Architects and Wolverton

Wolverton, for the most part, remains an architect-free zone.

At the beginning, the first Engine Shed was designed by an architect, although Edward Bury, the first Locomotive Superintendent, was not inclined to give the architect a free hand. The first houses, in fact all the streets, were laid out and constructed by builders, mostly by Dunkley of Blisworth. Architcets were not involved as they were with Swindon and Crewe, and you could argue that it showed.

The church and vicarage of St George (1844) was designed by an architect, and architects were called in to design the Church Institute in 1908. I don’t know about the first school (now the library) on Creed Street (1841) but I imagine an architect was used. This was certainly the case with the Science and Art Institute, which burned down in 1970. The twentieth century schools, Church Street, Aylesbury Street, Moon Street and The Radcliffe School were all designed by architects.

I don’t know if the Victoria Hotel, The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club used architects – they may have done.

In more recent times, the modern flats and high rise tower that replaced the “little street” terraces were designed by architects, as was the Agora and presumably the Tesco development.

I suppose the question I might ask, “Is there any architectural heritage in Wolverton?”

The Aylesbuty Street and Moon Street schools have some visual appeal, and the church – well, it is what it is – a 19th century gothic revival church, but too modest in scale or decoration to be impressive. The Craufurd Arms and the Top Club have some decorative appeal but I suspect they would not win prizes. The Church Institute is functional but quite boring. Some of the houses on the Stratford Road, Church Street, Oxford Street and The Square have some embellishments on their frontages. The general impression of 19th century Wolverton is that of red-brick uniformity. You have to look very carefully to see the imaginative detail.

Which leaves us with the Agora, the Gables Tower and associated flats and the Radcliffe School.

All of those concrete and steel and glass buildings of the 1960s were built with function and cost in mind and not much of a nod to the aesthetic. It seems odd to me in retrospect that we once admired the clean functional lines of 1960s architecture. I doubt if they will be much mourned when the time comes for their demolition.

The Agora had possibilities and I think the designers were genuine in their attempt to provide a central architectural feature for Wolverton. They failed in my view. The huge block divides rather than unites the town’s commercial areas, and it closed off Radcliffe Street which was one of Wolverton’s arterial streets. Inside, accommodating what appears to me to be a flea market, the atmosphere is gloomy. The exterior, although imposing, is unlovely. There is more than a hint of some clever twentieth century brain trying to patronise the practical Victorians who built Wolverton.

That’s my opinion. Here is that of Iqbal Alaam, an architect:

Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without playing second fiddle to anyone.
This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.

To be balanced, the Agora does have (did have?) some potential, but whatever potential it did have was spoiled by the siting of the building. I have discussed this before (here) and had it been built to the west of Radcliffe Street the story might have been a different one. I have not had to live with the Agora but what I gather from Wolverton residents is that it is an unloved building.

My conclusion has to be that Wolverton has been poorly served by architects over 170 years. Will this change?

Is this the end of the Agora? 4 – What it replaced

The following photographs will give you some idea of what the Agora replaced. The first picture, taken sometime in the 1960s shows the shop on the corner of Radcliffe Street and Buckingham Street. It was at one time a corner grocery but I don’t have much memory of it. By the time I took this photo it was out of business.
At the corner of Radcliffe Street and Church Street was Eady’s, the butchers. By 1960 it was in at least the third generation of family ownership.
Here are some views of Church Street as it was before the Agora. The north side, with the Vic on the corner is more-or-less recognizable. On the right is the row of houses and shops that were demolished.
The next view, looking west, shows the Post Office on the right (now a Mosque) and the demolished row on the left. The nearside house was for the custodian of the Science and Art Institute.

Much the same view of Church Street but looking East. On the right you can see the Science and Art Institute and in the distance he corner of Creed Street.

This last photo, taken from further along Church Street gives us a glimpse of the shops on the right that were taken down to make way for the Agora. On the left the two visible shops are the Wolverton Mutual at No. 50 (now St Andrews Bookshop), and with the awning, Swains – a sporting goods shop. Beyond that the houses and corner shop (Wolverton Building Society) were remodelled and rebuilt to the present Nationwide buildings.

