Sunday, 11 November 2012

How Nottingham was nearly Birmingham: Highway Engineering in the 1960s

(Click on images to enlarge)

This was going to be Nottingham - but it looks like Birmingham

Blaming planners for ugly towns is a bit like blaming doctors for eugenics. A one sided kick in the teeth for a practice, which has often achieved a lot of social good, and just as there are different kinds of doctors, with the different political motives, historical contexts and specialisms, then the same is true with planners.

The 1965 Traffic Plan

Take the largely unimplemented 1965 Nottingham traffic plan, drawn up by the FM Little the then Highway Engineer and Planning Officer. No doubt at the time it was influenced by contemporary thinking and developments such as the Buchannan 'Traffic in Towns’, which sort to forestall anticipated grid lock by separating pedestrians from cars and investing heavily in extensive highway engineering. Birmingham, ever re-inventing itself (and throwing away its past) was one of the biggest proponents with Highway Engineer Herbert Manzoni seen my many engineer at the time as some sort of hero. Manzoni retired in 1963 having planned the inner ring in the 40s. Manzoni is described in the Birmingham Pevsner guide as "ambivalent to town planning, indifferent to architecture and contemptuous of history". Ouch!

The proposed motorway and dual layout system - key

The proposed motorway and dual layout system - map detail

So how did this thinking physically effect Nottingham? Maid Marion Way scythed through the Norman street pattern, and busy Victorian shopping streets in St Ann's and The Meadows were lost. Yet unlike Birmingham this provoked a powerful conservationist backlash which is still with us today. Nottingham of course sees itself as a historic town - and rightly so, but this mindset has often created a reluctance about building for the future (for more on that read myself and Adrian Jones' blog on the city's planning history here) Nottingham was thirty years behind Birmingham in embarking on a new road building programe yet by this time there was a strong national reaction to urban motorways, and so the city was accidently saved by its own complacency.

The central area traffic plan

Yet before we embark on a criticism of Little's 1965 traffic plan it is important to remember what Nottingham was like before the redevelopment of the 1960s. Parts of the old Victorian inner city were known for their poverty and physical dilapidation. For example most people in St Ann's were without hot water, baths or their own toilet, never mind their own inside toilet. All this was embellished  through Ken Coates and Richard Silburn's sociological study "Poverty and Forgotten Englishmen" - although much of this was refuted by various local residents (more on that later). There are reports of gutters blocked with industrial fat, flooded cellars, broken sewage systems and epidemics of lice. Independent surveys showed that most people actually wanted to move out into better areas and so the stories of displaced communities when St Ann's was redeveloped are not clear-cut. There was little room for car parking, terrible through traffic in residential streets, no room for new consumer goods and many houses in very poor structural condition with streets covered in brick dust. So FM Little was under political pressure to start a new, use fresh ideas and do something radical and quick.

Park Way, flying over the Park Estate

But Little was a Highway Engineer and not a Planner, and so his report was myopic in the extreme: focusing solely on highways and not on social, economic, landscape or historic information. A planner is like a jack of all trades, responding to different political view points and social and economic pressures when most interest groups only consider their own.  The city's first architect David Jenkin was only appointed in '64 and doesn't appear to have been directly involved, so this was a case of highway first, architecture second. It was hardly an an integrated plan. The report was almost instantly opposed by his fellow planning officers in the Corporation of Nottingham (the Council), the Nottingham Civic Society and a number of local residents associations - especially in St Ann's. In the end it was actually dropped after central government weighed in, probably anticipating further opposition and funding problems if this scheme went ahead.

The Eastern Bypass: roughly Alfred St, Manvers St and LadyBay

So how horrific was it? Very. The Aboreturn and The Park estate would have had a 2 lane dual flyover. Huge junctions and slipways would have sat heavily over Forest Road, St Ann's Wells Road and Huntingdon St. The first inner city suburbs (St Ann's, the Meadows, All Saints) would have been physically and physiologically cut off the post 1877 suburbs (Basford, Forest Fields, Lenton and Sneinton). St Ann's would be cut into four islands and Eastcroft would have a giant flyover and bridge crossing adjacent to Lady Bay. Mansfield Road would be a 3 lane motorway. The Lace Market would have been intersected by a slipway. It doesn't bear thinking about.

