diamond geezer

 Sunday, January 24, 2016

Day out: Newbury

When Berkshire was still a county, Newbury was the largest town up the western end. Its importance is location location location, at a bridging point on the River Kennet, and the ideal overnight layover on a two day stagecoach ride from London to Bath. It's therefore a bit historic, and quite pretty, and on the large side, and surrounded by green, hence I found plenty to do during my day out, but only wandering away from the town centre a lot. I rather liked the place. [Visit Newbury]

My Newbury gallery
There are 44 photos altogether [slideshow]

»» Town Centre
Northbrook Street is the heart of the town, a broad semi-pedestrianised high street leading from the clocktower on the old London Road to an arched bridge over the Kennet. This is hemmed in by shops and a pub, one of which is a family-owned purveyor of speciality sausages, with the river too narrow for a towpath to fit underneath. The town has a decent range of shops, with most of the big chains hidden offstage in two modern malls, indeed the authorities have done a surprisingly good job of maintaining an independent flavour. The town hall houses the Tourist Information Centre (grab a Walking in Newbury map, it's excellent), and overlooks the Corn Exchange and a Market Square. Far more appealing than Stratford, Westfield and all. [eleven photos]

»» West Berkshire Museum
There's been a museum in the Cloth Hall since 1904, since extended into the long, low Jacobean granary down the street, and most recently joined up in the middle with a very modern shiny glass link. The granary's charming, with its overhanging outdoor galley, and makes a fine showcase for a series of galleries across two floors. Local flints and fauna mix with more contemporary international displays, but the best bit is probably the gallery devoted to the impact of the Civil War hereabouts, with not one but two major battles fought in and around Newbury. Stop by for a hot drink, the ladies on the front desk looked like they'd quite like to dispense a few. [two photos]

»» Kennet & Avon Canal
This much loved waterway opened in 1810, its aim to link the River Kennet at Newbury to the River Avon at Bath and so aid the passage of trade between London and The West. As such it threads through the heart of the town, canal and river intrinsically combined, through meadows, playing fields and rather ugly trading estates. One particularly scenic section is behind the main church on West Mills, where Newbury Lock sits on an island ("The Captain of every vessel allowing Horses to Haul across the Street will be Fined"), another is on the former dockside by the tearoom. But head further and further out of town and footfall fades, the muddy towpath passing tumbling weirs, soggy ponds and the occasional angler. Imagine this in summer. [nine photos]

»» Newbury Racecourse
One of England's better-known racecourses, combining flats and jumps, this 1905 creation devours a substantial area of land a short distance from the town centre. It also has its own railway station, from whose footbridge the parade ring is clearly visible. There are two grandstands, one old and characterful, and the other essentially an ugly grey box sponsored by a Middle Eastern airport shop. The next big race isn't until February so all was quiet in the spectator concourse yesterday, although the main hall was hosting an showcase for potential Asian Weddings, and an army of golfers were doing the rounds in the centre of the course. A considerable amount of new housing has recently been erected outside, ideal for people who like to be near horses, although it's wildly expensive and some of the best views are of car park. More to my liking was the view from the far end of the mile-long straight, a remote vista from the wilds of unmade Hambridge Lane, and a world away from Newbury's champagne bubble. [five photos]

»» Greenham Common
The US Air Force flew in in 1942, and took fifty years to leave. This area of upland common made an excellent site for an airbase, and allowed the construction of a massive 10000ft concrete runway (completed 1953). The Cold War made Greenham more strategically important, and in 1983 ninety-six Pershing missiles were based here, prompting the creation of that most famous Women's Peace Camp. Try to gain access thirty years ago and you'd likely be arrested. Today, however, you can wander in unchallenged. After the base was decommissioned in 1997 it was handed over to the council who've returned the site to public access. Now cattle and ponies graze the common, budding with gorse, and the entire runway has been ripped out (minus the central crossover, which lives evocatively on). Most people walk or cycle up the former taxiways to either side, but I strode up the middle where the planes once landed, now a squidgy cowpat-strewn wilderness. Most unsettling of all are the six missile bunkers in the southwest corner, still present behind three levels of security fencing. Squat and flat, each has a concrete and titanium roof, topped with grass, and the blast-proof doors up front for easy access. You'll have seen them in the latest Star Wars film, they made the ideal backdrop for Leia's Resistance base. A completely different force once lay within, which could have eradicated Newbury, Russia and half of Europe, and yet somehow we survived and now dogwalkers stroll by, as could you. [twelve photos] [four silo photos]

»» Newbury Bypass
A completely different battle played out on the other side of town during the 1990s. Newbury was choked by traffic, it being the point where the A4 and A34 cross, and hamstrung by a lack of river crossings. The solution was a lengthy western bypass, alas cutting through woodland and Sites of Scientific Interest, and enraging environmental activists and many local residents. They sat in trees, they dug tunnels beneath the soil, and they settled in 20 camps along the line of the road. Heavy security eventually cleared Swampy et al away, construction of the bypass began, and rubble from Greenham Common's runway was used as aggregate. It's diverted traffic away, but also carved an unwelcome line through the countryside, as seen (for example) from the footbridge near Rack Marsh where the ancient woodland suddenly breaks and the replacement trees have yet to take hold. [two photos]

»» Donnington Castle
Not the festival and Grand Prix site - that has one less 'n' and is in Leicestershire. This Donnington is a village fractionally to the north of Newbury, and its hill the ideal defensive site for a castle. Built in the 14th century, it was a key Royalist stronghold during the English Civil War, and survived an 18-month siege before the Parliamentarians finally took over. They promptly destroyed almost all of it, apart from the gatehouse which survives mostly intact and is under the care of English Heritage. There's not much to see, but the view is excellent, and Newburyites like to drive up here and exercise their dogs in the ruins, pretending not to have read the "should be kept on leads" notice by the car park. [six photos]

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