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The Guardian view on working-class heritage: smokehouses, smithies and so much more

<span>Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA</span>
Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

The sight of smoke billowing from the roof of a listed building would usually bring fire engines blue-lighting in from miles around, but in the Northumberland village of Craster it is a sign of business as usual. Four generations of the Robson family have smoked kippers in a lowly stone building that was given a Grade II listing last week.

The listing is a tribute to a way of life as well as to the smokehouse itself, which dates back to 1856. It is a recognition that the work of traditional kipper smoking has itself become part of the industrial heritage. L Robson & Sons is one of few survivors in the north-east of England of a once-thriving herring industry that fell into decline in the early 20th century, when improved transport links and refrigeration made fresh fish cheaper and more widely available.

The north-east is full of disused buildings once associated with the fishing industry. A hydraulic tower and pump house on Hull’s docks are among several in the Yorkshire city that were added this summer to an at risk register compiled by the campaign group Save Britain’s Heritage. The award of Grade II listed status back in 1994 has done nothing to stop their deterioration, and they are now a sorry sight.

Another pump house in the docks had an well-received makeover five years ago, raising the question that always hangs over the preservation of industrial heritage: what to protect and what to let go. “Part of the cycle of city life is that it eats itself,” said the urban architectural pioneer Dan Dubowitz, who has applied that principle to his own work in Manchester. With the Ancoats Peeps, he created a trail of installations inside old industrial buildings that could only be viewed via peepholes in the walls. As the buildings were redeveloped the peeps disappeared.

This is not to say that permanent memorials of a working-class past are not as important as castles and stately homes. There is no better way for the children of the former south Wales coalfields to learn about the lot of their forefathers than to take the 90-metre pit cage journey down the mineshaft of the Big Pit of Blaenafon, which ended its 120-year working life in 1980. But preservation should not be fetishised at all costs. Save Britain’s Heritage is right to make repurposing and integration part of its mission to support threatened buildings. London’s Tate Modern and Gateshead’s Baltic Centre show how dynamic the results can be.

The listing of premises such as L Robson & Sons is not sentimental. It offers protection against a wrecking-ball short-termism that led to a warning in 2020 from the Victorian Society about a generational threat to Britain’s historic buildings. In the case of the Cornish village of Mawnan Smith, it gave time and leverage to bring the forge – after which the village is named – back to life following a 30-year closure. The changes in planning regulations that led to the warning, allowing landlords to demolish empty buildings and replace them with new-build houses, are now being reconsidered.

An evolving engagement is needed if humble buildings, whose value lies in their function, are to be anything more than piles of brick and mortar. So an everyday heritage grant scheme, launched last year by Historic England, is also to be welcomed. The variety of projects it has so far supported, ranging from blacksmithing to various forms of local storytelling, is a reminder that heritage takes many forms in many places – and it comes to life through the minds and actions of the living.