27 Nov 2011

Huddersfield Town

Queensgate Market - one of the great sights of Modernist Britain

A generation ago Ian Nairn refereed an architectural and townscape match between Huddersfield Town and close rivals Halifax. His final score was 5-2 to Halifax. Huddersfield’s goals were for its magnificent station and the extraordinary but now threatened 1970 Queensgate market hall. Halifax scored with the Piece Hall (obviously), its Victorian market hall and the spaceship-like Halifax Building Society HQ which had then only just landed. But Nairn awarded two extra goals to Halifax for the ‘way it still expresses itself’. Yer wot ref, are you blind? Huddersfield too expresses a strong character, maybe rather more understated than Halifax and it too has a fine refurbished Victorian market hall. So the result should be a score draw. But wait – Nairn was actually talking about planning. Does Huddersfield express its true character in what it is planning today? Well, not really.

Pennine townscape - Fitzwilliam Street

Huddersfield’s situation is spectacular, nestling in the heart of the Pennines along the Colne and Holme valleys. From everywhere you look there are views of the surrounding moors, which is very exhilarating. The approaches across the moors are dramatic, even from the M62 which has inevitably somewhat tamed the Pennine wilderness. Pevsner talks of ‘the view of the smoking mills from the hills… impressive if bleak’. The chimneys are no longer smoking and most have fallen victim to Fred Dibnah, rather diminishing the modern prospect although the Victorian folly on Castle Hill adds piquancy.

Scottish baronial Yorkshire - towards Station Street

Huddersfield is blessed by its magnificent setting and by two other factors. The easy availability of good quality sandstone means that, as well as the fine commercial and public buildings, most of the pre1914 housing is of handsome, warm looking stone. The other fortune was the foresight of the Ramsden Estate in laying out the ‘New Town’ between the Station and the parish church and maintaining such high standards in its development. The enlightened and informed developer is now rare indeed, although not completely extinct. Planning once aspired to take this role but was given a good kicking for its presumption by the political pals of ‘the free market’.

Huddersfield - Berlin

Huddersfield was a small straggly township until the end of the C18th. Its expansion to a great woollen manufacturing town superimposed a grid of much grander streets. But this is an irregular grid and the railway slashes across it. Post war planning inevitably required a tight inner ring road; an oval that radically disrupts the grid and as always is a huge obstacle to legibility and pedestrian movement. In 1968 it was billed as a vital redevelopment to ensure that "the car becomes the servant and not the master". Forty years later and the car is certainly the master of Huddersfield. The overall impact is that the town centre is sometimes quite disorientating for the visitor.

Huddersfield - Rome

It is also disconcerting that the metropolitan district of Huddersfield, a town of some 150,000 people, is called Kirklees - a confusing amalgam of quite distinct boroughs mackled together in 1974. Kirklees should be called Huddersfield but this would piss off Dewsbury.

Lessons in townscape - towards Huddersfield Station

The Station is magnificent – says it all about the confidence of Huddersfield at the time (1847). It is by Pritchett, responsible for a number of buildings in Victorian Huddersfield and his work adds to the town’s classical consistency. Nairn describes it as ‘more of a palace than a station …. a stately home with trains in’. Pure Georgian, it has a massive six column portico with pediment and outer wings as Corinthian colonnades. From the platforms your first impression might actually be of the massive and atypically brick St George’s warehouse north of the station. It is only when you emerge into St George’s Square that you can fully appreciate this is one of the very best stations in the country. Needless to say BR wanted to get rid of it but Huddersfield purchased the station in order to save it. That is civic leadership.

Bring me sunshine 

Around the Square are some very grand buildings. The George Hotel is late Classical and opposite is the ornate Italianate Britannia Buildings with 1920s shop fronts including exotic Egyptian and Aztec motifs. The Lion Building surmounted with its Coade stone lion is emblematic of Huddersfield. The Square itself, large and irregular, provides a fine view of the Station but is otherwise a bit unsure of its purpose. It has recently been splendidly repaved to designs by Whitelaw Turkington and includes fun fountains but is not really a place you would want to linger. In the centre is a very jolly statue of local lad Harold Wilson looking as if he might be Morecombe or Wise, sculpted by Ian Walters and unveiled by the Rev Blair.

