Today I spent a great day with the kids. Much of the morning was spent at the beautiful and diverse setting of Alyn Waters Country Park in the semi-rural village of Gwersyllt on the NNW outskirts of Wrexham.
Alyn Waters is one of a number of country parks created by reclaiming areas of industrial wasteland left behind with the decline in the Wrexham region’s quarries, coal and lead mines and steel and brick industries. In this instance, the sixteenth-century Gwersyllt Hall is the centre of parkland that comprises the boundaries of the modern countrypark. The hall was demolished in 1910 because of damage from mining subsidence and the land was quarried during the twentieth century.
Alyn Waters and the other Wrexham borough parks are a superb resource, meaning that the local population having many options for high-quality open spaces in which to walk and cycle through woods, along the river and through open country. There are also adventure play-areas for the kids and year-round activities.
The wildlife fostered by this environment is superb, from wildflowers to diverse tree species. Dippers can be seen in the River Alyn and there are pastures left unmown all summer to provide a perfect habitat for nesting skylarks. We saw and heard male skylarks singing as we walked around today. However, the best thing about Alyn Waters is that it is officially recognised for the best puddles in the whole of Wales perfect for under-fives with wellingtons on.
What makes Alyn Waters interesting from the perspective of this blog, is that, as with most public spaces today, it has its fair share of public sculpture and commemorative monuments. Indeed, these sculptures celebrate and commemorate the act of landscape reclamation itself and the wildlife promoted through this process of restoration from industry. The art is part of the restoration because it creates engagements with the local population and projects networks of affinity between people and the country park into the future. As well as modernist sculptures that don’t mean much to anyone, there are ironwork sculptures of frog spawn, tadpoles, frogs, kingfishers and bullrushes. There are iron eggs, intact and breaking open. On the east side of the park, there is an iron sculpture depicting the different bird species that can be seen in the country park, drawn by local primary school children.
Juxtaposed with this art are memorials to the dead. Some are pretty typical for parks nationwide; benches dedicated to those who enjoyed fishing in the river and walking in the park. Others are distinct to the locality. There is one memorial sculpture of a pit-head wheel commemorating the Gresford Coal Mining Disaster of 1934 in which 254 men lost their lives: an event that affected the livelihoods and memories of many in the region from Borras and Gresford to Llay and Gwersyllt. There is also a ‘memorial’ to a time capsule, reminding me of Cornelius Holtorf’s incavation and the importance of future-commemoration in the modern world. All of these art forms and memorial, varied in their form and the motives for their creation, celebrate the country park as a place of restoration and rehabilitation, a long-standing understanding of post-industrial renewal in which the living and the dead are bound together in modern green spaces.
These themes remind me of a TAG session from 2009 at Durham University on ‘Re-animating Industrial Spaces’. The proceedings of the session are forthcoming with Left Coast Press, edited by Dr Hilary Orange of UCL, whose own PhD looked at perceptions and actions in post-industrial landscapes in Cornwall. Hilary and other archaeologists interested in post-industrial renewal could find much to interest them in Wales’ country parks.