This is the first of a series exploring architecture and planning in some of Britain’s towns and cities.
Doncaster and the North
What do people know about Doncaster? Well, it’s on the way to The North. Not as famous as Hatfield perhaps but Doncaster actually is in The North – only just geographically but 100% in a cultural sense. Heading up the A1 the ruling elite is probably already out of its comfort zone before reaching Grantham, Mrs Thatcher’s home town. Fifty miles further on Doncaster with its railway works and heavy engineering surrounded by collieries represented all the things she hated and she closed them down, leaving this Championship League town of more than 100,000 people (nearly 300,000 in its Metropolitan District) with the big problem of how to re-invent itself.
Driving through the town centre at 40 mph
Your approach from the motorway clearly illustrates the new economy – huge distribution sheds, retail parks, call centre barracks and cheap small offices where the main event is the car park, all strung out along White Rose Way. This expressway is littered with roundabouts which are actually the most interesting thing as in the season they sport eccentric topiary displays celebrating Doncaster’s achievements, like race horses and steam engines which are a lot of fun. The expressway sweeps on through 1960s redevelopment and past Doncaster Station and St George’s Minster, severing both from the town centre (of which more later). Amazingly you can drive right through the town centre at 40 mph. In Donny the Highway Engineer rules OK.
The Great North Road and Doncaster Races
Hall Cross Hill, off South Parade
However if you approach from the south along the old Great North Road (now the A638) the impression of Doncaster is not of the post industrial north but a handsome county town, which of course is what it was before the heavy industry arrived. You pass Doncaster Racecourse, one of the country’s premier courses since the C18th and home of the St Leger. The racecourse is important to the identity of Doncaster and is big business – attractive old stock brick stands remain but are overwhelmed by large scale modern structures. Hotels for race goers along the Great North Road include a startling 1930s edifice - white with crenellations.
Great North Road – South Parade
On South Parade there are many attractive late Georgian houses, some with giant pilasters and pediments and others simply with decorated porches or doors. The C18th elegance of South Parade becomes the more mixed Hall Gate, with worrying vacancy and derelict sites. You continue into High Street which contains many fine buildings including the grand Mansion House (1745) with Corinthian columns and a beautiful Venetian window. The Great North Road really is quite something and from this direction Doncaster looks very promising.
A Railway Town
Doncaster grew enormously when the Great Northern Railway sited its works here in the 1850s. Between the wars they built the Flying Scotsman and Mallard here. The works are now gone but Doncaster is still an important junction on the East Coast main line with excellent connections – only an hour and a half away from King’s Cross. The Station was built as a job creation scheme in the 1930s depression and has a rather utilitarian exterior although the concourse is coolly elegant moderne. Leaving the station you are immediately confronted by the speeding traffic and idiot rails of Trafford Way but even worse is your view, which is of the blank backside of an old Sainsbury’s supermarket.
Station concourse - the new lifts obscure a moderne interior
This must be a contender for the worst approach to any major town in the country. Amazingly Sainsbury’s is built over the former Station Street leaving only a pathetic rump of the derelict Grand Theatre. To your left is the Frenchgate shopping centre extension, a monstrosity which straddles the expressway. In order to reach the town you are forced through the shopping centre and then via a maze of identikit malls until you eventually find the sanity of the street.
Pretty much your first view of Doncaster from the Station
The Historic Centre
High Street, with the baroque Nat West
Doncaster still retains much of its medieval street pattern. Hall Gate, High Street and French Gate leading to the North Bridge over the Don were all part of the grand Great North Road. St Sepulchre Gate goes west towards the Station and Baxter Gate east to the Market Place. These mostly pedestrian streets form a very attractive core for the town. High Street is very nicely paved with interesting art work and street furniture.
The extraordinary former Co-op Emporium
The scale of the buildings with their variety and detail is satisfying and friendly. It makes for good coherent townscape. As well as the familiar designs of inter war chain stores there are a mix of distinctive Victorian and Edwardian commercial buildings including a surprising number of fine banks. The best is the baroque Nat West on High Street with an exceptionally grand banking hall. Even the Yorkshire Bank circa 1970 is thoughtful and well proportioned. Opposite this the banality of the 1960s Frenchgate shopping centre is a misfortune. Also on St Sepulchre Gate the huge Modernist former Co-op Emporium of 1936 – 49 (now TJ Hughes) is striking with its curved glass and sweeping horizontals, although Pevsner says ‘its strict symmetry deprives it of the power to convince’. (Not sure what that means.)
Sunny Bar - with a view towards the excellent market hall
Along Baxter Gate you will find the irregular Market Place containing the fine Market Hall of 1875 with a massive glazed arched roof like a railway shed behind grand facades. The Fish Market is a stripped down slightly Deco addition, and the more utilitarian Wool Market (actually household goods) encloses to the east. The market is wonderful with a huge range of fresh produce including things like pheasant and turbot which suggest a rather more affluent clientele than is immediately apparent. On market days the stalls spill out into the market place.