2 for1 - quality covered markets in Huddersfield

The surrounding streets of the New Town were laid out after 1850 with Tite in overall charge of design. The results are exceptional. It reminds you of Grainger and Dobson – the streets are that good. The early buildings are Classical but along Station Street the Ramsden Estate Office is fairly wild Gothic Revival, designed by Crossland (of Rochdale Town Hall) in 1880. The dignified John William Street, which could be in Buxton, has fine views to the hills. Down Brook Street is the cast iron and glass former wholesale market splendidly restored as an open market. This is well positioned next to Tesco but the supermarket itself has no shame and doesn’t bother to pretend to any architecture. Its servicing backside looks like an abandoned Soviet arms dump – and it does matter because it faces onto Viaduct Street and the immensely long 1840s stone viaduct which is one of the glories of Huddersfield.

Just waiting for fashion to catch up with it - YMCA

Northumberland Street leads east towards the pompous Post Office of 1914. The 1960s extension to the rear is much sparkier. Opposite this is a really interesting early post war brick building, St Peters House, now vacant but formerly the YMCA. This has very clever and satisfying massing relating well to three street frontages and with an exciting tower rising in the middle. The fenestration and brick detailing are very accomplished. The elevation to Northumberland Street is stunning with its powerful blank brick between narrow slit windows above the shop front and below the cornice. Fortunately the recession has saved this building from planned demolition as part of the ‘Huddersfield Renaissance’ regeneration plan.

The City of Huddersfield? Kirkgate Buildings, Byram St

Opposite the handsome Mechanics Institute has been cleverly converted to provide a Media Centre. The recent extension by Ash Sakula, a 5 storey double skinned glassy block retaining parts of the former buildings, looks very effective on the otherwise bleak inner ring road. Back along Byram Street is the parish church of St Peter’s, rebuilt cheaply in the 1830s and not much to write home about. However the churchyard is an attractive open space with the Kirkgate Buildings by Crossland in a mixture of Renaissance styles facing onto it.

Westgate joy and experimentation 

Kirkgate and Westgate are the east-west axis of the town and are rather a mixed bag of noble buildings and dross. Particularly interesting is the Byram Arcade of 1880, in a vaguely Hanseatic style with excellent wrought ironwork in the arcade. Opposite is Westgate House, the frontage rebuilt in 1923 with steel frame, bronze cladding and lots of glass in a quasi-Modernist composition.

Muscular modernism - Police HQ

To the south is the post war civic centre girdled by the gross inner ring road. It includes the bus station with quite sculptural car park decks above, although no Preston. Bus stations tell us a lot about the class system in England – compare and contrast the abysmal small plaza in front of the working class bus station with the fine paving at the railway station. The 60s civic buildings are a disappointment except for the very handsome and carefully considered Magistrates’ Court, which begs the question: what if Mies van der Rohe had been a Yorkshireman? A security guard politely asked me why I was taking pictures, and seemed interested if surprised at my admiration of the building. Next door the West Yorkshire Police HQ is appropriately muscular.

Brilliant and empty - Co-op, New Street

The ring road brutally severs the town centre from its hinterland and its disastrous consequences are nowhere better seen than at the bottom of New Street, the main shopping street. Across the chasm of traffic you can glimpse the lovely Edwardian white faience facade of the Grand Picture Theatre, now no more than a disguise for a Lidl. On New Street the Co-op department store is empty, its fine 1936 Modernist extension echoing Mendelsohn is vacant. The retention of its façade is promised in a new shopping centre which also threatens the Queensgate market (see below).

The rise of northern Victorian Municipality

Huddersfield was clearly still a pretty gutsy place in the 60s and there was a surprising amount of redevelopment. Much of it fits well into the grid/block structure although little regarded today. Between New Street and the civic centre there is a very literate group with a powerful rhythm of concrete facades, a cross arcade with interesting reliefs and Buxton House which is a decent Eric Lyons / Basil Spence style tower block by Bernard Engle & Partners. Nearby is the majestic Victorian Town Hall whose composure and scale is a reminder of the stubborn civic independence of nineteenth century West Yorkshire, its grand concert hall ‘vibrating to the Huddersfield Choral Society’s Messiah’ (Nairn).

