Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Portishead Marina (Port Marine); Somerset

Original Harbour Wall: Marina Development to Left

Having grown up in North Somerset our nearest seaside town was Weston Super Mare which was about 20 miles away. We would go there several times each summer and occasionally would drive a little further south or north to take in Brean Sands, Burnham-on-Sea, Clevedon and Portishead.

The Marina from the Land Ward End

I can’t remember much about Portishead, except that it was dull in relation to the other destinations especially in comparison to the bright lights and the buzz of the pier to be found at Weston.

It was dull for good reason: It was effectively a small industrial port slowly coming to the end of an era as such; only really hanging on because of the two nearby coal fired power stations (now demolished). I never thought that I would bother to go back until I got talking to a few local Bristolians who made mention of the rejuvenation of the place over the past few years. So wanting an excuse to make the most of the wonderful weather we are currently having I set off with my son (the architectural undergraduate) in tow.

The "Deep-Sea" Lock

I have to say that I really enjoyed our couple of hours ambling around the new marina development (Named Port Marine). My son was wearing his usual “young man’s architectural critic” hat and took some time to warm towards it: Mainly stuff about cheap, poorly finished fa├žades and cladding. However he finally agreed that it was an overall well planned and not too "shabbily" implemented project.

It’s ironic to think that had it not been an imperative to keep coal flowing from the South Wales mines across the Severn estuary into Portishead harbour for onward transport to the power stations, today’s marina redevelopment would not exist. It’s due to the massive sea lock that consistently connects the deep water marina to the sea that allows 365 day access in and out.

A Marina Side Bar/Restaurant

As for the architecture of the development I’ll let you judge for yourself via the pictures here and the larger number over on my website. What I will say is that it has something of a Southern France feel about it, which is no bad thing. It also has several contemporary bars/eateries (with retail space being made available for more to come) and is well serviced by shops: Waitrose and Lidl at the land end and a soon to be opened Morrisons at the sea end.

We were also surprised to find quite a few pieces of commissioned sculpture dotted around the place and were particularly impressed by the “forest” of granite pillars on a hillock overlooking the sea. Random pillars had several words engraved into their vertical edges; words that symbolise the history of the place.

Typical Water Front Apartments

In conclusion: Would I live here? Well not permanently perhaps (until they sort out the road access from Bristol/M5. When we left in the opposite direction around 6 pm cars were queued all the way back from the motorway junction to the town centre. However the idea of a small 1 or 2 bed apartment and a 6m speed boat in the Marina for weekends away in the summer: Not that I can afford that....

All images and text copyright Andrew Hill 2013

More and larger Images may be found on the Revealing Light website.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Swindon: World Heritage Site?

"Swindon in Wiltshire": What’s the first thing that comes into your mind? A whole host of jokes perhaps…particularly those assuming a complete lack of culture? Maybe, however without wanting to make remarks about how this city sized town has morphed itself into a vibrant and productive community, with excellent communications over the past 25 years, I'm going to talk about it’s innovative past.

I'm not a native of this town, but have indeed lived here for the past quarter of a century, and there is one thing that still puzzles me: Why is the Great Western Railway (GWR) works, associated Railway Village and it’s infrastructural buildings not a World Heritage site? Yes I did say, "World Heritage Site"!
The Works Water Tower Dwarfs The Village
The area is currently designated as a conservation area and the buildings are only grade 2 listed, but believe it or not here lies the cradle of the British modern social, medical and educational systems….a structure that has been more or less adopted across many modern nations. It is even arguable that this was the model for politically orientated “Socialist” living.

From humble beginnings as an early Anglo-Saxon defensive settlement on a lone hill overlooking the surrounding area, Swindon gradually developed as a market town, until between 1841 and 1842 Isambard Kingdom Brunel established his production and maintenance facilities for his rolling stock on the GWR. The works were to go on to employ some 14,500 people at its peak before it’s final closure in 1986.

Not only did Brunel build what would become one of the largest manufacturing operations in the world, but he had the social vision to understand that cared for workers, who are fit and happy make for loyal, hard working employees. Brunel consequently built not only a number of houses just outside the walls of the works, but established a thriving village community by investing in supporting infrastructure. The employees not only had a short distance to travel to work but were also provided with; faith, medical, educational, retail and entertainment services on their doorsteps.
A Row of Workers Cottages

The houses themselves are laid out in neat ranks and consist of several different sizes of property which were generally apportioned in terms of size according to the rank of the workers; the more senior management being entitled to slightly grander surroundings.  There are several rows of back to back houses with convenient arched walkthroughs which benefit from lawn frontages. There are also more traditional terraces that enjoy small discrete walled rear gardens separated at the backs by relatively wide service lanes.
Service Lanes at the House Backs 
At the ends of the terraces, towards the central area, surrounding the “Mechanics Institute" were a small number of corner shops and public houses, two of the pubs still survive today.

The Mechanics Institute, now sadly derelict and shored up, stands at the centre of the village having been on this site since 1855, previously having been established in 1844 in the close by “Chapel” building. It provided a covered market and meeting and function rooms, often used for educational purposes. Indeed it is probably fair to say that due to various educational initiatives the workforce were among the best educated manual workers in Britain at the time.  The Institute was also the centre for the promotion of local democracy and pioneering trade union activities.
The Mechanics Institute
From 1871 the workers paid a small weekly deduction from their wages that entitled them to medical care (and later other well-being facilities) that were provided via the GWR medical fund clinic and its hospital located at the edges of the campus.
The Medical Fund Hospital
Later in 1892, across the road from the hospital, a health centre; now called the “health hydro” was opened. It provided swimming pools, a dance hall, Turkish baths, laundries, a pharmacy and clinics. It also housed Britain’s first lending library.

Under the medical fund workers received not only medical care and free medicines but also prosthetic limbs and later dental surgery.  It was this integrated approach to social and medical care that became the blueprint for the modern National Health Service (NHS).

The Health Centre (Hydro)

So next time you are heading either way past Swindon on the M4 why not turn off and spend an hour or two exploring this architectural and historic gem, built out of cutting edge concern for the care and prosperity of the underpinning manual working classes?

All images and text copyright Andrew Hill 2013

More and larger Images may be found on the Revealing Light website.