John Tanner: Industrial past brings tourists of the future

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As we saw with the Tour de France, regional collaboration works a treat. By working together, we can drive tourism, enthusiasm and community spirit. The world now knows that Yorkshire has some of the most beautiful scenery on the planet but does it know we have some of the world’s most important heritage sites?

Maybe not and that’s one of the reasons why a new heritage route unveiled today has huge significance.

The European Route of Industrial Heritage (ERIH) is a network of the most important industrial heritage sites in Europe. Yorkshire is now firmly on the same map as industrial powerhouses in Germany such as the Ruhr.

In times gone by, we proudly introduced our inventions, values and culture to new territories and the world but more recently we’ve become less vocal about our industrial past.

Over the last few years we have seen a resurgence of interest in the beautiful old buildings of this past, with many being re-used, often for cultural and leisure purposes, for example the incredible Salts Mill which offers the visitor an exciting mix of shopping and art galleries in a remarkable heritage setting.

Our contribution to the world through iron, steel and coal is being firmly recognised and key sites such as Elsecar Heritage Centre, Kelham Island Museum and the National Coal Mining Museum are all named as anchor point sites on the route.

Wentworth Woodhouse and Wentworth Castle Gardens, which are essential components of the whole story of industry in the region, are also being named as important sites on the ERIH route, which is entitled Makers, Miners and Money.

Hopefully the route will help drive tourism in the region for years to come and raise the profile of the area as a visitor destination based on the fascinating historical stories arising from this industrial legacy, many of which are revealed by research and interpretation at the anchor sites.

It’s terrific to see how through initiatives like ERIH, local authorities, the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage are committed to preserving industrial heritage, to revealing fascinating stories and to engaging people in their history.

Here in Yorkshire, local authorities worked together during the Tour de France and demonstrated the value and impact of collaborative working and marketing. The heritage route is yet another example of how we can work together, though it hasn’t always been like this.

After the Second World War, it was very much the preserve of voluntary groups to campaign for the preservation of canals, railways and crumbling buildings.

British industry was seen as gritty and dull, and anyone suggesting that a cavernous former steelworks on the outskirts of Rotherham would one day be turned into an award-winning visitor attraction celebrating heavy industry would probably have been laughed out of town.

Volunteers are still tremendously important but, without doubt, it’s the support of funders like English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund that have been instrumental in our nation turning a corner.

Several years ago, English Heritage commissioned a survey into people’s attitudes towards industrial heritage and it made excellent reading in that around two-thirds of those surveyed in Yorkshire agreed the Industrial Revolution was the most important period of British history.

Our history is important to us. In recent weeks we’ve seen a national commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. As a nation, we’ve reflected on our ancestors’ bravery and sacrifice. TV’s Who Do You Think You Are? has recently notched up 10 years and 100 shows and our appetite to know more about our predecessors is ever increasing.

For lots of us based in Yorkshire, the stories of the past are intrinsically linked to the history of industry. To understand our personal history, we need to understand where our jobs came from, how the region’s wealth was created, what it was like to sweat at the coal face and in the mills. Industrial heritage isn’t something separate to our personal stories; it’s a core part of it.

Our region is full of industrial heritage from the medieval period through to ore mining, coal mining, quarrying, steel working, textiles and much more besides.

Former industrial sites have often been transformed into visitor attractions, telling fascinating stories that captivate and enthral visitors of all ages.

I hope the new route serves to introduce both Yorkshire residents and tourists from across the world to the wonderful architecture and history we have in our county.

Our history and heritage is on every street corner. It’s free for us to enjoy and, as custodians, it’s our duty to protect it and celebrate it.

Dr John Tanner is Museum and Heritage Project Manager at Barnsley Council.