"Commerce", by Fritz Steller - Queensgate Market interior

Across Peel Street, although not immediately apparent, is the most spectacular of Huddersfield’s new buildings - the Queensgate market designed by the Seymour Harris Partnership and completed in 1970. It occupies a difficult sloping site facing the ring road to which it presents the most amazingly unexpected elevation with a dramatic roof of hyberbolic paraboloid shells of varying heights. The façade is adorned with the most extraordinary sculpted panels designed by Fritz Steller, possibly African in inspiration – anyway a hell of a shock. Nairn calls it ‘a bit of glam’ but it is more than that. Inside he says ‘the architect really went to town and did Huddersfield proud. The concrete mushroom columns are not a gimmick but are used to define spaces, to relate them and bring light from the top so you are at one with the building. It is a marvellous human space –the opposite of most shopping centres.’ Thirty years later it was listed to save it from just such a crass shopping centre (see below), thanks to the C20th Society and Huddersfield Civic Society.

Art integrating with architecture - Queensgate Market

The shopping centre scheme is called ‘Queensgate Revival’ and its objectives are basically sensible. It aims to provide a better choice of shops for the town centre threatened by competition both from the White Rose and Meadowhall motorway based shopping malls and more local retail parks. It would provide a better balance of shops within the town centre and could create some townscape coherence in the very ragged area behind the old Co-op store and the ring road. That said the actual proposals compromise the integrity and quality of the really important buildings, the market and the Co-op, and are basically very dull, standard stuff. In other words they do not express Huddersfield’s character. Fortunately the listing of the market and the recession has given Huddersfield at least a temporary reprieve.

Under threat: Literature and Art - Huddersfield Library

The extremely severe stripped classical 1940 Library and Art Gallery across Ramsden Street from the Town Hall was also to be demolished as part of Queensgate Revival. However it was listed as a ‘well-executed and well preserved example of early C20th civic architecture’. To either side of the entrance are figures by James Woodford ‘representing the youthful spirits of Literature and Art’. The Council think the building is ‘not fit for purpose’ and a new library and gallery are planned in the Queensgate Revival. This is clearly one for Piloti as the real problem is chronic lack of  maintenance. The grumpy caretaker and tatty website don't help either. The current civic leaders clearly haven’t been to the art history section recently.

A Yorkshire Coventry - Ramdsen House

The idiosyncratic modernist Colne Valley fables in the library show that this wasn’t always so; Reginald Napier taught at the local art college and clearly knew his subject with West Yorkshire folklore depicted as a Stanley Spencer / William Roberts / Pieter Bruegel jolly knees up. The gallery is noted for a largely twentieth century collection, including works by Max Bill, Josef Albers and Paul Feiler. With colourful murals and abstract reliefs dotted around the town centre Huddersfield is partly a Yorkshire Coventry, or more precisely an example of “art integrating with architecture”. The Fritz Steller works are a master class of this lost modernist ideal but there are others worthy of note; the book illustrator Harold Blackburn’s local historical murals on Ramsden House, and Richard Fletcher’s abstract “systematic sequence in light and shade” in a court off New Street. It would be a backward step not to make use of this.

Systematic sequence of light and shade - Buxton House

The main shopping streets like New Street and King Street are unremarkable but contain some good buildings like the Boot and Shoe Hotel, sadly defaced by the worst of some really crude fascias – in this case advertising that old bastard Col. Sanders. The paving is poor and the clutter and signs are worse, but you can do something about that and those ignorant fascias. Up Cloth Hall Street the Halifax BS offices are a sort of miniature homage to their great HQ building. The Kingsgate Centre hides behind older buildings on Cross Church Street but has the usual banal drum announcing its entrance. Internally it is completely standard. It expresses its bulk and car parking backside very prominently to the ring road faced in ‘appropriate’ sandstone - so that’s all right then.

Students often forget where they are

From the entrance to the Kingsgate Centre the vista down the very handsome Queen Street is terminated by the dramatic spire of St Paul’s Church. The accomplished Classical style Queen Street Chapel (1819) is now a theatre and St Paul’s, designed by local architect John Oates in 1829, has been converted to a concert hall. It provides an elegant threshold to the University campus which is across the inner ring road from the market hall. The campus is dominated by the bulk of a 70s building designed by Wilson and Womersley and clad in buff brick to fit in with the sandstone tradition, allegedly. It looks like as if it could be a tax office and feels the need for huge signs proclaiming ‘University’ in case you are uncertain. However it does have quite striking geometry especially from the canalside view. There is some clarity to the layout of the campus from St Paul’s down to the canal but the various recent buildings look like a random off the shelf selection. The Technology Building clad in planks is particularly poor and weathering badly.

