I'm planning a day out every Thursday this month, with each trip further than the last. Starting here...
When Oscar Wilde named his most famous character after Bracknell, it was a small Berkshire market town. In 1948 it was selected as one of the first postwar New Towns, thanks to a convenient railway station and an abundance of poor quality agricultural land. Today it has a population of over eighty thousand, strung across thickly wooded residential neighbourhoods surrounding a twice-rebuilt core. It's not unpleasant. Here are ten places of interest I tracked down yesterday. Hang on in there for the last one. [9 photos]
Bracknell's original town centre was erased in the 1950s and replaced by a Brutalistheart. You might have liked it. But the appeal of the concrete walkways faded, and shoppers started preferring trips to Reading, so the council moved in with a brave redevelopment plan. Much of the town centre was demolished, making the retail offering temporarily worse, and reopened in 2017 as a sprawling outdoor mall called The Lexicon. It's now very much the kind of place that people who like shopping like - a gamble won. The council thus have their eyes on surrounding blocks, including the bus station, a former department store and the entirety of the CivicSquare, so come quickly if concrete is your thing.
A tiny handful of properly old buildings have survived double redevelopment, and now sit incongruously amid a landscape of chainstores, restaurants and office blocks. One of these is a 14th century pub called The Bull, which looks fabulous until you spot the hideous glass restaurant extension grafted on at the rear. Alongside the ring road is a Tudor manorhouse with a priest hole, currently a Wetherspoons. I also spotted a half-timbered smokehouse grill, an isolated cottage inhabited by estate agents and the old parish church, but my word, playing Spot The Old Building is hard. If you ever visit Bracknell, award yourself 100 points every time you spot a building over 100 years old, and 500 points if you ever spot two such buildings next to each other. I scraped 1000 only by trawling the suburbs.
Until 2003 the Met Office was based in Bracknell, after which they scarpered to Exeter to give a less prosperous region a chance. Today the only reminders they were ever here are the Met Office Roundabout alongside and the delightfully named Weather Way (which now serves a dead end car park and nothing much else).
When you're a new town you cling to your ancienthistory, so Bracknell makes a big deal of its midtown Bronze Age barrow. This can be found atop Bill Hill, a minor knoll surrounded by housing beyond the dual carriageway, although most of the earthworks have collapsed and visitors have to rely on several wooden sculptures and an information board for vintage presence.
This village was once the dominant settlement, so much so that the Bracknell area remained part of Easthampstead Rural District until 1974. Now entirely swallowed, its oldest building is the parish church of St Michael & St Mary Magdalene which has five sets of Edward-Burne-Jones stained glass windows within and a 1000-year old yew tree without. The only taller building is Point Royal, a seventeen storey hexagonal block of flats completed in 1964, and "one of the most distinctive architectural features in any of the English New Towns". Percy Shelley rented a cottage on Reed's Hill for few months, his blue plaque my most serendipitous stumble of the day.
Great Hollands/Crown Wood/Birch Hill/etc
Bracknell has many residential neighbourhoods, each spacious and green, linked by spine roads and a separate network of pedestrian cycleways. Houses are varied, generally desirable without being exclusive, including three bedroomers for prices that'd get you nothing in the capital. The neighbourhood shopping parade invariably contains a fish and chip shop, and probably an architecturally misjudged pub, and always a decent sized car park. Planners enjoyed giving individual cul-de-sacs one-word names, with almost 100 of these arranged alphabetically clockwise around Ringmead.
South Hill Park
The town's largest (and best-landscaped) park can be found in Birch Hill, and was formerly the private estate of South Hill Parkmansion. Built in 1760, its most famous wealthy resident was Prime Minister George Canning. Today it acts as Bracknell's arts centre, with studio and gallery space, a sculpture trail, a well-frequented cafe and the Wilde Theatre (whose first play in 1984 was obviously The Importance Of Being Earnest). Very nicely done.
Much of Bracknell was once forest, but a line was drawn south of Nine Mile Ride, beyond which an enormous area of woodland has been preserved. This is Swinley Forest, four square miles of Crown Estate at the southwest tip of Windsor Great Park. One small corner contains a Go Ape attraction, plus child-friendly science hub and tourist information centre, called The Lookout. But the remainder is magnificent pine and birch forest, commercially run, but threaded through with walking tracks and mountain bike trails. In no time I was out in the middle of nowhere, revelling in the vertical landscape, and top marks to the Queen for allowing her subjects full access.
It's badly named. We now know this huge hillfort on the edge of Swinley Forest is of Iron Age origin, but in the 18th century it was thought to be Roman because only they'd've had the skill to build it. An oakleaf-shaped rampart surrounds 18 acres of gorse-covered heath, once defended by our ancestors, now a brief footpath away from the outer suburbs. I had it entirely to myself, because that's Thursdays for you.
Picket Post Close, Martins Heron
You'll know this street, because it was used for the openingscenes of the very first Harry Potter film. The Dursleys lived at number 4 Privet Drive, which in reality is number 12 Picket Post Close, an otherwise insignificant cul-de-sac on the eastern edge of Bracknell close to a Tesco superstore. I followed in Dumbledore's footsteps round a short bend to a run of four identical brick townhouses, with Harry's lodgings being the last before a larger mock Tudor neighbour. One of the green bins fell over as I approached, which was likely the wind but might just have been magic. For all subsequent films the producers used a filmset on their Leavesden backlot, this being cheaper than paying residents for the inconvenience. I bet they're still sick of inquisitive daytrippers. Sorry.