Scot Lane, with its confident commercial architecture or Silver Street, vertical drinking central on Friday and Saturday nights, will lead you back to High St.
Brave New World
Brick Expressionism, Cleveland Street.
Cleveland Street continues the sleazy theme of Silver Street, but contains some interesting buildings. These include a striking tall 1930s block with thin angled brown brick columns. Further west is the Waterdale shopping precinct in the style of a New Town centre but lacking conviction. The best bit is the Southern bus station and multi storey car park.
Stairs to the Southern bus station overhead walkway
This has interestingly angled geometry giving it a strong sculptural quality, its fretwork screens looking almost exotic. The bus station which generated footfall has been moved to the new Interchange (see later), so it is hardly surprising that the precinct is in terminal decline.
The area south of Waterdale was intended as a new civic centre but there was never a coherent plan and the buildings mostly lack any civic quality. The Council HQ is a tall 1960s slab block which does have some presence in a mostly low rise town but there is no setting for it such as a public square - it looks out listlessly over the expressway with no relationship to other buildings.
Doncaster Magistrate’s Courts - a suitable setting for GB84
The dreary library looks like a funeral directors and the Civic Theatre is just a ramshackle mess, rather underlining the failure of civic ambition. The most impressive structures are the Magistrate’s Courts and Police Station by Frederick Gibberd; fortress-like, grey and austere but with solemn integrity. Hidden on Chequer Road is the jolly Museum and Art Gallery which looks as if it has escaped from the Festival of Britain. Nearby is the new Doncaster Foyer, an interesting and well proportioned building.
Wonderful relief panel outside Doncaster Museum
West of the civic centre and surrounded by a triangle of expressways is the 1960s St James Street housing. This is interesting as the maisonette blocks are clearly inspired by Scandinavian example, although without the generous landscaped open space. The more typical high rise flats give some monumentality to this approach to Doncaster. It is a pity that the groundscape is confused and dominated by complicated roads and parking.
St James Street housing
The Interchange - An Awfully Big Mistake
Back along inner relief road you return to the Station and its elephantine neighbour the Frenchgate extension. What is so awful about Frenchgate apart from its hulking mass and the absurd attempts to jazz it up is that it is sucking the vitality out of the real heart of the town.
Frenchgate Centre above the Interchange
Why on earth in a place with the modest scale of Doncaster would you cram your new shops in a huge mega structure on the edge of centre and across the inner relief road? Well, in theory this is justified by the new Interchange – a subterranean bus station next to the Station. Planners think interchanges are a Good Thing, although in practice they are nearly always inconvenient and dismal. From the Station you are directed up escalators to the shopping centre and then down again to the buses, but if you are really cute you will notice that it is possible to reach your bus directly and on the level across the gloomy roadway.
Escalators lead you from the station and to the shopping centre
Because the shopping centre has no external reference points and completely standard anonymous mallscape it is hopelessly illegible. To complete the disorientation of this part of town there is no pavement along the road under the shopping centre so pedestrians have to pick their way along the kerbs past the gaping maw of the service yards. This is public squalor on steroids. It is not worth describing the architecture because there isn’t any.
St George’s Minster
St George’s Church, rebuilt by George Gilbert Scott
After this trash the sight of St George’s Church provides a visual and spiritual cleansing. It is a real tour de force designed by George Gilbert Scott in 1844 after a fire had destroyed the medieval parish church. Pevsner calls it ‘proudest and most cathedral like of (Scott’s many) parish churches’. It is rightly termed a Minster and with its grand tower certainly looks like a miniaturised cathedral. Its scale and confidence give dignity to Doncaster and it provides an impressive skyline dominating the extensive views of the town centre along the Don Valley, despite the massive bulk of the Frenchgate Centre.
St George’s juxta Tesco car park
The Minster, stranded by the dual carriageway (here insultingly called Church Way), opposite the M&S service yard and next to Tesco, disdains the surrounding dross. Belatedly its context is being improved with the renovation of the long range of fine Edwardian college buildings to the north, and a new Premier Inn on Church Way – a decent building which takes some care with its context and design, addressing the surrounding streets and providing interesting elevations. It currently also houses The Shed architecture centre which works with schools and the community.
New Premier Inn
You get a good view of the Minster and the new hotel with its grainy green tiles from the massive new viaduct which spans the Don and the railway. Whether this justifies the extravagance of the new road (which duplicates North Bridge) is questionable, but it certainly illustrates the dominance of the Highway Engineer. (Again no pavements are provided so people walk on the kerbs.) Beyond the new road and next to the Don is shiny new Doncaster College. It’s big and, err, shiny like similar new colleges up and down the land. There is a bit of an esplanade to the waterfront with a small marina.