Forest Way flying over the Arboretum and All Saints

But FM Little didn't have hindsight. We now know about traffic inducement - if you build more roads for cars then there will be more cars and less pedestrians and public transport. In short he didn't know that it would in time create another grid lock; only one which was larger and uglier than before. We can all imagine a blackened concrete flyover creating a constant droning noise during a Sunday stroll through a desolate Arboretum.

1970 St Ann’s redevelopment showing failed Eastern Bypass

So thank god complacent democratic Nottingham stopped it eh? Or stopped most of it at least - you can still find traces of the Eastern bypass following Alfred Street to Alfred Street South. The southern end of Barker Gate is still a vacant plot awaiting a slipway which never came, and of course we still have the awful 'unwelcome to Nottingham' Broadmarsh gyratory. Maid Marion Way has recently been gently tamed - pedestrians can cross over it rather than under it. What we have now in Nottingham is a city which is comparatively good for walking, cycling and is often seen as a public transport exemplar. Much of this would have been near impossible if 1965 traffic plan wasn’t opposed by the local residents and subsequent generations of city planners.

 The St Ann’s Radburn layout, again showing failed Eastern Bypass

The redevelopment of St Ann's can rightly be criticised for an incoherent Radburn layouts, poor shopping streets and often stark landscape. Yet in someways these massive postwar schemes were successful: after redevelopment all residents had hot water, structurally better houses, room for new consumer goods, more green space, and a healthier environment. Coates' survey showed that most residents preferred the new St Ann's but the biggest thing they missed was the shopping streets and pubs. However, "St Ann's Inner City Voices" by Ruth Johns, refutes a number of Coates and Siburn's arguments through many first hand accounts and argues that people were displaced. There is a general perspective that the area needed the attention but in the end it was far too insensitive. It also shows there have been much campaigning since by SATRA (St Ann's Tenants and Residents Association), FF (Nottingham's Family First) and various councillors to make improvements since. Nevertheless Johns is rightly upset about the area's currently undeserved contemporary reputation and highlights the various active social organisations going strong.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

River Leen Greenway: Bulwell – Basford car free route

This is my latest piece of work: A designed and authored historical guide to a car free cycle and pedestrian route. The River Leen Greenway runs from Bulwell to Basford. The first edition has currently been printed and distributed by The Greater Nottingham Transport Partnership. The booklets can be collected from most libraries, cycle shops and the tourist information centre. Or people can email admin AT to get a copy post out to them.

In case you haven't already stumbled across a copy, I've uploaded the content and its images in the following blog post. I hope you enjoy it and have a pleasant wander around the area. Oh, and a pdf copy of the document can be downloaded here.

Bulwell - Basford

Beside the River Leen heading towards Basford

The Bulwell to Basford car free route follows the River Leen as it flows south from as far as Newstead Abbey and falls into the River Trent at Wilford. The River Leen was embanked in the 1960s and since then the river has often been forgotten about despite its important history. Today paths are being built alongside the river so that people can enjoy the history and wildlife once again. Of particular note on this route is a medieval street pattern, a Victorian battle for public recreation, the horrors of the workhouse, three former railway embankments and some proud industrial remains. Today the route ends at Basford but in future it is planned that the pathway will be extended to as far as Wilford, in order to provide a sustainable free transport and leisure corridor from the north to the south of the city.

Heading towards Bulwell with St Mary's overlooking the Greenway

1. Bulwell Town

Commercial Rd with former shop fronts

Between Commercial Road, Main Street and Station Road the medieval street pattern survives. This radically changed in the 1970s when Bulwell nearly doubled in population with the building of housing estates on the town’s western side. These estates were built on farm land, potteries, collieries and stone quarries. Many people thought the traffic would increase and so a ring road and flyover was constructed cutting Commercial Road in two, yet thankfully somefine and historic buildings survive.

Strelley House

Strelley House is the oldest and dates from 1667 and was an early charity school funded by George Strelley of Hempshill. The nearby dovecote also dates from this time and was a useful source of meat. Bulwell’s architectural heyday was in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, when the town was booming with nearby collieries, quarries and bleachworks.

