Building back better may be an over-worked cliché, but it is at least constructive. It implies hope. It implies improvement. It implies the positive act of building. The important questions are: Will it happen? Will it be better? When will it start?

There is an old Welsh story about a farm labourer asked to clear stones from a large field. He asks the farmer, “Where do I start?” The farmer snaps back, “At your feet”.

The farmer was right, and his message is something that has increasingly been taken to heart by community organisations and policy makers here in Wales.

You see it in the profusion of community activity, in the attention being paid to the foundational economy, and in a golden thread that runs through the pioneering Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.

The National Wales:  Re-designed Castle forecourt, transforming a large tarmac car park into ornamental gardens. Image: Ian Ritchie Architects/Gustafson Porter and Bowman  Re-designed Castle forecourt, transforming a large tarmac car park into ornamental gardens. Image: Ian Ritchie Architects/Gustafson Porter and Bowman 

One of the places in Wales where that is happening is Merthyr Tydfil – a town that has written itself into the history of Wales in so many ways: the crucible of the industrial revolution, the largest centre of iron-making in the world through a large part of the 19th century, the place where the world’s first steam locomotive ran, the constituency of the first Labour MP, Keir Hardie, and a town of writers and artists and boxers.

Merthyr Tydfil is well-placed to build back better, being at the cross-roads of the north-south A470 and the east-west A465. By 2025 it will sit at the head of the electrified Metro rail system in the Taff valley, and alongside a fully-dualled Heads of the Valley road.

Watch Cyfarthfa Plan video on Vimeo

Both those developments will be complete just in time for the 200th anniversary of an unsung jewel in Merthyr’s crown, Cyfarthfa Castle and Park, built for the ironmaster William Crawshay II in 1825.

The big task facing the town and the nation is ensuring that Cyfarthfa Castle and its 160-acre park are given a new and augmented life in time for that anniversary. It can be the perfect exemplar for building back better.

Why do I say that? A newly formed Cyfarthfa Foundation has been created to realise the vision set out in an inspiring 20-year masterplan commissioned by Merthyr Council from a team of internationally renowned consultants led by Ian Ritchie Architects and landscape architects, Gustafson Porter and Bowman.

Ian Ritchie himself was involved in the design of the world-famous glass pyramid at the Louvre in Paris, while Gustafson Porter and Bowman are currently landscaping 40 acres around the Eiffel Tower.

The National Wales: The Iron Way - an aerial walkway that will link the Castle to the Cyfarthfa furnaces. This would echo the aqueduct that once took water across the valley to the furnaces. Image: Ian Ritchie Architects/Gustafson Porter and Bowman The Iron Way - an aerial walkway that will link the Castle to the Cyfarthfa furnaces. This would echo the aqueduct that once took water across the valley to the furnaces. Image: Ian Ritchie Architects/Gustafson Porter and Bowman 

This vision, set out in a voluminous and detailed report, is not about tarting up a local museum but rather the creation of a new national institution commemorating the past, addressing the present and looking to the future. It will be a wide-ranging project that can change the world’s view of Merthyr and, dare I say, Merthyr’s view of itself.  

The first of three themes, naturally, will be to celebrate the place’s rich history and history and heritage and its world impact: making the railways that crossed Europe, spawning iron centres in America, France and Russia, prompting social and political change.

It will entail rescuing a large part of the castle building much of which is in a poor state. It was built in two parts – the original castle in 1825 and school buildings for Cyfarthfa High School in the early part of the 20th century. The school left the building seven years ago and it has lain empty ever since. The elements have taken their toll.

The task ahead will be part restoration and part adaptation to create a modern museum able to deploy the most exciting exhibition techniques to attract 300,000 visitors a year instead of the current 60,000. 

The second theme is about the natural environment and the changes in that valley location ‘from green to black to green again’ over the last two and half centuries. The current Cyfarthfa Park is situated on the east side of the valley with the historic iron furnaces facing it on the western wide.

The plan is to re-connect both sides of the valley to create a 100-hectare park – that’s 250 acres – making it one of the largest public parks in Wales. It will sit cheek by jowl with the Brecon Beacons National Park, also embracing the Pont-y-Cafnau bridge – reputedly the oldest iron bridge in the world – at the confluence of the Taff and Taf Fechan rivers.

Together, the castle and the enlarged park will form a pivotal centrepiece to the proposed Valleys Regional Park, and give visible expression to the environmental aims of the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act.  

Arguably, the third theme will be the most important of all. It is about creativity and social renewal. In developing the masterplan for Cyfarthfa the consultants undertook a wide-ranging programme of consultation with organisations in the town and with schools, producing a rich bran tub of ideas for events and activities.

After all, a 20-year plan has to connect with the young people that will inherit it. It has to be a plan devised not just for the people of Merthyr, but with the people of Merthyr - fully engaging with the community, aiding the development of its skills, enriching its culture, and encouraging its businesses to respond to this powerful new string to its bow. The journey has begun.

Geraint Talfan Davies is Chair of The Cyfarthfa Foundation.