Is this the end of the Agora? 3 – A summary

  1. Yesterday I posted a review of the Agora written last year by the architect Iqbal Aalam. I don’t know a great deal about Mr Aalam except that he came to Milton Keynes in the early 1970s and worked on many developments over his career. Like many of his contemporaries he brought a fresh view to the creation of a new city out of settled communities and green fields. Judgement about how well this worked will have to wait for another time.

    Wolverton must have presented a difficult challenge. It was a 19th century new town which at one time was the largest town in North Bucks and the second largest town in the whole county. It had acquired its own character and traditions and pride in itself. Wolverton would win no prizes in a beauty contest but beneath that austere surface lay a vibrant town full of people who had every reason to be confident about their past, present and future.

    It is my sense that MKDC wanted to do something for Wolverton but were no quite sure how to go about it. Some bright spark  came up with the idea of a market centre which would also double up as an entertainment facility. In the context of the times, Bletchley had recently acquired a Leisure Centre and supermarkets (as we know them today) were still a future concept. I imagine there was a fair amount of enthusiasm in Wolverton at the time for the new market which was to adopt the Greek word for market place.

    After Mr. Aalam’s review of the Agora in 2010, I wrote this comment.

    Bryan Dunleavy Says:

    February 20, 2010 at 7:49 amWhile I largely agree with your description of the architectural qualities of the Agora, I can’t accept that its location is brilliant. Rather, it appears to me as another example in a chain of poor planning decisions that started in 1837.
    Wolverton, as you note, grew on a grid foundation, and nothing wrong with that except that the commercial centre ended up in an eccentric position, largely due to ad hoc planning. Nonetheless people learned to live with it and the Stratford Road (The Front) became the commercial centre, in time spreading to Church Street and to Morland Terrace and the Square at the turn of the last century. the residential parts grew to the south and west with two through streets, Radcliffe Street and Windsor Street, to provide essential connections to the shops. The decision to build the Agora across Radcliffe Street severed one of those arterial connections with poor consequences for the Stratford Road which once hosted important shops and banks and now is distinctly seedy.
    I am not blind to the other factors that lead to High Street decline, but I rather suspect that the Agora’s location accelerated that decline.
    My own preference in retrospect would have been to develop the Agora to the west of Radcliffe Street, even developing another street on the west side to create a complete commercial square.
    For all that the Agora remains one of the few architect-designed buildings in Wolverton. As I observed in my book, “The Lost Streets of Wolverton”, Wolverton was an “architect-free zone’ almost from the beginning, traceable, I think, to the railway engineer Edward Bury’s distrust of architects.

    • winslowhub Says:

      February 20, 2010 at 7:59 pmIt is most interesting to know the background through your detailed insight into the road patterns and development of the town. I am certain you are right in your opinions about the commercial aspects of the development and of course you are correct in hinting at the decline and the possibility of other contributory factors. I look forward to reading your book to know more details. My comment on the buildings location within the town was more about the ‘geometrical’ placing, its connections, changes of levels and creating space hierarchies in and around it to respond to the town.
      The admiration for Victorian architecture is almost universal and I don’t blame Edward Bury for distrust of architects. It is most unfortunate that the recent housing and its layout near college is of such poor quality, out of character with Wolverton and has caused serious damage to it. It matters little as to who adds to the existing communities, it requires planners, architects and even house buyers to understand the existing built fabric and demand additions to compliment and enhance it rather than clashing with it.

      Let me summarize.

      My original critical point was that it could have been better sited. Building it to the west of Radcliffe Street would have preserved an arterial link with the residential part of the town at the cost of demolishing perhaps six additional houses. Perhaps that additional cost was a consideration amongst the bean counters.

      The shops on the south side of Church Street never had he commercial profile of those on the north side of the street. I suspect that the steps up to them from street level deterred some customers. There was a baker and a butcher on the corners which were popular, but the rest of the row was a secondary retail location – a music shop, a Co-op gents outfitter, a Coal Merchant, a solicitor’s office and a newspaper office. There was also a garage with its service entrance in the back alley. The front window tended to display tires. None of these would have survived the commercial realities of the last 30 years.

