diamond geezer

 Monday, November 14, 2022


In 1946 the small Hertfordshire town of Stevenage was designated Britain's first New Town and tasked with absorbing London overspill. Existing residents protested when minister Lewis Silkin turned up to explain the plans, but living on the Great North Road beside the East Coast Mainline meant they were always going to be top of the government's regeneration list. Today Stevenage is home to 90000 people and a lot of distinctive architecture, so is a fascinating draw for any fan of postwar urban town planning.

To celebrate the town's 75th anniversary Stevenage Museum has just released a Town Centre Walking Guide, which is 52 pages of heritage excellence and allows anyone to explore the history of 32 buildings, streets and sculptures. I went and walked it for real, and a lot further beyond the town centre to boot, on a proper gadabout. [Visit Stevenage] [map] [24 photos]

The best place to start is the Town Square, a focal piazza that's the embodiment of everything Stevenage stood for. At the centre is the iconic clocktower, an open box on stilts which still chimes the hour if you're fortunate enough to be nearby. At the bottom is the chiselled plaque the Queen unveiled in 1959, a town map comprised of graphic squares and a relief of Lewis Silkin who's no longer the local bogeyman. It rises from a fountained pool whose coloured tiles were inspired by a inter-war Dutch arts movement, and around the edge is bench seating designed to bring the town together. The architects of Town Square didn't believe in curves, only straight lines.

One peculiarity is a central raised platform which provides no useful function other than as somewhere to look down on the surroundings (and to snog your teenage partner in relative peace, from what I saw). Up here is the town's first public sculpture - Joy Ride by Franta Belsky - which depicts a mother carrying a child on her back. And from here you can also see a large tiled mural, a celebration of working together, on the front of what used to be the Co-Op but is now Primark. This mix of art and architecture will be familiar to anyone who's been to Harlow, another early new town, and proved photogenic enough that I circled back to the Town Square to take photos on four separate occasions.

Stevenage also boasts the UK's first pedestrianised shopping precinct, a radical idea for the 1950s though it looks somewhat shabbier today. The chief axis is Queensway, its name another gift bestowed upon the Queen when she was kind enough to turn up, and runs quarter of a mile from the post office down to the library. In its day its shops would have sufficed but a number of additional developments have been bolted on since including an indoor shopping mall, several warehouse-y units and a full-on retail park. I was expecting a better selection to be honest - central Stevenage has no anchor department store nor anything highbrow, not since Waitrose scarpered in 2019.

There are of course plans to redevelop most of the town centre, apart from the listed bits, under a project subtitled stEVENage BETTER. This'll particularly transform the area between the town square and the station, although a number of peripheral projects are already complete and introducing a jarring modern aesthetic. The bus station has already shifted - it jumped in June to make way for what'll be a residential development, council hub and garden square. I'm glad I got to see the town before most of the damage was done.

My favourite building turned out to be the parish church, a late '50s triumph by Seely & Paget which resembles an engine shed with copper roof, flint walls and concrete buttresses. The doors were locked but I could still appreciate the autumn sunlight flooding into ribs of the nave. Most alluring of all was the belltower, a slender skeletal pillar with a concrete staircase spiralling up the centre to an open platform beneath a piercing spire. To be the bellringer here must be either exhilarating or terrifying, depending on vertigo and the weather. The building's overall impact has been dampened somewhat by the construction of a Holiday Inn nextdoor, but from the right angle in the right light it's stunning.

In a peculiar move Stevenage Museum is located in the crypt, so has all the ambience of a warren leading to a boiler room. It includes a lecture room, a small art gallery and the main event which is a sequence of galleries explaining history of the town. Bafflingly this starts midway through the timeline, as if the entrance was once at the back, and the cases are quite small and the displays don't look like they've been updated since the 1990s. But it's a great story, centuries long rather than decades, and enlivened by a number of evocative dimly-lit artefacts. Come between Wednesday and Saturday if you want to explore, and yay it's free.

Behind the church are the unexcitingly named Town Centre Gardens, built on the cheap by the town's Landscape Architect by incorporating existing lanes and hedgerows into the design. At its heart is a lake fed by a spring, amid which is yet another piece of uplifting optimistic sculpture, and the overall effect works really well. The town's main park is another watery transformation, this time the mile-long valley of the Stevenage Brook which has been dammed to create lakes for wildfowl and watersports. This is a new town with plenty of sprawl and space.

Several residential neighbourhoods merge into one another beyond the central zone, most named after the farm or hamlet they swallowed whole. The closest is Bedwell with its avenues, looping crescents and varied Fifties housing. If you want your own little private castle with a garden to tend to and parking out back, move to Stevenage. Most of the other neighbourhoods are culdesackier, with road numbering that must confuse many a delivery driver and a cobweb of meandering pathways that link the whole lot together.

The town planners tried to segregate pedestrians from drivers wherever possible (so walking or cycling around Stevenage often involves using a lot of subways), and also chose to build roundabouts instead of traffic lights to help keep the main feeder roads moving. The employment zone is further segregated by having been built on the other side of the railway in a long strip where Kodak, the Platignum Pen Company, Hawker Siddeley Dynamics and English Electric Aviation once held sway. The aviation industry has always been important in Stevenage, and Airbus opened a significant Space and Defence HQ on Gunnels Wood Road only last year.

Each neighbourhood has its own shopping centre, although these vary somewhat in size. St Nicholas has little more than a frankly disappointing Morrisons and an atmosphereless pub, Bedwell stretches to a betting shop plus takeaways and Chells manages a Tesco Express and a sculpted polar bear. But I was unprepared for the downbeat state of the shadowy dogleg parade in Pin Green with its throwback launderette, hardware store, chippie and family butchers. It was clearly the future once, but is now reflective of a neighbourhood in urgent need of levelling up.

So where were Stevenage's better off residents? In the Old Town, that's where, along the Great North Road with its former coaching inns and occasional half-timbered houses. Here were meze grills, beauty salons and a vinyl record shop, plus a stall stacked with shortcrust pies and another where Callum from the Bald Viking Beard Company was hoping to sell Heavy Butters and Mighty Balms. Behind the main road I was staggered to discover a preserved crooked street dating back centuries, namely Middle Row, destroying forever any idea that Stevenage was a modern invention.

At the north end of the Old Town a very long chestnut avenue leads uphill towards St Nicholas's church, by far the oldest building in Stevenage. It has a peculiar spire that dwarfs the tower it sits upon, and is the building in the photo I showed you at the end of yesterday's post. The country lane that passes by leads further uphill to Rooks Nest Farm and Rooks Nest House, the childhood home of the author EM Forster. He based his most famous novel Howards End on this rural backwater, and its epigraph 'Only Connect' is commemorated in a beautiful memorial on the far side of the churchyard, which I never saw.

Forster was one of those who fought against the development of Stevenage as a new town, and when you look out across the rolling fields behind Rooks Nest you can see why. And whilst that patch of 'Forster Country' was indeed preserved, Silkin's new houses spread right up to the edge of this outlying lane, and it only takes a minute to step through into a full-on landscape of detached cul-de-sacs, terraced flats and regular buses into town. What a place of contrasts Stevenage is, and has become, and is still becoming.

» Talking New Towns - an oral history by Stevenage residents, planners and officials
» 24 photos

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