Slow down motorists and admire this town

The University is cut off from the town centre by the inner ring road here called Queensgate, although this could be an attractive space. There are many good buildings including St Paul’s, the Gothic style former Technical School, the market hall elevation, Queen Street and the unusual Zetland Hotel. But it is not considered as a street at all, just a race track. The retrogressive solution of Queensgate Revival is a pedestrian bridge. Thanks but no thanks.

This could be great

The Kingsgate Centre blanks off the main entrance to the town from Wakefield Road but remnants of the old street network survive at the junction of the ring road with Kirkgate, leading to the parish church and the New Town. This is a key ‘threshold’ between the town centre and Aspley Basin on the Huddersfield Canal with the riverside beyond. This zone of de-industrialisation stretching to Huddersfield Town's Gulpharm Stadium is the focus of regeneration dreams thankfully yet to materialise. It is a ramshackle mess and badly needs sorting out, but the promoted solution – you guessed it, a vibrant mixed use waterside regeneration fantasy - is yesterday’s mashed potatoes, wrong headed and lacking in credibility. Saved by the recession, Huddersfield deserves and is capable off much better than this.

The car economy - a vast obstacle to pedestrian movement 

The starting point must be re-imagining the inner ring road (here called Southgate) as a true street. This is perfectly feasible given vision and determination and would re-establish the relationship between Aspley Basin and the historic town. The principles of the development of the C19th New Town – legibility, connectivity, focus on the streets and spaces and managing the quality of the buildings provide an excellent template for the creation of a New Town for the C21st on the waterside site.

A soft spot for those sandstone suburbs (pre 1914 anyway)

The ring road continues its destructive way north of the town centre, here masquerading as a motorway with grade separation, corkscrews and slip roads eviscerating the attractive townscape. If you can find your way across this engineering acid trip you will find the extraordinarily attractive C19th suburbs along New North Road with stone villas, houses, terraces and sylvan parks – you would love to live here. There are some Art Nouveauish houses by Manchester’s remarkable architect Edgar Wood, a founder of the Northern Art Workers Guild in 1896. He also designed the clock tower in Lindley, a folly with a pagoda roof and ‘so wilful that connections with Mackintosh and Glasgow must be considered’, says Pevsner. Scottish connections must also be considered with the Infirmary (1831 by Oates) with its imposing Greek Doric portico, now part of Huddersfield College. The nearby original college building of 1840 is in rather weak Tudor Gothic. In Huddersfield Classicism ruled OK.

The inscription reads: "for the benefit of the inhabitants"

So then – a surprising and an impressive place, well worth the trip. The New Town is really outstanding, the 1936 Co-op department store is a neglected gem and much of the 60s stuff is very impressive, most especially the market hall. Huddersfield is at heart a self confident, self reliant place, unusual for Yorkshire in being quite reticent. What it needs in planning for its future is to keep calm in the face of the economic storm and show a vision which expresses the real character of an exceptional place. Come on you Terriers – express yourselves!


N. Pevsner: Yorkshire West Riding
I. Nairn: Football Towns (Listener 1975)
D. Lindstrum : West Yorkshire Architects and Architecture
D. Wyles: The Buildings of Huddersfield
Queensgate Revivial: Design and Access Statement
Huddersfield Gem website
L. F. Pearson, Public Art Since 1950
L. F. Pearson, Postwar Murals Database
J. Abse, The Art Galleries of Britain and Ireland
K. Gibson and A. Booth, The Buildings of Huddersfield Research Notes

13 Nov 2011

Burton upon Trent

by Chris Matthews

Burton on Trent is synonymous with beer. By the late C19th the scale of the brewing industry was global and the industry’s unique historical fabric still shapes the character of the place today. But it is also shaped by the decline of the breweries – the town has been battered by the winds of Thatcherite and Blairite developments. Everything you can think of thrown arbitrarily at it – gigantic, scattered HGV distribution sheds, identikit business parks, boring low grade shopping centres, legoland cul-de-sacs and endless car parking, all in an incoherent vehicle dominated jumble leaving a wilting historic High Street. The problems created are so pervasive it becomes a real challenge to know how to plan our way out of this mess. Where do you start?

St Pancras

Relic of a destroyed infrastructure - Midland Railway warehouse

I started at the railway. I choose Burton because I knew the St Pancras Station story, which was so thoroughly researched by Jack Simmons during those years when its very survival was in question. According to the engineer responsible, Sir Henry Barlow, the Midland Railway Company wanted a station with a lower floor devoted to Burton Beer traffic, and this "formed a ready-made tie sufficient for an arched roof crossing the station in one span". Burton beer and the Midland Railway: the function behind the form.