      I might also observe that the Agora was out-of-date a few years after its construction. One of its central functions (I was led to understand) was to be a new home for the Wolverton Friday Market which had operated in the old school on Creed Street since 1906. Weekly town markets still flourish across the country but this one seems to have lost its way and what I saw inside was a more-or–less permanent display of cheap “under a pound” goods. The vibrancy of an organic weekly market had withered away.

      Another factor has been the growth of supemarkets and shopping malls, which have left the old small town shopping centres with personal services – banks, chemists, opticians, hairdressers, estate agents. In Wolverton’s case this need appears to have been met by shops around the Square and along the north side of Church Street.

      This would lead me to the conclusion that the Agora has neither been adopted by nor adapted to by the residents of Wolverton. 

      It is also worth making a comparison with Eastleigh in Hampshire. Until 1890, Eastleigh was  very much like Old Wolverton in 1838. Then they built a railway town with redbrick terraces laid out on a grid pattern and a large railway works. Sounds familiar? As with Wolverton Eastleigh went into decline as a railway manufacturing centre but they seem to have managed the transition  better. They built a big covered shopping centre at one end of the High Street and a Supermarket at the other and thus maintained the integrity of their main and subsidiary shopping street. There is also parking. This appears to me in 2011 like a piece of successful town planning. I can’t say the same for Wolverton.

Is this the end of the Agora? 2 – An Architect’s View

A year or so ago, Iqbal Aalam, an architect , did a retrospective series on some of the new developments since the inception of Milton Keynes. In February last year he turned his attention to the Agora and I reproduce here what he wrote. It is an architect’s view and is very interesting for that reason. Wolverton residents may find their opinions at variance with his, as I shall comment upon tomorrow.

February 19, 2010

Wolverton, though only few miles away from Stony Stratford, is a very different town, almost in all respects. It is a historic Victorian Railway town, with a Milton Keynes like gridded housing core of terraces, surrounded by railway workshops.

The softness and rustic surroundings are nowhere to be seen and this shift in grain of the town was very sensitively picked up by the MKDC design team in designing this indoor market and Skating/Leisure Centre.
The shopping/leisure building had to be flexible in use and a large space framed covered area surrounded with two storey balcony/ circulation is housed in a robust engineering brick structure with references to Victorian brick decorations. The appearance and the architectural handling has been developed to provide a strong visual rhythm to accommodate ‘uncontrolled’ use and appearance, consequently the building is unlikely to win many beauty competitions but what a wonderful gift for a tough town this turned out to be.

It is refreshing and unusual to see the building taking everything on its chin like a seasoned street fighter, remain standing on its feet, and to shame the ‘abusers’ asks for knock out blows to be landed on it.

The only reference to its inception showing the linkage with the Miesian tradition is a beautifully designed glass box sitting at high level under the large roof to one side of the Market area, dissolving the space, looking down and reflecting the surrounding activities of this well crafted space.

The location of the large bulk of the building within the town is also brilliant.
It links various walking routes through and around it, addressing itself to a small town square, an open air market and car park and two main streets of the town.

Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without    playing second fiddle to anyone.
This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.

Is this the end of the Agora? 1 What people think

A few days ago I observed that many of Wolverton’s buildings that were constructed in the  1840s and 1860s are still in use, whereas some that were more architecturally significant have come and gone, or going, in the case of the Agora, I don’t know if it is too soon for an obituary for the Agora but I hear that it is to close down on June 20th. Apparently nobody wants to buy the building and it has gradually deteriorated. It was built after the period of this blog’s remit but it is an iconic building and is worth some comment. I’ll do this in three parts – first some comments on Facebook in reaction to the news, tomorrow I’ll post an architect’s assessment, and on Saturday I’ll make a few comments of my own.


Monday at 15:55 ·  ·  · 

    • Sheila Higginbotham Knock it down and put the road back it would be much nicer.

