Much has been written about the demise of the university campus at Caerleon. A lot of pain has been caused and tears shed, over the loss of a teaching institution which had been central to the educational aspirations of thousands of students in south east Wales. Thanks to financial considerations and a Welsh Government educational policy which looks to the Valleys long before it looks to the east, Caerleon, Newport and the wider south east region, has been stripped of its one true higher education facility. This, however, is now a story well told and while it serves the spirit well to revisit and rant over the decisions that led us to the demise of this institution, little more can be gained from doing so. What fate awaits the physical campus though, is another matter altogether.
Just as the Roman amphitheatre dominates the lower part of Caerleon, surely the striking main campus building does the same for the upper part. For over a century, the distinctive clock tower of the Caerleon Campus has loomed large, maintain a watchful eye over the community below. Like some manner of guardian, locals and visitors alike would always, in living memory, be able to look uphill and spy the tower, clock face and usual giant Welsh flag flying from on top. The main campus building has become an integral part of the landscape, and its absence should be considered unthinkable.
Yet, absence and the loss of this historical educational building is a very real concern. The University of South Wales have recently launched a public appeasement exercise, attempting to ease the fears, or perhaps simply distract and dupe local residence, about their future plans for the campus. The university claims to be seeking to create a positive legacy and not, as most suspect of the organisation, sell off the campus to the highest bidder for the construction of several mega flat complexes. It has been said that while the main campus building is a concern to be kept, if it is not considered “viable” there is a good chance it will be demolished – take heed of the word “viable”.
As a former member of staff at the Caerleon Campus, we were regularly told by USW of the concerns of viability. Our departments were encouraged to fight for their survival, with the threat that if we were deemed “not viable”, we would be gone. Regardless of what we did, or the validity of arguments put forward, or basic facts, we were deemed “not viable”. Track record would suggest that once this organisation starts questioning the viability of something, it means that they have already decided on the viability of whatever is in question, and deemed it fit for the chopping block.
Now, it is assumed by many that the Caerleon Campus main building is a listed property, but discussion in recent weeks appears to have cast doubt on this. The assumption was that the main building was a Grade II structure – though that status would do little in real world terms to prevent major structural changes to the fabric of the building. However, a petition has now sprung up campaigning for the main building to secure listed status (whether it already has it or not). I would be arguing for Grade II* status, a level which would afford far more protection for the building than Grade II, but perhaps some protection is better than none. Whatever the case, if you feel the architectural landscape of Caerleon is worth keeping, or if you just want to stick it to USW, get on board with this campaign, and fight to preserve what remains of a once great educational institution in the heart of Caerleon.
Rest assured, without a vocal show of support, this building is in real danger of being lost. If you follow the professional archaeological grapevine in south Wales, you might have heard rumours coming out of the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust, that USW have been working hard to avoid any archaeological assessments being completed on campus. connected to any prospective development work – remembering that this is a Roman cemetery site, which is still riddled with archaeology. If there is any truth to this, it would be a troubling indictment on USW and their attitude towards the heritage of Caerleon. That discussion could even take place on whether or not the main building should survive, is a damning indication of the true motivations of this company.
Buildings, once demolished, are gone forever. Caerleon has already lost much in the last few years, it does not deserve to lose its architecture as well. It also certainly does not deserve to be lumbered with massive new developments, were the campus to be converted for homes. The population of this once small village has long since run over capacity – any mid to large scale development from this point on would cripple the community and render the town almost uninhabitable – strong words perhaps, but such are the problems with congestion, and pressure on local services (I still have nightmares of the GP practice in Caerleon), that more development on the campus would really be a final nail in the coffin.
It might just be one prominent building, but the historical narratives tied up in the Caerleon Campus run deep, while the negative social impacts were it to be replaced with flats would be profound. There is much at stake when it comes to the Caerleon Campus main building, too much to let it go head to head with a wrecking ball. Please help Caerleon retain some sense of its educational and architectural heritage, and in doing so, you might just help preserve the communities that live in the shadow of the clock tower for generations to come.
The petition can be found here: CADW: Make the Historic Main Building in Caerleon Campus a Grade II Listed Building