Saturday, 5 April 2008

What to do with old towns

I'm back from a trip where I'd hoped to get photos but the light was no good: Hay-on-Wye, Malvern and the Severn Way.

The first was the best. Hay-on-Wye is a small, densely textured, hand-made town, topologically interesting (on a hill with a perfect riverish river below it) and architecturally intriguing. Every building is different, and every combination of buildings creates a different space with constant variety of slope, width, scope of view and angularity. Nearly every building is in stone and slate, and each represents a separate venture by the builders, who’ve been at it since medieval times. Presumably because in modern times, before the book trade came, the place was of little economic importance there are few recent buildings to spoil it – in contrast with Tewkesbury which we later walked the length of, a formerly handsome town made dirty, noisy and visually squalid by traffic and post-war building.

The famous bookshops in Hay are as good as their reputation claims, often representing inspired ‘repurposing’ of good old buildings. This was most notably in Booths: three storeys of bookshelves, generously laid out, on the spacious stone floors on what had been a vast warehouse and sales depot for agricultural supplies (seed and the like). The wooden staircases were wide with fine carved balustrades. And although the town had its gift shops, overall it was not tackily touristy: the book trade was too dominant, and, presumably, the annual festival which doubtless brings a crowd that prefers books, coffee-places and restaurants to ‘gifts’.

I wonder how many sad and moribund small towns that have outlived their economic importance could be revived by taking on some such new specialist function. There are magnificent vast buildings doing nothing much in places like Dewsbury. On our drive back through the Cotswolds old mills had been converted for antiques sales, a development I feel less enthusiastic about but performing, I suppose, a real redistributive function in an economic transformation whereby older objects of utility lose their use value, to be replaced by Ikea furniture and John Lewis saucepans; the antiques sales change this stuff into items of aesthetic and exchange value. But I'd rather see something being made, or something local being sold, in our old towns and cities: is that feeling just a sentimental refusal to embrace modernity?

We stayed in Malvern as a base for walking some of the Severn Way. It’s a once-classy, comfortable Edwardian town, Elgar-saturated, which unlike Edinburgh spreads over the lower eastern slope on one side of a sudden long ridge that springs abruptly from a broad plain. We climbed the hill’s well-worn paths in late afternoon and caught, when the cloud lifted, the sun setting over the Welsh hills, and the sunnier valley behind us to the east; an experience of concentrated and spectacular geography. We saw sun and cloud over the Welsh mountains to the west and the wide plain to the east. But the town, once prosperous because of the water from the springs from which we refilled our bottles, had evidently outlived its point and seemed depressed, with too many charity shops. Due for repurposing like Hay. But the appealing Red Lion pub which its terrific meals in the bar didn’t feel at all moribund.

The Severn was undoubtedly a river of substance but less dramatic than I'd hoped, the water low and hardly moving. I'd love to see it in spate. Evidence of last summer’s flood was everywhere in obliterated sections of footpath, improvised earth defences and plastic bags in trees. It was still good, coming from London and Surrey, to be able to walk for six miles and back along it through uninterrupted countryside with a constant variety of bird life – grazing swans and geese, a heron silhouetted on a topmost branch -- and signs of incipient spring. (The Severn Way did take us under the M50, but that didn’t seem too intrusive.) Tewkesbury, our furthest point, was a let-down, and the hotel we hit on awful, but on our walk back the sun came out, it felt like the real start of spring and Upton-upon-Severn, where we ended, had fine buildings and a riverside pub.

Pershore, Worcs., finally, which we drove through on the way back to London, seemed worth revisiting: an intact old town that at least architecturally looked inspiring. Whether it has much of an economy we couldn’t tell.

Concluding thought on architecture: although we saw nothing notable in the way of contemporary building, either in commercial premises or housing, it does exist – e.g. some of the houses in Grand Designs. What I don’t think I've ever come across, though, is good design of estates, neighbourhoods or quarters, nothing that’s as satisfying as the configurations that arose in old towns as a result of a few major imperatives, like space for a market in the main street, and constraints, like having to use local materials. And the absence of planning regulations governing width of streets, distance between buildings etc. These conditions led to ‘rich texture’ and visual density. Modern planning rules and materials don’t seem to have resulted yet in towns that are good to walk in.

Modern architecture is great at the massing of large forms, and at the detail of handrails and doorknobs, but its intervening spaces tend to be dead: too much roadway and parking space, and boring grass around buildings that are themselves insufficiently articulated to be interesting as you walk past them rather than viewing them from a distance. In Hay there were ‘spaces left over after planning’ that got used interestingly, for piles of timber or for kids to play on. All the new housing developments we saw depressed the spirits, although the individual houses were often inoffensive. The prospect doesn’t look good for these new ‘eco-towns’.

1 comment:

Pandora said...

Hi Pete, thanks for sending the link to your blog. I've read back through your posts, and really enjoyed your musings on class politics, architecture, furniture and assorted other subjects. I also followed a link to Jim's blog. Good to see him prospering with his work!