The Don is a serious river with a New Cut canal as well as the old channel, so it is a formidable barrier to the north of the centre. This is reinforced by the old engineering works mostly now vacant or demolished. There are big plans for regeneration here, of which more later.
Artificial lake created during the mid 90s
The biggest regeneration area in Donny to date is Lakeside, between the Racecourse and White Rose Way. It does have a big lake and lots of landscaping but actually all the landscaping tends to reinforce the isolation of the buildings from each other and increase the illegibility of the plan. What you really remember is completely losing your sense of direction because of the endless roundabouts where all the roads look exactly the same – there is absolutely no hierarchy. At the Racecourse end there is a big leisure Dome, the usual multiplex and a tatty mega Asda with the biggest car park you have ever seen and the usual parasitic drive thru MacDonald’s etc. At the other end is the Lakeside Village Outlet shopping centre, with the second biggest car park you have ever seen. Despite the silly name this is quite refreshing in its honesty - no messing about, just a big car park and a double line of simple shop structures along an open ‘street’, so at least you know where you are going and can get some fresh air if you want to. There are even some quite useful shops. In between are lots of the standard regeneration style apartments, houses and small offices, with the Rovers’ unassuming new stadium at the back. It is not awful, just fairly typical of Brownfield regeneration in Britain today.
Offices beside the lake
Problems with algae have hampered plans for leisure
Town Field and the Art of Placemaking
Excellent view down Broxholme Lane
Returning from Lakeside you can cheer yourself up by exploring the attractive residential area around the Town Field, a big open space laid out in the late C19th when the fields were developed and an early example of planning gain. Thorne Road is lined with big C19th gothic villas. It starts as a triangle with the wonderfully picturesque Christ Church (1829) in the middle. This has a fantastic octagonal spire, which plays with the St George’s tower to make a really dramatic skyline. No longer a church it desperately needs a new community use. North towards Becket Road are numerous avenues of well designed and nicely detailed pre 1914 terraces and houses whilst to the south big villas face on to the park. Along Town Moor Avenue (which fronts Town Field linking to the Racecourse) and in the avenues beyond there are many grand rather overlarge Edwardian houses and big interwar semis, some almost Expressionist in their exaggeration. Although in parts run down, this is a really good inner city suburb.
Christchurch, Thorne Road
Edwardian urban confidence
What of the future? Manufacturing towns like Doncaster have suffered particularly from the spite of Mrs Thatcher, the indifference of Blair, the incompetence of Brown and above all the stranglehold of London. The imperative to promote regeneration is very strong even when, as with Lakeside and Frenchgate, this can look fairly desperate.
Doncaster across the New Cut of the Don - à la 'View of Delft'
Doncaster is trying to raise its game and has adopted a ‘Renaissance Town Charter’ and a town centre Masterplan produced in 2003 by Urban Initiatives, leading practitioners of urban design. This contains a lot of good analysis, sensible design guidance and some imaginative proposals. However like many other grand plans in the wake of Lord Roger’s Urban Renaissance it takes ambition beyond credibility in the scale of development proposed, especially for the hugely challenging Waterfront area, and it skates over the difficulties of actually delivering high quality new places.
Great North Road - North Bridge, a civic curve with Northern promise
The concept of turning the inner relief road into an urban boulevard (the ‘Great Street’) is also quixotic and frankly silly - much better to concentrate on improving the pedestrian routes across it. The ‘Great Street’ of Doncaster is actually the Great North Road and this is the axis that needs to be emphasised.
Strengthening the existing town centre
With the failure of so many much-hyped regeneration schemes to deliver the promise of their rhetoric, coruscatingly analysed by Owen Hatherley in his new book ‘A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain’, a more realistic approach is surely required. This needs to focus more on strengthening the existing town centre rather than extending it, building on the many positive aspects of the place rather than aping the anonymity of so much urban regeneration.
Great use of rhythm, proportion and form outside Yorkshire Bank
The top priority must be to reinforce and support the markets - they are a unique asset to the town and essential for a more sustainable future. A new Station Square and redevelopment of Sainsbury’s to re-establish Station Street are also essential to the self respect of Doncaster. This after all is still a railway town and its excellent rail connections are surely a major economic development asset to build on.
New generation supermarkets is where all the planning and development action is at the moment. Donny needs to seize the opportunity to sweep away the old Sainsbury’s and Tesco stores which have blighted the town centre and give both the Station and St George’s a proper setting. Then it will deserve the accolade ‘City of Doncaster’.
Excellent beers and good food were served at the Corner Pin on St Sepulchre Gate West.
N. Pevsner: Yorkshire West Riding
B. Barber: A History of Doncaster
Urban Initiatives: Doncaster Renaissance Masterplan
Owen Hatherley: A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain
R. Protz, The Good Beer Guide 2011