On common ground we’ll build our castle walls

I have always been pretty interested in architecture. Well, I say architecture, but I really mean ‘buildings’, as I have little interest in the intricacies of structural design, more the aesthetics and history. It’s been something I thought about a lot when I was in Norfolk last week, and is pretty current, with the recent listing of a 1970s shopping centre in Milton Keynes and the debates over whether Castle Market should be demolished and the remains of the old Sheffield Castle uncovered, or whether the market should actually be listed.

When I was in Hemsby a few days ago, I went past a large old holiday camp site. The place was empty and it looked rather spooky.  I later looked it up and it was an old Pontin’s site that closed in 2009 (though it looked as though it could have been closed longer). Derelict buildings are always rather sinister, but there is something about derelict leisure sites that I find uniquely depressing, and I suspect that’s the same for many people. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the most famous photos of Chernobyl are of the fairground that never opened. We associate leisure sites with happy memories, often with childhood, and their decay is somehow even more poignant than that of other sites.

We’ve also recently watched The Last Train, the late 90s apocalyptic serial shown on ITV (featuring the Nelson Mandela Building RIP), which was actually pretty good (and written by one of the Life on Mars writers) and one of the most evocative images in that is when they go to an old holiday camp that had been used as some form of quarantine base – it was actually the former Pontin’s Tower Beach site in Prestatyn. Several Butlin’s and Pontin’s sites (and others of their ilk) have been closed in the past couple of decades, and it’s understandable that there isn’t as much need for them, or that they need to be modernised so much that it could become impossible to maintain them, but there is something incredibly sad about their demise.  Of course, the ones that survive, like the three remaining Butlin’s sites are those that modernise and change (and rightly so – having stayed in semi-old-skool Butlin’s in the early 90s and in its late 90s improved version I can tell you the latter was a great improvement).

I can’t help but wonder, though, if we’re losing an important bit of our history by not maintaining/restoring at least one of these old sites.  The likes of Bultin’s and Pontin’s were such a huge part of mid 20th century Britain, as well as inspiring lots of popular culture (or Hi-De-Hi anyway).  I can imagine that if English Heritage or someone were to restore one of these old camps to its former glory and offer it up as a full-on revisit of the 50s tourist experience, it could be really special.

I also spent a day in Great Yarmouth.  We’d been to Norfolk on holidays each year between ’83-’86, and much of it seemed to be exactly the same, Yarmouth in particular.  I took a whole bunch of photos on a bit of an 80s nostalgia trip – it was nice to actually see something from my youth that remained, given the changes to Grimsby and Sheffield so that they barely resemble the places I grew up in.  Honestly, save the odd Tweenies and Bob the Builder ride, Great Yarmouth could easily have been straight out of the late 70s or early 80s.  Even most of the rides were the same.  Part of me felt sad that very little had changed and, like many seaside places, it felt very dated, but another part of me was glad that bits of my (and of our national) heritage were still here – so much 20th century architecture has been demolished it’s nice to see things that remain.

Anyway, all this has got me wondering about what we preserve of our past, and how.  I live in Sheffield where the city centre skyline is dominated by the largest listed building in Europe, Park Hill.  It was listed as a great example of its type of architecture to much controversy and there have been long debates over its future as long as I’ve lived here (and probably as long as it’s been built).  I can see the arguments both for and against its demolition and it really is a tricky one – it’s so iconic, yet it’s so ugly, like pretty much all 60s architecture – and it has had more than its share of problems.  I spent a lot of time on the estate in the late 90s so I knew it pretty well, and could see where the potential had been in its initial conception, but also how that had fallen apart.  Lately it’s been under very slow redevelopment by Urban Splash, which has meant adding lots of colour to it.  Now the redevelopment will hopefully end up looking really good and will make Park Hill functional again – but at the same time, it runs the risk of ruining its Park Hill-ness and taking away its iconic appearance.

I am generally a person that likes the new and the shiny.  I hate decay and ruin and I love neatness and cleanness, but as I get older and more nostalgic/sentimental, I can see the value in preserving some of the old.  I think it’s important we keep iconic buildings from as many eras as possible around so that we can see how our nation has developed, and how architecture and styles change.  Most 60s buildings, particularly public buildings and housing estates, were ugly, but if we destroy everything from that time, what remains of our past?  The question is how to do acknowledge and remember the past without either leaving ugly misplaced eyesores around, or changing buildings beyond all recognition but maintaining their usefulness – and of course, we need to decide which aspects of our history are worth preserving – a market area that is classically 60s and famously Sheffield (but incredibly run down) or the older ruined castle beneath it, for example?

The De La Warr Pavillion in Bexhill is probably the most famous example of a classic restoration that maintains the look and feel of the original building whilst giving it a contemporary usefulness, but what else would you classify as a good renovation?  What 20th Century buildings/styles do you think are worth preserving?  Now we have photos of how it all looked does it matter anyway?

  • Shots of Hemsby Pontin’s (looking better than when I saw it) here.
  • Anyone remember Channel 4 show Wakey Wakey Campers?  The site used in it closed down in 2007, and you can see the photos here.
  • Some great shots of Castle Market here.
  • The Derelict Places forum – great shots for inspiration if you fancy shooting a post apocalyptic film!
  • Butlin’s Memories – lots of interesting photos, facts and memories about British holiday camps.
  • Talking of things from the 80s, I didn’t even know that the American Adventure had closed!

2 thoughts on “On common ground we’ll build our castle walls

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