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Heritage centre showcases 6,000 years of West Cardiff history

29 September 2021

A community project which has helped people connect with the rich history of their local area is celebrating the completion of a new £650,000 community and visitor attraction.

The Hidden Hillfort Community Heritage Centre is the culmination of a ten-year programme of community initiatives led by the Caerau and Ely Rediscovering (CAER) Heritage Project, a partnership between Cardiff University, Action in Caerau and Ely (ACE), local schools, residents and heritage partners.

Attended by First Minister Mark Drakeford in his capacity as the Member of Senedd for Cardiff West, the opening showcased the new state-of-the-art building and surrounding garden with volunteer-led tours running throughout the day and a VR experience and archaeological finds on display.

A new prehistoric-themed children’s playground, funded by Wales and West Housing and Cardiff Council, is also now open to families.

Caerau hillfort is a heritage site of national significance with Neolithic, Iron Age, Roman and medieval origins yet it remains poorly appreciated and largely unknown.

Local involvement, co-creation and community participation

The centre, a redeveloped gospel hall on Church Road, will act as a gateway for visitors to discover the 6,000-year history of Caerau and Ely – two vibrant Cardiff communities which face some significant social and economic challenges.

Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, it will be a place for volunteers, local residents, school pupils and visitors to explore and celebrate Caerau Hillfort alongside heritage professionals, artists, academics and university students.

Over the coming months, the project team will plan heritage trails, art installations, information and signage around the monument, heritage themed gardens, a community fridge and heritage food projects to address local challenges including food poverty.

This kind of local involvement, co-creation and community participation has always been at the heart of the CAER Heritage project and Co-director Dr Oliver Davis hopes the Centre will act as a catalyst to get more people involved.

Dr Davis, who is a Senior Lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of History, Archaeology and Religion, said: “The visitor centre is the culmination of ten years of work by thousands of participants, many being school children, volunteers and residents from the local area.

“Over that time we’ve worked together to co-create geophysical surveys, museum exhibitions, adult learners’ courses, art installations, creative writing, dance performances, banner processions, history projects, films and heritage trails.

“We want to involve those same people in our discussions about the centre too, so we can ensure that it best serves them and their communities going forward.”

Dave Horton, Co-Director of Action in Caerau and Ely, added: “We’re building on years of research that we’ve carried out with local people through the CAER Heritage project, based on this amazing historical site.

“And the idea of the Centre is for it to really put this place on the map and provide a gateway to the monument, so that first and foremost local people can access it, understand it and embrace it as an important part of their community and an important part of their story.

“But also we want it to run as a community centre as well. So we want it to be a space that local people can use for all kinds of activities and projects that help benefit their community and also a place where they can build on their skills, energy and enthusiasm so they can make changes they want to see in the local area.”

Breaking down barriers to higher education

CAER Heritage opens up new educational opportunities for people of all ages including scholarships schemes and skills development at Cardiff University. The project team hopes that the new Centre will become a hub to further break down barriers to higher education for local volunteers like Doug, 60, who lives in Caerau and joined the project after a near-miss car crash.

He said: “We’d been involved in an accident and I was having a lot of bad dreams and didn’t want to go out. I kept having thoughts about what would’ve happened if it’d been a few inches closer. I still don’t like driving past the spot where it happened.”

A full-time carer for his wife, Doug found the project helped him get out of the house again and into the surrounding woodlands.

“Once this took off, I just had a bit more interest. It’s a nice place to come and work and it keeps me fit too because I hike up here. I like to get out into the woods and help get them tidied up. To be part of this big project is fantastic. It’s a good atmosphere and basically we’re a community,” he said.

Participating in the project also reignited Doug’s love for history, which led him onto the Exploring the Past pathway programme at Cardiff University.

“I spent most of my time at school sat at the back messing about, so getting onto the pathway to a degree course has been the main change for me. I doubt that I would have got to this point on my own,” he said.

With the opening of the visitor centre and heritage trails underway, Doug wants to see the woods developed next, to create jobs for the local community.

“I’d like to set up a wood yard as it would’ve been back in Roman times to make simple things like fences. You weave them out of branches, so basically it would be somewhere that would produce these and use them on the site. It would go with the theme and the general atmosphere of the place,” Doug explained. Find out more about the CAER Heritage Project.