An entrance of international standing - St John's Street
Goole – a wonderfully evocative name resonant of watery isolation. Google self importantly thinks you have misspelt. The name actually derives from the Middle English word for channel and Goole certainly is a place apart shaped by water. The flat landscape of drained marshes, embanked rivers, canals and huge skies feels like a far away country but actually Goole is very well connected – just a mile from the M62. It even has quite good trains to the East Coast mainline at Doncaster, and to Sheffield and Hull. It is also the largest inland port in Britain, 50 miles from the sea.
Fifty miles inland
Goole is contained within a meander of the mighty Ouse where it meets the Aire and Calder Navigation. The parallel Dutch River which was built by the Dutch engineer Vermuyden in the C17th to divert the Don and drain Hatfield Chase and the River Aire is to the north. Rivers and canals both isolate the town from its hinterland and connect it to the wider world. The canal and the docks made Goole and make it one of the most unusual and dramatic towns in England.
The M62 Bridge
Although unmistakeably part of Yorkshire its administrative identity is confused. A small, compact town with a population of only about 20,000 it was historically part of the West Riding. However in the 60s there were semi serious ideas of quasi-Soviet hubris for a new city of a million people on the Humber to act as a counterweight to London. Reflecting these ambitious dreams of esturial development Goole became part of the new Humberside County in 1974 – a forced marriage of the Tykes on the north bank with the Yellowbellies on the south. But with no cultural and little geographic or economic rationale it was doomed to failure. When dismembered as a populist move by the Major government Goole ended up in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Goole is where West meets South before transhipment East and out to sea. In any event it has a very strong identity of its own.
Let us give thanks to the Aire & Calder
Whereas other important ports in the region like Hull and Boston grew in the medieval period, for Goole history starts in 1826 with the opening of the Aire and Calder Navigation and the first docks. There were ambitious plans for a new town but little was developed in the first decades. It really was a company town – the Aire and Calder Navigation Company even paid for the parish church (St John) completed in 1848 which, as Pevsner notes, is remarkably large and stately. Its position right next to the docks with containers stacked up against the church yard is remarkable and there is an extraordinary view of the spire framed by cranes from the ring road (A161)and from the dockside.
Goole for the Continent
An incomplete mini metropolis
Goole really took off with the coming of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway in 1848. If you know Manchester Victoria, that grand relic of the heyday of the L&YR, you may have been surprised at the prominence of Goole in the destinations shown on the nouveau canopy and on the glorious tiled route map in the concourse. Goole was the gateway to the Continent with steamers to destinations like Hamburg, Amsterdam and Antwerp. The L&YR had the largest fleet of any railway company and Goole was big in its plans. This is evident from the impressive Goods Offices on Stanhope St, 4 stories with grand windows in red brick and terracotta with the date 1892. Goole was also served by the North Eastern Railway which survives today. The Station buildings have been replaced but at least it retains the platform canopies.
The unique Goole skyline
The landscape around Goole is all about huge engineering structures rising out of the flat landscape. As you approach along the motorway you see great brooding power stations and more recent distribution sheds. The M62 crosses the Ouse on a long viaduct which in this huge flat landscape ‘looks like a Scalextric’. This elegant structure could not be more different from the massive, clunky rail swing bridge going east towards Hull glorying in its manly heavy engineering. The Boothferry swing bridge of 1929 is more delicate. Within the town itself are more swing bridges across the docks at Lowther Bridge St and Bridge St. The dock cranes rise up as great sentinels and are really quite stunning abstract forms. The other great feature of Goole is its water towers – the brick late Victorian tower of 1883 and the adjoining massive concrete tower of 1926 which Pevsner says ‘represent the spirit of their respective ages convincingly’.
The skeletal supports of the 1926 water tower
What is so extraordinary about Goole is the close relationship of the docks to the town and how accessible the docks are - there is a footpath running right through them. You really get a sense of the drama of the port. You see the massive cranes loading ships on the great expanses of choppy water. Forklift trucks reverse everywhere, containers are stacked to the horizon, huge lorries grind around the ring road. Slavic tongues are heard in the cafes and bars - Goole is twinned with Zlotow in Poland and has strong links with the Baltic and Scandinavia. This is no provincial backwater.
Dear Aire Street, the paint job ends here.