National Brewery Centre, Guild St

Due to the unique quality of the water and its excellent canal connections, Burton was already a nationally important brewing centre before the age of steam but when the Derby to Birmingham line cut through the town in 1839 the industry really took off. The subsequent facts and figures became staggering. With more than double the production of London, Burton became the world's premier brewing centre. By the late nineteenth century it had grown to over 30 breweries with a total output which had increased to 3 million barrels per annum. The scale of production was so incredible that Burton had a complex web of private railways linking the breweries to the main line. In 1880 Bass, the then biggest brewery in the world, had 11 locomotives and 17 miles of full-gauge track. Although there are moments where this former glory is still visible, it's one of those historical moments where you really need a time machine.

The Beer Mile

A slightly out-of-town Town Hall

Arriving at the station you notice it has immensely wide, long, platforms reflecting its former importance but its original buildings have been replaced by BR CLASP affairs – a metaphor for the decline of the town really. The most distinctive structure is the solemn piers of the unloved cavernous undercroft beneath Station Street Bridge. That sense of railway history increases beside the listed Midland Railway Grain Warehouses c.1890 and the weigh bridge which survives as a friendly sandwich shop. But before continuing east down Station Street it is worth heading in the opposite direction towards Edward Place – the late nineteenth century civic area.

Suburban Sobriety - off St Paul's Square 

Oddly, the Burton dignitaries planned the civic centre away from the original High Street – probably to escape the older breweries. The result of which lessens the possibility of walkable urbanism. Nevertheless, the Gothic Town Hall, St Paul’s square, the Church and the neighbouring Almshouses off Wellington Street form a pleasing coherence. A grumpy Pevsner called Thomas Jenkins’s 1939 extension “depressing”, when really the neo-classical/deco entrance adds city centre ambition to the ensemble. At the middle is a statue of one of the Bass family head honchos Michael Thomas, who funded the civic centre - a reminder of the late Victorian paternalist / collectivist approach to sweeping up the free market chaos. Coors and the other major brewers today don't do this sort of thing, and if anything as we shall see, they do the opposite.

The gargantuan Allsop Brewery – Station Street

After witnessing the days of yore civic responsibility you have to go back on yourself - walking east down Station Street - to take in the full length and breadth of the Beer Mile. I chose to while away my time in Burton because I spent many formative years hanging around a Victorian brewery in Kimberley, five miles north of Nottingham. Before Greene King it was a genuine functioning red brick industrial townscape straight out of the hop smelling nineteenth century. So a visit to Burton was a vain attempt to discover that urban past.

For the most part Station Street lives up to that expectation. Immediately after the station the former Allsop Brewery is a gargantuan neo classical slab of 1859, with a great cast iron forecourt. It supposedly had a greater capacity than any other brewery at the time and is now being converted as apartments and office units.

Beeropolis - Station Street

Station St becomes a Beeropolis with the Ind Coope Brewery classical remains and the Northern Renaissance facade of B Grant Importers. Independent shops with Edwardian windows are currently being renovated which suggests a town finally aware of its character and potential. The effect is marred by a couple of Legoland cul-de-sacs (Grants Yard, Wyllie Mews) and the arse end of a Sainsburys, both of which pay little respect to the fabric of Burton. But thankfully the nineteenth century Bass Brewery buildings dominate Beer Mile, with adjacent foreman's houses - all very much a hotchpotch but of a gritty consistency. This was certainly the epitome of Beeropolis, but you might say that other lesser brewery towns had more attractive buildings.

Ghost of a former self - Methodist Church, George St

The best part of Beer Mile however is the soot stained Victorian red brick social area - around George Street. This features a huge deco cinema which turns its back to an industrial corner where the 1860s Methodist Church stands adjacent to the fin de siècle French renaissance style liberal club and school designed by Dunwood, Brown and Gordon of London. Some of these buildings are sadly abandoned, disused or rarely used. The excellent Methodist chapel was once home to 5 of the first 17 mayors of the borough, yet it has been vacated this year because, "all the business and monied people have gone by the board”. Around the corner is the Catholic Church which again has a ruddy Beeropolis integrity.

