War memorials seem such permanent and static features of British towns, cities and villages that one imagines they defy the passage of time. Previously, I’ve discussed how the environments of war memorials are far from fixed and can change significantly over time. Many have received many ephemeral furnishings for the centenary commemoration of the First World War. However, some war memorials have also been subject to more significant transformations in location and setting.

In the summer of 2018, in the Denbighshire town of Llangollen, the war memorial was subject to just this kind of transformation. It had comprised of two elements in polished grey granite – a ‘Celtic cross’ for the First World War (commemorating 71 names) and both wars for the parish of Llantysilio, and a smaller plinth for the dead for Llangollen parish in the Second World War.

This memorial pairing shared close proximity and a shared material, if different form. Together, they embodied the memorialisation of two parishes’s losses through two world wars. Notably, the Second World War is commemorated on both monuments: it cost more deaths than could be fitted onto the space on the cross’s plinth, and so only 3 names (for Llantysilio parish) were added there, and a second memorial in the same material, but lower and smaller (and presumably less costly) raised close by for the remaining names from Llangollen parish.

Until 2018, they were placed at slightly different orientations to each other, but both at an angle to the road, next to Barclays Bank facing onto Castle Street beside the corner with Bridge Street. The memorial had been subject to multiple subsequent prior refurbishments. It had looked like this until recently:

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Before the transformation: the war memorial as depicted on the Clwyd History Society website.

Further details are here.

Now, things are different. As part of the Centenary Square Project, they have been re-landscaped into a much larger space and realigned to face northwards: ‘carefully relocated with the creation of more space for public events and gatherings’.

When I visited recently, the monuments themselves have been moved but have remained the same. However, the orientation and access to the space is completely different: instead of opening onto Castle Street and guarded by bollards and iron chains, and framed by mature plantings, it is now open to Bridge Street, with steps down to it from Castle Street. The war memorials have therefore been made more accessible to the through flow of pedestrians, and also a place encouraging locals and visitors to repose in the area as a small public space. 

The one odd and striking thing about the new arrangement is the swapping over of the memorial’s spatial relationships – the First World War memorial had been to the right of, south-west from, its neighbour. Now it is left of, east of, the Second World War memorial.

The differential height of the memorials before rearrangement and been countered by them being given equal spatial attention. Now, the First World War memorial is set forward and central, to retain visibility of all its faces. In contrast, the Second World War memorial, which lacks text to its rear and sides, is set back against the retaining wall to the south, and rendered spatially peripheral. This is perhaps a landscaping error of significant proportions, and I would suggest it constitutes a misreading of the original arrangement and relationship between the two conflicts and how their dead are to be remembered. Notably, in this new arrangement, Llantysilio’s war dead (for the First and Second World Wars) are now positioned facing away from the Second World War memorial, not towards it! In other words, the names of the Second World War dead of the parishes have been torn apart in the new arrangement.

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The setting of the war memorials comprises a striking (and, to me, disturbing) re-deployment of the war memorials into a public space without division from a social area. In this regard, the war memorials are situated in what is akin to small version of a public square that Llangollen had previously lacked, rather than a set-apart fenced garden as is the common arrangement for many war memorials that are not situated in parish churchyards: Elements comprise:

  • four semi-mature liquidambar trees;
  • a retaining wall to the south and steps to the west;
  • a triad of flag-poles to the east (left-side) of the First World War memorial;
  • two new slate and wooden benches in front of the memorials;
  • two matching rubbish bins;
  • all set on ‘eco-friendly’ bi-colour paving.

A final point relates to the triad of flag poles, which mirror the three that had been situated behind the memorials in the earlier arrangement. One (right) carries the ddriag coch, the other (left) the Union flag. In between, the central pole bears British Legion’s poppy flies. I find it odd to see the use of the poppy on a flag: was this the plan from the start or had another flag adorned the central position – perhaps a town flag?

Because the same memorials provide the centrepiece, it might be tempting to see this as a subtle shift in Llangollen’s memorial focus. On the contrary, I would say this is a significant transformation in at least 3 key regards:

  • the rearrangement of the memorials, prioritising the First World War;
  • the opening up of the space for pedestrian traffic and the bizarre public square ‘eco-friendly’ street furniture;
  • rather than a mature garden backdrop, there is now a narrow sloping bedding above the retaining wall leading to the ugly side-wall of the Barclays Bank.

Putting these points together and we now witness a marked and significant aesthetic, spatial and functional transformation of a town’s memorial space for the 21st century, quite different from anything I’ve seen before elsewhere.

Notably, no news story or public response has been placed online to this new arrangement. I wonder what the locals think of it all, and whether this large investment of money for the Centenary is actually welcome and will endure in a positive way.

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