      Monday at 16:50 · 
    • Elaine Sullivan Hoorah Hoorah Hoorah

      Monday at 17:09 · 
    • Cllr Sara Agintas for some people it was there lively hood so as you can imagine some people are gutted and have lost thoundsands of pounds

      Monday at 17:10 ·  ·  1 person
    • Sheila Higginbotham 

      That’s progress for you, once upon a time Wolverton square looked beautiful with a traditional street running through to Stratford Road then the Agora was built. Don’t get me wrong I had many years of fun skating at the Agora. I am sure tSee more

      Monday at 17:19 ·  ·  1 person
    • Bill Monteith well it is good news but not for the hopeful retailers in there….hopefully as said and put it back to the way it was

      Monday at 17:43 · 
    • Vicki Levitt Lost thousands of pounds in lively hoods ???? Selling the tat they sell there ??? Pounds more like!!!! I remember life b4 Agora & bar skating ~ it was a big mistake 4 Wolverton ~

      Monday at 17:49 ·  ·  2 people
    • Sarah Day They knocked down my auntie’s home to build the Agora. I do have some fond memories of skating there, but apart from that, I think it needs to be knocked down and put the road back or just make better use of it.

      Monday at 18:17 · 
    • Elaine Sullivan Sorry but for all of us that remember Wolverton before The Agora will be really please about its closure. It was the worse thing that could have happened to Wolverton. The next worry is what will be made of it now

      Monday at 18:18 ·  ·  2 people
    • Becky Fenton it will probably be left as derelict land or something like that

      Monday at 18:21 · 
    • Becky Fenton true lolhas been for a fare few years

      Monday at 18:26 · 
    • Phillip Webb lets hope they something with it before it get set on fire, any body know whats happening to the queen vic

      Monday at 18:52 · 
    • Phillip Webb i agree as long as it’s a nice English one like the carvery

      Monday at 19:14 · 
    • Phillip Webb any thing as long as it’s english food as i don’t like all the other food places

      Monday at 19:19 · 
    • John Baker Too many paki shops not enough English eateries. How about having street markets that would bring back local trade.

      Monday at 19:34 ·  ·  2 people
    • Sheila Higginbotham 

      I think the shops may reflect the community today as it did when we were young. Maybe the younger community of Wolverton today have a view on what they would like to see happen with the Agora. As sad as it is, we are not kids anymore and See more

      Monday at 21:47 · 
    • Bill Monteith vic is owned by the asian bloke that owns the agora and last i heard (30 mins ago) that planning permission will be put in for an up to date all mod cons mosque as the other one is too small

      Monday at 22:06 · 
    • Linda Kincaid I agree that Wolverton looked a lot better before the Agora was built but it has been there a long time now and it seems a crime to see it stand there derelict . I think it has been run into the ground. I still think it would be a perfect rollerskating rink again but the chances of finding an investor willing to do that now is practically nil.

      Monday at 23:05 ·  ·  1 person
    • Sheila Higginbotham I don’t think my arthritic bones could roller skate anymore but would have a go, lol. Would our kids/grandkids want roller skating now?

      Monday at 23:16 · 
    • Heather Julie Fisher i agree with that i used to love going rollerskating lol

      Monday at 23:17 · 
    • Linda Kincaid Roller skating is alive and kicking but Stantonbury leisure centre is used as there isn’t anywhere else at the moment.

      Yesterday at 13:28 · 
    • Cllr Sara Agintas the vic is owned by nationwide building society which have no plans to reopen it again

      Yesterday at 13:56 · 
    • Phillip Webb untill it get set on fire

      Yesterday at 14:05 · 
    • Cllr Sara Agintas people have lost there jobs and are very upset

      Yesterday at 14:06 · 
    • Vicki Levitt That of course is very sad ~ we are not insulting them ~ its the building!!! So no need 4 u 2 tell us that!!!

      Yesterday at 14:08 · 
    • Toni Brown YES!!! now re-open that road (what is it called) like it used to be!!!!

      Yesterday at 14:32 · 
    • Sheila Stone Was Radcliffe Street I think

      Yesterday at 14:34 · 
    • Toni Brown yeh thats it.can put back on the 392 bus that went up radcliffe st around southern way then down windsor st.See I remember that plus the other bus that went along the front to stony was the 391.Tehe

      Yesterday at 14:41 ·  ·  1 person
    • Elaine Pilcher The ‘Queen Vic’ was where I met my husband in 1985 & I remember sitting on ‘Dirty Dens’ knee too !!!!!!!!