The town centre next to the docks, largely built in the late Victorian and Edwardian era, has a scale and confidence you would not expect for a small town. Aire St was the first street to be built in the 1830s. The grand but severe Lowther Hotel is right by the dock gates and the wide street is lined with what were once handsome 3 story terraces. There are some fine commercial buildings with stone detailing and blue brick sting courses and names like ‘Transatlantic House’. Bank Chambers with proud terracotta detailing and flashy turrets is the grandest dominating Stanhope St and Church St. It looks as though it belongs in a big city. Now East Riding council offices it has been extended circa 1980 with a big brick box dressed with string courses and an elaborate corbelled cornice. Full marks for trying, but a pity about the crude new windows. The building at the corner of the street has a beautiful dark green terracotta door case with a marvellous frieze of sailing ships. Elsewhere the influence of the docks is evident in the number of grand bank buildings, now mostly pubs, and indeed the number of original pubs. On Mariners St is the powerful white faience building of the Yorkshire Electric Power Company. 100 years ago this was a town of optimism and boundless confidence in the future.
A grand dame with gaudy blue make-up
The focus of Goole is the Clock Tower erected in 1926 to celebrate the centenary of the town. Unfortunately this sits in the middle of a roundabout and is virtually inaccessible. It also has a CCTV camera ignominiously planted on top. Boothferry Road the main shopping street begins at this circus. Some of the shops are quite handsome turn of the century brick buildings with elaborate gables and there are occasional stripped down 30s Deco efforts as well as too much post war dross. St John’s Building between Boothferry Road and Stanhope St is an object lesson in how to turn a difficult triangular site. North of the level crossing (which adds some drama to the street) a massive Tesco Extra lurks behind a huge car park. There is a Morrisons monster nearby, although to be fair both are quite accessible for pedestrians or cyclists if you can ford the car parks.
St John's Building: disrespected by billboards and road engineers
Goole is worried that it doesn’t have enough shops but as well as the standard offer in the precinct opposite the Station, and despite the superstores, it actually seems to have a wide range of friendly independents along Boothferry Road and Pasture Road. The market hall of 1896 is next to the Clock Tower although its elegant frontage actually faces a side street. Down North St fine Flemish gables mark the boarded up Arcade currently being renovated. Its viability is certainly not helped by the idiot traffic domination of the circus which cuts the area off from the pedestrianised Boothferry Road. Apologetic flower beds are not enough – the Clock Tower circus needs to be re-designed as a social focus for the town and to help revitalise the more run down areas near the docks.
Big Society already
Precision and detail - Pasture Road
Although only a small town Goole has a remarkable range of facilities. Political clubs, sports clubs, working men’s clubs, seedy clubs, pubs, a big leisure centre, institutes, churches, charities, schools and training centres are all there. Many are in fine buildings from Goole’s heyday. The Conservative Club on Carlisle St speaks of High Victorian complacency. Along Boothferry Road an attractive Edwardian school has been converted into The Courtyard, which provides a base for social enterprises. On Pasture Road is the lovely Arts and Crafts Catholic Church of 1912. The Vermuyden School is a fine Queen Anne composition of 1909. A little further out is West Park laid out in 1923 with bandstand and lake. The embankments to the Ouse are laid out as an attractive promenade and lead to Riverside Gardens, and there is lots of other green space. Above the Library by the Clock Tower is an excellent little museum. The Yorkshire Waterways Museum which expands on the remarkable history of the port is to be found between the Dutch River and the Navigation.
Big - democratic public sector - society
However perhaps the most remarkable new facility is the Junction Arts and Civic Centre found between the Market Hall and the Precinct. This is basically a 1980s shed which has been stripped down to its frame and rebuilt as a theatre and social centre by architects Buschow Henley. As well as the theatre/cinema it houses a café and Council Chamber for the Town Council. Parallels have been drawn with the community function of Alvar Alto’s seminal Säynätsalo Town Hall and actually this is not too far-fetched. The architects were attempting to evoke the familiarity of the industrial sheds that line the quays and, well they do. The recessed ground floor walkway has a startling shiny gold soffit. The spruce plywood frontage is a shock as the first impression is of a boarded up building but then you see the entrance and the activity of the café. Unusual but it seems to work. Most small communities would give their eye teeth for something like this.
Goole the Future
A visible lesson in functionalism
So Goole, so often overlooked, is a town with a strong identity. It is only a small place with a population less than half of my Nottingham suburb but it is intensely urban. It does not grow out of the landscape, itself largely man made, but imposes itself upon it. Although largely the product of a short period of frenetic expansion, it has matured into a multi-dimensional place with masses of social infrastructure – it is almost a miniature city. A place unto itself set amid endless flat, green, fertile fields, defined by its rivers and canals it is maybe not the most exciting place in Yorkshire (hence the surveillance cameras no doubt). But arguably it is a model of sustainability. And it is well connected to the global economy, so if we are going to import everything from Asia it has a great future as the planned Centreport distribution complex by the M62 portends. Goole has a lot going for it.
Subway artwork: dynamic and assured
A lunchtime half of Old Rose was wisely declined at the friendly Macintosh Arms
Geoff Shearcroft in the Architects Journal April 2010
Pevsner: West Yorkshire