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‘Continued ruination’: Should some of Norfolk and Suffolk’s historic buildings be allowed to fade?

PUBLISHED: 17:26 06 June 2017 | UPDATED: 17:26 06 June 2017

Orford Ness in Suffolk. Picture: Caitlin DeSilvey

Orford Ness in Suffolk. Picture: Caitlin DeSilvey

Caitlin DeSilvey

Every effort should be made to preserve and protect Norfolk’s abundance of historical buildings and sites from the “tragedy” of decay, tourism and heritage officials said.

Caitlin DeSilvey. Picture: Karoline Kvellestad IsaksenCaitlin DeSilvey. Picture: Karoline Kvellestad Isaksen

A professor has sparked debate by publishing a book suggesting climate change, falling budgets and other pressures would in future mean some heritage sites could not be protected.

Prof Caitlin DeSilvey of the University of Exeter cited Orford Ness, once a secret government atomic weapons testing facility on the Suffolk coast as a successful example of a site managed on the basis of “continued ruination”.

But the concept has not been received positively by those who are stewards of many of Norfolk’s treasures.

The county features the largest number of medieval churches in the world along with a number of other valuable sites dating back hundreds of years. Scilla Latham, secretary of the Norfolk Churches Trust, said the preservation of medieval church buildings across Norfolk was “paramount”.

St Peter's Church Corpusty has previosuly been awarded a grant for restoration work to it's roof. Picture: MARK BULLIMORESt Peter's Church Corpusty has previosuly been awarded a grant for restoration work to it's roof. Picture: MARK BULLIMORE

“To let them crumble would be a tragedy. The built heritage of this area is something which shows the social and economic history of the population of this area. The countryside would be poorer without these landmarks.”

John Litster, administrator of the Norwich Society, said it was vitally important to preserve the history and character of the city. “So much of that is influenced by the way it looks,” he said. “We often regret not doing more to save these old buildings. It’s important to hang on to what we have.”

He said budget cuts for maintenance and care on many historic buildings were shortsighted.

Visit Norwich head of tourism Nick Bond said: “In most cases historic buildings require exceptional treatment and in some circumstances there is charm in a certain level of decay. But our churches are important to Norwich and they say a lot about the place and its history.”

Speaking about Orford Ness Prof DeSilvey, whose book is called Curated Decay, said: “It is an interesting case because it shows that we don’t always have to associate ruination with failure and neglect, Processes of decay and disintegration can be culturally – as well as ecologically – productive, but we also need to recognise that people have very strong feelings about these places, and those need to be considered as well.”

Orford Ness

Orford Ness Nature Reserve is a cuspate foreland shingle spit located on the Suffolk coast. During the height of the Cold War the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment and the Royal Aircraft Establishment (AWRE) used it for work on the atomic bomb. In 1993 the Ministry of Defence sold it to the National Trust, which today manages and protects its natural and historic features. The area is considered a haven for wildlife. Grant Lohoar, National Trust countryside manager for East Suffolk said there were a number of buildings on site related to its history. “These buildings were in various conditions, with some beyond a state where they could be authentically repaired enough to allow safe access within the site. With the nature of the site on an exposed stretch of coastline and the type of construction, the process of continued ruination will be faster for some buildings than others.”

Heritage sites

Norfolk’s abundance of medieval churches is one of its greatest attractions. Documenting the region’s wealth at a time when Norwich was a prominent city second only to London, a number stand empty today. The importance they play in tourism as reminders of the past and their role in the countryside should not be undervalued, said Scilla Latham of the Norfolk Churches Trust. “From an environmental point alone, many churches and churchyards are havens for wildlife. The buildings are homes to bats and owls and the yards an oasis for wildflowers and insects.” Similarly, the region has a rich history dating back to the first and second world wars. Pillboxes, once placed along strategic points, played an important defensive role in both wars, yet many stand derelict today. Norwich’s crumbling city wall also stands as a reminder to another era of the city, and while it could never be rebuilt, what remains should be kept intact.

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