Looking out towards Sainsburys is a former municipal Art Gallery & Museum begun at the outbreak of WWI. This was abandoned by the Council in 1980 and the collection given to Derby and the National Brewery Centre. This was sold off by Coors a few years ago and now charges a hefty £7.50entrance. Michael Thomas Bass funded most of George Street for the social and educational good of the town. Compare and contrast with today.

High Street Origins

High St nucleus

The High Street is the nucleus of the town, where it all began and where it should remain. It runs parallel with the Trent and bends alongside the meadows and river. It's best to begin at the impressive Bridge Street, the site of a notorious medieval crossing. This was re-built belatedly in 1864 by the Midland Railway as Burton communications were clearly very important to the company. Yet to try and appreciate this and the Georgian confidence of Bridge St - the original entrance to the town - is to risk death with a terrifying gyratory. Further up Horninglow St there are further 18th Century gems and a 1910 Magistrates Court by Henry Beck which Pevsner rightly likens to a variety theatre. All this should have some sort of civic grace adjacent to the National Brewery Centre but the pedestrian experience is too stressful to ponder. Respite can be enjoyed at the Burton Bridge Inn - a pioneer brewery and pub of the Real Ale revival. What's Brewing columnist Roger Protz is a regular visitor to Burton and campaigned to prevent Coors from closing the museum for good. The town is evidently still at the centre of all things beer.

This is what shopping local looks like - Market Place

A stiff drink is needed for tackling the High Street as a quarter of it is deserted due to the economic effect of the neighbouring shopping centres and retail parks. Near the abandoned bowling alley a poster of celebrity capitalist Ruth Butcher encourages people to shop local and yet the footfall must be very poor. However, High Street is more interesting than any of the shopping centres with their token links to history; it has a genuine jumble of Victorian and Georgian buildings, probably sited on medieval plots, and it is a reminder of how the brewing industry grew from these domestic origins. Towards the centre of High St, Coors still use Bass's original nineteenth century Jacobean offices but apart from the bizarre lone tower, the original brewery buildings have long been cleared.

Constitutional Club

Post-war East Staffs council rightly planned their leisure centre, library and college between the High Street and the Meadows. It shows what happens when the public sector is given sufficient power and funds to make decisions rather than just ameliorate private developments with bureaucracy. Neither of the buildings are Building Design Page 3 models but they have a calming meadow-side appearance. Perhaps more importantly they draw life to the walkable town centre: Shane Meadows and Paddy Consadine studied here and you can almost see why - the students are jovial, creative and very social. The net result of all this activity is that the excellent market hall, Edwardian shop fronts and constitutional club are all in good nick - unlike so much else of historic Burton. More use could be made of the interesting Abbey, which today is actually an eighteenth century church very similar in design to Derby Cathedral.

Meadowside Surrealism

Unique - Stapenhill Viaduct leading to Ferry Bridge

The best thing about the Meadows apart from the acres of public green space is the surreal nineteenth century pedestrian bridge, which connects the Victorian middle class suburb of Stapenhill to the town centre. This half a mile iron bridge is for the most part like a landlocked sea-side pier. During rush hour it is jam packed with people, and is a great Trent-side experience. We are reminded of the geography of the river which slips on beds of sand and gravel snaking through a malleable clay flood plain. The river heads north after Burton and the town was quoted in Shakespeare’s Henry IV at the point where England is carved up - Hotspur evidently peeved he was given the poorer northern third. Meanwhile the traffic generated by all those town centre car parks queues up on St Peters Bridge, built in 1984 for this blinkered car age. It tragically tears through the memorial park - the northern side of which now feels like a sawn off limb - and mars the visual and sonic expanse of the gaping Trent valley.

Car Park-on-Trent

33 acres of woe

Within the half mile between the Station and High Street at least 33 acres are devoted to the car park, which must be a record. This includes separate car parks for three shopping centres, two retail parks, three supermarkets, and even a Blockbuster Video. This is a prime example of a complete lack of forethought and integration. Everywhere the pedestrian is bullied and the townscape is gapped toothed. A case in point is the masterpiece turn of the century façade on New Street which casts a critical shadow over its saturated retail park style Comet neighbour. The architectural critic Jonathan Meades had an uncle who was Town Clerk and responsible for the rubber stamping of many of these changes - Meades acutely summarises the point here.

