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Tuesday, 9 September 2008

My Town Centre - The Next Generation

One bleak Sunday morning in November 1964 Grandad and I went for our usual weekend walk.

"Why are we going up the town on a Sunday, Grandad?" I asked.

(In those days it was unheard of for the town centre shops to open on a Sunday.)

"Because we are going to watch an old building being demolished," he replied.

That morning Grandad and I stood with a crowd of locals, tutting and puffing and shaking their heads in disbelief, as we watched the sombre, but proud, Old Grammar School on Bakehouse Hill being reduced to a pile of Victorian rubble as it made way for what is now called 'Newlands Phase One'.

Being a Kettering gal, born and bred, as I was growing up I can remember the redevelopment and modernisation of the town centre that took place in the 60's and 70's, and which began on that chilly November morning. I can clearly recall, as a teenager, the fight to save the Queen Anne Beech House from the clutches of the gurus who worshipped at the altars of pre-stressed concrete and pre-fabricated steel sections and presumed they knew best when it came to the buzzwords – 'Central Area Redevelopment'.

In the early 1970s a local hack called Tony Ireson fought like a Trojan to save our heritage. He had the full backing of townsfolk as he embarked on his crusade to save Beech House. Well-known and not-so-well-known residents of the town alike made their views known in the local newspaper and the Civic Society eventually took off its velvet gloves and replaced them with iron fists in the quest to save the unique and majestic buildings at the heart of this busy market town – all to no avail.

No-one was listening, and if they were, they had their hands over their ears and their eyes tightly shut as Kettering's residents tried in vain to make themselves heard outside the closed doors of the Council Chamber.

Beech House was demolished and all that remained of this grand old mansion was the blue front door, fixed defiantly to the wall just inside the Tanner's Lane entrance to the Newlands Centre (then called the Newborough Centre).

'Ketrin' ent never gunna be the same agen,' people said, with a morose shaking of heads. There was a general feeling that Kettering had irrevocably lost its unique sparkle when the Gold Street shop frontages and the Dickensian cobbles of Richards Leys had also been sacrificed in the name of modernisation.

Tony then embarked on the fight of his life to save his quaint and quirky home, Beech Cottage, from the concrete-worshipping timelords who hid behind their gigantic mechanical monsters. This time he was successful, but sadly sacrificed his lovely garden, which was replaced by a road running right outside his front window.

My home town is now facing another comprehensive town centre redevelopment, but this time, I think, the decision-makers are listening. Mindful of the mistakes of the past, residents are being given the opportunity to let the decision-makers know how they feel, and what they think. The Council has rented out a vacant shop in the town centre to stage displays and answer questions about the new-look multi-million pound town centre. Its a far cry from the whisperings in smoke-filled chambers of the sixties and seventies when people were ignored.

Don't you think, though, there's a touch of serendipity here? The town centre shop, where people can go and have their say, is on the site of the first building demolished all those years ago -The Old Grammar School.

5 comments:

Lane said...

The brutal demolition and so called 'modernization' of the 60's and 70's was nothing short of criminal. I'm glad to hear town planning is organized more intelligently and sensitively these days.

I feel so sorry for people like Tony Ireson (!) who fought so hard but were ultimately ignored. I'm glad he kept his cottage though, albeit without his lovely garden:-(

HelenMH said...

I have fond memories of Kettering from the early 70s when I visited a lot as a child as my father's best friend lived there. Mainly I remember the park which I know is very different these days.

Debs said...

Over recent years the 'powers that be' have managed to ruin our waterfront and turned it from a simple harbour area to a concrete jungle. So sad.

They are now embarking on building more flats, etc that will take away what little parking we have and they all look the same as so many other places now.

We are told that they are listening to what the public want but unfortunately it's money that talks the loudest, not the locals.

Captain Black said...

If anyone ever needed proof of the shallow, short-term thinking of the sixties and seventies, they need only look at the number of tower blocks and "projects" that are now being demolished, or have already been demolished.

There's also the horrible crime that has been associated with some of these "toilet blocks" over the years. Enough to inspire crime fiction writing. Anyone read Minette Walters' Acid Row?

I'm glad that we appear to be learning lessons from these mistakes, but, like Debs, I suspect that it will be money that has the final say.

Annieye said...

Lane - Tony was Rob's uncle and a writer. His book about his quest to save Beech House, Beech Cottage and the Gold street frontages is detailed in his book 'Old Kettering and its Defenders'.

Helen - the park is certainly very different, and a place that I definitely sidestep in the summer months - but its still as lovely as ever out of the open-season.

Debs - what a shame that your waterfront is being developed in such a greedy way. Perhaps the looming recession will stave off the developers for a while longer.

Captain - You only have to look to Kettering's neighbour, Corby, to see all the sixties high density housing estates being demolished.

Sadly, the Newlands Centre is there to stay, but I know how much work has gone into designing something special for Kettering (inside knowledge, you see!). Of course, money talks louder than any number of protesting residents, but this time, I think, people feel included.