider audiences.

The restoration of Y Gadair Ddu (The Black Chair). Film produced by Cwmni Da

Y Gadair Ddu/ The Black Chair at Yr Ysgwrn

Naomi Jones, Head of Cultural Heritage at Snowdonia National Park, tells how the conservation project helped transform and breathe new life into this heritage site.

In 2017, Yr Ysgwrn re-opened its doors to the public to wide acclaim. Yr Ysgwrn is a cultural symbol to the people of Wales and a peaceful memorial to an entire generation of Welshmen killed during the First World War, symbolising beauty, peace and the futility of war.

Hunkered on the southern slopes of Cwm Prysor in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park, Yr Ysgwrn was the home of Hedd Wyn, the bardic name of poet Ellis Humphrey Evans, who succeeded to realise his life’s ambition to win the National Eisteddfod bardic chair. The highest accolade available to Welsh language poets, winning the chair should have been the pinnacle of his poetic career, but Hedd Wyn was lying in Flanders’ fields, having been killed at the Battle of Passchendaele six weeks previously, on 31st July 1917, aged 30. In his absence, the chair, expertly carved by Belgian refugee, Eugene Vanfleteren was shrouded in a black cloth and has been known ever since as Y Gadair Ddu (The Black Chair).

Phoenix Conservation Working on Y Gadair Ddu

Yr Ysgwrn and Y Gadair Ddu have been cared for by Hedd Wyn’s family since 1830 and most recently by the poet’s nephew, Mr Gerald Williams, in honour of a promise he made to his grandmother, “that he would keep the door open”. Described as “a rare survival” by Welsh furniture historian, Richard Bebb, the family have welcomed pilgrims fascinated by Hedd Wyn’s story into their home since 1917.

In March 2012, the Snowdonia National Park Authority purchased Yr Ysgwrn from Hedd Wyn’s family, for the nation, with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and Welsh Government. Yr Ysgwrn is a deceptively simple place, its details are rich but fragile and in purchasing the site, the National Park Authority faced a substantial challenge in how to safeguard the heritage and deliver a world class visitor experience. The Authority worked with a talented multidisciplinary design team led by conservation architects, Purcell UK and the endeavour was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Welsh Government, at a cost of approximately £3.7m. Under the watchful eye of Gerald, who continues to live on site, every detail of the sensitive restoration of the farmhouse, historic agricultural buildings and landscape was considered with the aim of ensuring that the restoration was entirely sympathetic.

Rows of books lining the fire place, a pile of hats stacked in the Buttery and the initials of family members carved into the farmhouse walls. “Keeping the door open” meant that Yr Ysgwrn would continue to convey its timeless messages on peace, war, society and culture to new generations of visitors. With limited resources in those early days of the project, including no running water or electricity, Yr Ysgwrn launched itself on social media and with the rallying of Twitter, various successful open days and literary events were held under rather primitive circumstances in cowsheds, to whet the appetite of the local community and several visitors from further afield, for things to come!

Gerald Willaims, Hedd Wyn’s nephew, with The Black Chair

One of those early open days occurred in March 2013, during a particularly harsh winter, even by Trawsfynydd standards. In freezing conditions, Hugh Haley of Phoenix Conservation began work on the restoration of Y Gadair Ddu. Gerald was adamant that the chair should remain at Yr Ysgwrn and Hugh obliged, even opening the doors to his make-shift workshop in the parlour, so that curious visitors could see the restoration in progress and take the opportunity to learn some of the secrets of one of Wales’ most famous pieces of furniture. Over time, Hugh won Gerald’s trust and in 2015, Y Gadair Ddu and Yr Ysgwrn’s furniture collection were moved to Hugh’s St Clear’s workshop for full restoration. A blow to Gerald, removing the chattels from Yr Ysgwrn seemed to remove the heart and soul of the place, but there was work to be done and layers of history to reveal.

An eighteen month project of capital works followed, including building a new agricultural shed, renovating two cowsheds to become exhibition and community spaces, restoring the gardens, reinstating traditional boundaries and gates, reinstating the bedrooms and buttery within the farmhouse, providing access for all to all buildings, developing new exhibitions, interpretation and signage and at the Phoenix Conservation workshop in St Clears, breathing new life into the wonderful furniture collection.

Hugh set to work, carefully conserving the furniture with a view to reinstating chattels to working use, but so that they would never look like new. The stories of individual pieces were revealed and in particular, those of Y Gadair Ddu. Steeped in the folklore of Hedd Wyn’s story, Hugh’s care and attention reinstated lost parts of the story of the chair, confirming which parts were carved by the team apprentices and which parts were carved by the master himself. Hugh paid the highest respect to Vanfleteren and his mastperpiece, Y Gadair Ddu, returning the collection to Yr Ysgwrn in summer 2017, to a rapturous welcome from Gerald and the whole team at Yr Ysgwrn.

One of the many privileges of working on the Yr Ysgwrn project has been the joy of revealing the stories within the fabric of the buildings, within the 26 layers of wallpaper in the farmhouse cegin (kitchen) and in the collection of furniture and bardic chairs. By putting people and stories at the heart of Yr Ysgwrn, our aspiration is that people from all over the world will be brought together to reflect on the values so closely guarded at Yr Ysgwrn – friendship, love, peace and ambition. Those things that ultimately bring together cultures and communities around the world. Through listening to the stories of the people and the place, Yr Ysgwrn’s transformation and interpretation are simple and understated but also powerful and moving. We’ll look forwards to welcoming you there soon.

Discover more about Yr Ysgwrn here and read more about the site’s Europa Nostra Conservation award.

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