In the light of such a precedent, one might have thought that another "emblem of... struggle" would deserve similar protection, even if it "holds no special architectural or historic interest".
The artefact in question is a steel, wood and rubber gateway leading to Dale Farm near Basildon in the English county of Essex. It has been constructed by travellers who have lived on the site for many years. Their presence has led to a long-running legal battle. Now, with the prospect of being forcibly evicted, the travellers' leaders approached English Heritage and asked them to grant listed status to the gateway leading to their homes. This portal has become both a protective barrier and a backdrop for protest banners advertising their cause. As such it has become an "emblem of a struggle for traveller rights" (cited in BBC 2011).
The travellers' application was nevertheless rejected by the current Heritage Minister, John Penrose. After taking advice from English Heritage, he concluded:
"Although clearly a structure which is significant for the travellers at Dale Farm, the tubular steel,
wood and rubber construction holds no special architectural or historic interest and does not
therefore meet the criteria for listing" (cited in Milne 2011).
The traveller community lacks the wherewithal to turn "their heritage" into "national heritage". Because be in no doubt: heritage is never truly universal. The National Trust might now have four million members, but its definition of heritage is no more national than it is natural or neutral.
This can be illustrated by the case of Birmingham Central Library. How many card-carrying National Trust members believe that John Madin's "raw concrete" Brutalist building from 1974 constitutes "heritage"? John Penrose's predecessor in government certainly didn't think so. In 2009, Margaret Hodge - the then Minister for Culture and Tourism - went against the advice of English Heritage by rejecting a bid that would have seen it listed (Waite 2009). It is therefore at just as high a risk of demolition as Dale Farm's gateway. Neither are heritage. Why? Because the likes of Penrose and Hodge say so.
The residents of Dale Farm are unlikely to attract many architectural historians to their cause. Birmingham Central Library fares rather better. It has drawn the support of the World Monuments Fund (WMF). The library, together with Preston bus station (Ingham, Wilson & Stazicker, 1968-9), has been included on WMF's "mounments at risk" list under the mantra "British Brutalism" (WMF 2012). These two secular icons have some unlikely sacred bedfellows in the shape of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire; the ruins of the former cathedral church of St Michael in Coventry; and Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight.
What will future generations say if the Dale Farm gateway and British Brutalism are destroyed? The brutal truth is that no one knows (Williams 2008: 7).
We should instead focus on the here-and-now. If a cracked old bell can attract millions of worshippers, then there is absolutely nothing to stop any old bit of concrete or steel becoming heritage. The trick is to convince enough people of something's worth - and then transform that minority interest into "our" heritage: a precious resource that simply must be protected in perpetuity.
This isn't some innocent pastime: "preservation is an act of making future generations understand what we want them to know about the past" (Williams 2008: 7). Thus to refuse to safeguard something by denying it the status of "heritage" is to attempt a double erasure: firstly from the landscape of the present and, secondly, from the annals of future history.
BBC (2011) "Dale Farm gateway listing bid rejected", BBC News, 28/09, accessed 07/10/2011 at,
Callahan, Robey (1999) "The Liberty Bell: From Commodity to Sacred Object", Journal of Material Culture,
Vol. 4, Iss. 1, pp. 57-78
Milne, Roger (2011) "Dale Farm listing bid fails", Planning Portal, 29/09, accessed 07/10/2011 at,
Waite, Richard (2009) "Hodge refuses to list Birmingham Central Library", The Architects' Journal, 23/11,
accessed 07/10/2011 at,
Williams, Paul (2008) "Going Critical: On the Historic Preservation of the World's First Nuclear Reactor",
Future Anterior, Vol. 5, Iss. 2, pp. 1-18
WMF (2012) "2012 World Monuments Watch", accessed 07/10/2011 at,
The clearing of Dale Farm began today. This prompts further reflection on the decision not to list the barriers around the site. English Heritage couched its response as follows:
The barricades at Dale Farm do not begin to have the high architectural
interest essential to meet the criteria for listing on architectural grounds.
In historic terms, the current case is just too recent for historic importance
to be a relevant factor.(1)
Aesthetics and temporal factors are thus decisive. Is this always the case? Well, consider the twisted, disfigured steel rods jutting out from the ruins of the World Trade Center on 11th September 2001. Were they of "high architectural interest"? Did judgement have to be deferred to some future date before society could ascertain their "historic importance"? Of course not.
Whatever one's view on the legality of the Dale Farm settlement, don't be fooled by English Heritage's confident dismissal. The gateway to the site did have heritage potential. Only time will tell if future generations will mourn its loss...
(1) English Heritage (2011) "Dale Farm - Application to list the scaffolding gateway", 29/09, accessed 19/10/2011 at, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/about/news/dale-farm/