diamond geezer

 Monday, June 14, 2010

Most areas of Britain have their own tourist website.
Some make more plausible claims than others.
"Whether you're planning a few hours, a few days or a lifetime here, Harlow won't disappoint."
That's Harlow, the new town off the M11 on the western edge of Essex. Surely only a nutcase, or somebody living on the doorstep, would ever consider visiting Harlow for kicks? But if you're the sort of person who reads this blog, which you evidently are, then Harlow might well hold your attention for a few hours. A few days, though, absolutely not.

plaque in Old Harlow High StreetThere are two Harlows - the old one, and the much larger new one which swallowed it whole. Old Harlow's in the northeastern corner, close to a Roman settlement by the railway line. You can see the site of the Roman temple from the train - it's the only spot that's still grass and hasn't been overtaken by warehouses or industry. The old town's based around the wiggly crossroads at George Corner, with proper pubs and a proper bakery and all the proper stuff a small pre-war town might have generated. The insurance brokers by the bank was the birthplace of Sarah Flower Adams, authoress of the hymn "Nearer My God To Thee", the one supposedly playing while the Titanic went down. She's the pinnacle of Harlow's history, she is, which says a lot.

Across the dual carriageway, nowhere you'd find by mistake, is The Museum of Harlow. It's set among a series of delightful gardens, which somebody clearly takes very good care of. The man on reception seemed confused by my arrival ("are you here for the event?"), later mentioning my presence to the duty manager ("actually a proper visitor!"). I fear they don't get many. And yet Harlow's past provides an almost-perfect potted microcosm of our nation's history. Roman remains in gallery one (pots, tiles, styli, the usual), then a whistlestop tour leading up to the amalgamation of small town and fields to create something very new.

Harlow New Town brochureHarlow New Town grew up after the War as a focus for near-London overspill. Neighbourhoods were established one at a time, each designed by a different architect, with the first residents often moving in before local services had been established. The first neighbourhood was Mark Hall, where construction began in 1950 (and which is also where today's museum is based). Gallery Four relates the story well, with reminiscences from the early pioneers, and artefacts such as the booklet distributed to incoming children to teach them how to play 'Out of Doors'. Here you can learn that all the pubs in New Harlow were named after butterflies, and that the area was nicknamed 'Pram Town' in the early days because so many residents were of pre-school age.

Round the corner from the museum can be found Britain's first residential tower block [photo] [photo]. This is The Lawn, a pleasing nine-floor non-cuboid designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd. He was Harlow's creative godfather, and the mastermind behind numerous works of public sculpture littered throughout the town. Liverpool's Roman Catholic cathedral is one of Fred's, as are Heathrow's postwar terminal buildings and Chrisp Street market in Poplar. Harlow's neighbourhood shopping centres and spiky modernist churches also bear the Gibberd stamp, although the big man chose to make his home on the undeveloped outskirts of town instead. Should you time your visit right, his sculpture-filled gardens are now open to the public three afternoons a week.

Harlow Market SquareAt Harlow's heart is Britain's first pedestrian precinct - just as concrete-y as you might expect, as if somehow it's still 1960 here [photo]. Broad straight shopping streets link a variety of rectangular piazzas, some over-big, others under-small. Again there's plenty of arty sculpture on display, either vaguely mammalian or unrepentantly abstract. Another Gibberd highlight is the Water Gardens, a terraced open space in whose formal rectangular waters roam bronze wildlife. Alongside is the new Civic Centre, where you can check your council benefits or enjoy the art gallery (I suspect rarely both). A couple of larger modern shopping malls now supplement Gibberd's original retail experience, and these undoubtedly keep local residents rather happier. Harlow's no longer a new New Town, but thanks to Fred it remains more characterful than most.

Like I said, if you're the sort of person who reads this blog then you might well fancy a truly atypical day out in Harlow inspecting its unique architectural heritage. If not, you probably haven't bothered to read this far anyway.

» Visit Harlow (honest)
» The Museum of Harlow (photos) (incorporating the Mark Hall Cycle Museum)
» Harlow sculpture trail (map)
» More photos of Harlow, old and new, than any person might comfortably need

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