Centrum 100

To Let – 302,693 sq ft

To journey along Shobnall Road from Car Park-on-Trent to Centrum is to experience a town being pulled apart by the same anti-planning ‘plonk it anywhere’ ethos. Colossal 300,000 sq feet empty warehouses are popping up all over the place like giant weeds. The Marmite factory is guarded by CCTV and immigrant workers are banned from speaking their own language. Meanwhile Burton Civic Society has just commended Punch Taverns’ new Sunrise House, which however polite is really a continuation of suburban sprawl. In a separate car park celebrity capitalist Duncan Bannatyne has a design and build tin box vanity gym. Bannatyne signed a recent letter to the Times in favour of the proposed NPPF reforms. Centrum is an NPPF vision of the future.

To Let – 213,240 sq ft

The future here is an oligarchic quick buck where the idiocy of the speculative economy is writ large: Legoland cul-de-sacs are positioned adjacent to HGV warehouses, new car dependant amenities are strung out towards the bypass, while Coors and the empty new warehouses create an expressway barrier between Centrum and Burton. To attempt a circular walk round Centrum is to fill your lungs with car exhaust and experience a 50 mph HGV fist in your face for a disorientating hour and a half. This sprawl is visually ugly, utterly homogenous, and economically inefficient; a two finger salute to density and design, it is a drain on fuel, public transport and infrastructure.

When local authorities had authority - Burton Day Services

It's enough to make you lose the plot but thankfully Burton Day Services provide facilities only 200 yards from the Centrum entrance. This is another post-war public sector building, this time a pre-fab Lyons Scando-Modern. Were East Staffs council enlightened modernists? Or is this a case of the things-are-so-bad-that-this-is-now-good complex? We may never know. In the gardens patients were planting pink plastic flowers, having a cheeky fag and cribbing about the loss of the breweries. Nearby, there is (or was) some hope by the old Trent & Mersey canal, yet even access to this pleasant and sustainable walkway is blocked off by the business boxes off Callister Way. Overlooking the canalside area is the Victorian paternalist Marston’s brewery, complete with a friendly social club and sports pitches - a reminder of Burton's impressive football history.

The Maltings

Meakin & Co Maltings

Vast Maltings, breweries and former ancillary works are scatted all over the place outside central Burton, the appreciation of which entails a dance of death with the motorist. After the mid Victorian boom, the industry stalled with the "creeping collectivist" approach to legislating out of the saloon bar era of prostitution, drunkenness and disorderly behavior. The 1869 Licensing Act marked this watershed as breweries began to scramble for retailers. During the twentieth century other breweries replicated Burton water and the town's industry consolidated and declined with a dizzying array of amalgamations and takeovers. Today there are only a few large breweries left and only a small portion of the once unimaginably vast Maltings remains.

The former Everards Tiger Brewery

The most visually impressive of these is the Meakin & Co Maltings off Anglesey Road, where hundreds of East Anglian workers were seasonally drafted in. There are no English Heritage plaques telling you this of course, and although this building is now used as small industrial units it is in a poor state of repair. Few buildings outside of the Burton core (Station St, Bridge St, High St) are listed. The interesting octagonal brewery on Clarence Street is in a similar state of decay and there is no sign of any present use. There are a few examples of refurbishment: Everards brewery is trapped in a half gated Legoland cul-de-sac and the Wetmore Road maltings have recently been converted into offices.

What's the plan?

This is not a distinctive town centre - Middleway Retail Park

What’s the plan? There clearly isn't one. Burton is still very much at the centre of communications, the A38 connecting the subtopias of the East and West Midlands with the motorway network. C.C. Owen was right when he wrote his history of Burton: the development of the town can be seen according to the change of its communications; Trent water, Midland rail and now expressways and car-park-mageddon. It's an example of Asa Briggs's neat summary: the train gave us our industrial towns and the car scattered them. Simmons may have helped to save St Pancras but the scandalous destruction of the Victorian railway infrastructure was a far greater loss and precipitated the repetitive road building and subtopia which ensued. Yet this is a town which still has an identity and an industrial purpose. Surely this should be reason for better buildings and not an excuse for worse? There has to be some sort of walkable civic integration with all of Burton's unique assets, while the car, the HGV and big business have to be tamed. But the scale of the problem is vast.

Walkable integration - let's start at the meadows


C. C. Owen, The Development of Industry in Burton upon Trent
N. J. Tringham, A History of the County of Stafford: Volume 9: Burton-upon-Trent
J. Meades, Incest and Morris Dancing
J. Simmons, St Pancras Station
A. Briggs, Victorian Cities
N. Pevsner, Staffordshire