Sheltons Solicitors - originally designed as a doctor's surgery

Main Street is littered with interesting buildings from this busy period and perhaps the most original is currently under the care of Sheltons Solicitors. This was built as a doctors surgery in 1919, designed by a local man and features a fine first floor stone oriel window.

2. Bulwell Bogs

The 1830s stone bridge carries the ancient river crossing at Bulwell

The changing history of Bulwell Bogs can be charted via its three bridges. The oldest is the 1830s stone bridge which once carried the only route to Basford now known as Station Road. This ancient route features nineteenth century houses, some of which are built out of magnesium limestone, which was quarried nearby and called Bulwell Stone.

The bogs waterside recreation park

The bogs were always a source of fun and recreation in Victorian Bulwell until a land owner attempted to enclose the grounds in 1871. A dispute ensued known as “the battle of the bogs” which was only resolved by Nottingham Corporation, who agreed to purchase and preserve the bogs in 1879.

The iron footbridge built in 1880

A year later the iron footbridge was built - note the leisurely lattice balustrade with curved brackets. Seven years later the Highbury Road bridge was completed and is marked by the fantastic Public Hall built in 1895 for entertainment and early cinema shows. History repeated itself in 2002 when local residents successfully campaigned to save the Bogs from development.

3. The Workhouse

The old perimeter wall of the Workhouse

Along Northcote Way an old perimeter Bulwell Stone wall is clearly visible, this was built when Highbury Hospital was originally Basford Workhouse - a Victorian prison for the unemployed poor. Its history begins in 1814 during a period of rising unemployment and economic uncertainty. The government sought to control the situation via the workhouse, a place wherethe poor were incarcerated upon receiving benefits. Inmates had to wear uniform and were given hard labour such as stone breaking, digging or uncoiling rope, while men and women were segregated both from each other and the outside world. Food rations were weighed before eating and the day-today routine was disciplined by religious instruction. Over 300 inmates jostled for space alongside children, the sick, the disabled and the elderly. By the 1930s it was gradually replaced by a more successful system of education and healthcare.

4. The Railways

Formally a landscape crossed by railways

Between the Deptford Crescent footbridge and Highbury Vale tram stop there were three railway tracks crossing over the River Leen and heading west, two of which left the main Nottingham - Worksop line, while another crossed the Leen Valley after circling the eastern half ofthe city. The first was Thomas North’s colliery line, constructed during a mid ninteenth century economic boom in Nottingham, as land was released for building factories which demanded fuel from the coalfields of West Nottinghamshire. The tram to Phoenix Park follows the original route to North’s mid nineteenth century colliery at Cinderhill. Stanton Tip is a reminder of the millions of tons, which were hauled out of the earth here. The other two lines were built by famous railway companies who were competing with eachother to supply coal to the city.

Archaeological remains of the Gt Northern Railway

The huge embankment beside a pedestrian footpath to Garton Close still preserves the remains of this Great Northern Railway line which arrived in 1876. Unnerved by their rival, the Midland Railway followed this route only six years later. Today you can stand on the earthen remains of the route before the footbridge which connects to Deptford Crescent.

5. Industry

Pearson’s former bleach works

The River Leen had always meandered near Davids Lane and in the nineteenth century it was a hive of industrial activity and experimentation. Our first relic is the mill on Mill Street, which was built in the early nineteenth century to grind corn from the fields to make flour - a reminder that agriculture wasn’t far away. The mill leet which was the watercourse that powered the mill, is still visible. Some of the numerous riverside millers between here and Papplewick were also innovators in cotton spinning and bleaching. George Pearson and Co’s bleachworks was built by the 1880s on Southwark Street - one of many factories which used the waters of the River Leen and Daybrook in order to dye Nottingham Lace perfect white.

E Sallis hosiery manufacturer beside the Vernon Park entrance

Until the City Council bought Vernon Park in 1900, it was formally the ornamental lake and garden of a bleachworks owner. Despite the decline of hosiery at Basford, Ernest Sallis and Co’s works on Waterford Way is a remarkable survival and an architectural gem. The building is complete in its original 1950s deco style and is still run by the family descendants.

Wonderfully intact cool 1950s typography