I recently went on a long-awaited trip to Peterlee, County Durham, a new town built in 1948 to house the area’s mining communities (photos by Steve Hanson), enabled by the government’s 1946 New Towns Act. I had long wanted to visit Peterlee as an example of the way in which architecture and art were brought closer together in the post-war period, and due to the involvement of the artist Victor Pasmore in the development of the town. Pasmore’s involvement encompassed landscaping as well as, most famously, the sculptural concrete Apollo Pavilion which was named in honour of the 1969 moon landing and provides a focal point for the Sunny Blunts area of the town.
I was really struck by the contrast between Peterlee and other nearby villages such as Blackhall Colliery, as well as the large town of Hartlepool, where the predominantly terraced and Victorian housing was extremely dense and packed together. In contrast, Peterlee had a real feeling of spaciousness and greenery about it. Whilst remaining part of an overall coherence of design (despite the near-universal replacement of the original flat roofs and several instances of infill new-build development), a mix of housing styles – from flats and maisonettes to semi-detached and larger detached houses – were distributed in a way that seemed to complement and interact with the gently undulating landscape and give an overall impression of openness. Although many of the original post-war schools seemed to have been replaced, I was also struck by the number of modernist churches distributed throughout the estate, in wildly differing architectural styles, and noticed that some of the original pubs and facilities had been retained.
Despite the hope and optimism it was meant to symbolise, Pasmore’s Apollo Pavilion soon became neglected, vandalised and unloved; there is a great clip of Pasmore returning to Peterlee in the 1980s in this documentary about British abstract artists, and remaining defiant in the face of angry residents who wish to see it pulled down (from around 17 minutes in). Thankfully, the Pavilion has undergone a restoration in recent years, with its murals repainted and lighting reinstated. In common with an increasing number of post-war public artworks, it is now listed. On the day I visited I was pleased to see groups of local young people using it and for a variety of purposes, from a space for meeting, gathering and chatting and interacting with it in different ways including climbing on it and even doing press-ups.
More information about Peterlee and the Apollo Pavilion can be found at www.apollopavilion.info/Pages/default.aspx.
ICHG paper ‘Artworks in schools of every kind: the Pictures for Schools exhibitions 1947-1969’, Monday 6 JulyPosted: June 30, 2015
Next Monday (6 July) I am excited to be talking about my Pictures for Schools research at the International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society in London. I will be speaking in the session ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’ (Royal School of Mines Room G05, from 2.15pm), alongside papers on subjects such as new towns and new universities.
For more information about the session, including abstracts, visit http://conference.rgs.org/ICHG/33.
I happened across this interesting Radio 4 programme yesterday about England’s attachment to our countryside as “a guiding idea and inspiration”. The programme talks about how England’s natural landscape provided an “idea of England to be fought for” during the world wars, and explores the tensions created between preserving the English landscape and needing to expand and provide land for new homes and industries as the twentieth century progressed, taking in inter-war ribbon development, the rise of owner-occupation, prefab construction after the Second World War, New Towns on greenfield sites, satellite towns, affordable housing, the profession of planning, the rise of the car, etc. .
The programme uses interviews and archive clips, from John Betjeman on ‘Metroland’ and a clip from radio producer Olive Shapley’s 1930s Manchester slum conditions documentary the Classic Soil, to Winston Churchill on the delights of indoor bathrooms.
Find the programme on iPlayer here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01j2bzr/Archive_on_4_Houses_v_Fields/
I found the programme’s discussion of an idealised version of a ‘deep’ or ‘lost’ England interesting in relation to my reading about modernity – as other writers have observed, modernity in Britain can be seen as clinging onto tradition and preservation, refusing to completely break with the past in its vision of the future (see Conekin, Mort and Waters 1999, Matless 2001). It is also going to be interesting to see what kind of visions of Britain were presented to children in the artworks included in Pictures for Schools, particularly in the paintings, many of which take the English landscape as their inspiration.