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 


Jones the planner said...

Chris, finally done Burton on Trent – lovely day for it. Basically followed your tour omitting the Centum bit and I think you were spot on. Difficult to get the full flavour until you are actually there. We thought the Town Hall extension (and original) were great but apparently Council moving out to some design and build. What a waste. Had lunch in the former Liberal Club on George St (Staffordshire Oatcakes). This group is amazingly good. Some lovely buildings leading up to Trent Bridge and the riverside parkland is superb. I thought the Market Place area had a lot of coherence, more than I was expecting. So I suppose the question is why was Burton so dispersed in first place? Spose because the driver was big brewery plots so not a conventional nucleated town, and as they contracted huge areas opened up for retail park crap, an expression of a collapse in confidence. By the way Nick says BoT used to be a County Borough but voluntarily surrendered this status to be part of Staffs again - more evidence of loss of confidence. But neverteless lots of
positives in Burton - just too many car parks!

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