      Yesterday at 15:37 ·  ·  1 person
    • Julie Russell Thompson they use the old post office as a mosque so maybe they will do something on them lines as its hard to park on church st and its car park when they are using it.

      Yesterday at 15:46 · 
    • Linda Kincaid Didn’t know the Vic was owned by the nationwide. It would make a great restaurant. That said, Wolverton is like a ghost town some nights so would it get much business. Wierd because so many people live there. I guess everyone goes up the city which is a shame.

      Yesterday at 16:18 · 
    • Vicki Levitt Elaine i worked in the ‘vic’ wen Den & Angie was there that week ~ they ate chips with me in the kitchen ~ lost my pic’s with them ~ i had forgotten all about it ~ Thank u 4 the memory

      Yesterday at 19:43 · 
    • Rebecca Nevard 

      I live in Bletchley now and it feels the same – although I don’t have the same feeling of nostalgia as I do with Wolverton… I wish i could boycott the city, but there is nothing in the older bits of MK so you are forced to use the city aSee more

      Yesterday at 19:51 ·  ·  2 people
    • Elaine Pilcher Not a prob Vicki 🙂 I have my photo of ‘Den’ (somewhere) !!!!!! lol

      Yesterday at 20:23 · 
    • Sheila Higginbotham I no longer live in MK so therefore it is not my place to champion the cause but please contact the local Councillor who are your voice in the community. Cllr Sara Agintas has posted on this thread and I’m sure will listen and put forward your views.

      Yesterday at 20:37 · 
    • Mel Dickson I heard years ago it was going to be knocked down……i’ve seen sketches of what they intend to do with the land and guess what….its houses!

      3 hours ago ·  ·  1 person
    • Phillip Webb they should put back the houses they got rid of to build the thing

      2 hours ago · 
    • Sheila Stone They should never have built it, it cut Wolverton right in half!

      2 hours ago · 
    • Julie Russell Thompson carl i was on about when they where little as mum was at school with them

      2 hours ago · 

Fire at the Market Hall

These were the scenes the day after the fire – September 21st 1906. I do not know the cause of the fire, but it left Wolverton without a covered market for a while.
The Market House was built in 1842, just the west of the original railway line (now McConnell Drive) and south of the Stratford Road. The shell of the building survived, so it was rebuilt and it served (and continues to serve) various functions since that date.
As it turned out, the old school on Creed Street had just been vacated by the girls and infants to move into their new school on Aylesbury Street, and the market traders were able to move into the old school building.
And there the Friday market remained until July 1979, when it transferred to the newly-built and controversial Agora. My personal view is that it lost a great deal of its natural vibrancy in that move. The Friday Market used to be a big weekly occasion and for the morning and part of the afternoon the area thronged with thousands of customers, from both Wolverton and all the outlying towns and villages. Extra buses and trains were laid on for the occasion.
Now I know times change, but I still see weekly markets thriving where the deadening hand of bureaucracy has been withheld.

A Gora Blimey!

Today I stepped inside the Agora. I was shocked. My expectation, given that the planners of the day had seen fit to demolish  complete sections of Church Street and Buckingham Street and isolated the Square from Church Street and the Front, was that the interior would be an indoor shopping centre. Instead I encountered a warehouse. I see now that it must have been the planner’s intention to replace the traditional market with a new superstructure in the middle of the town.

Well, let me say this. The project is an abject failure.
The market that ran every Friday in the Market Hall was a vibrant living organism. Many traders of all stripes set up their stalls inside and out and I don’t recall many vacancies. United Counties scheduled buses from all the outlying villages on Friday morning and returning at lunchtime. They were mostly full and the Friday market was a very crowded place.
One job which I took on in my teens was to help one trader, Harry Tooth, to unload his rugs, tablecloths and bedlinen from his van. I would help him unload before school in the morning and load up after 4 in the afternoon. So he got in a full day’s trading at Wolverton market.
Fifty years later I still see town markets flourishing so I see no reason why the old Wolverton market could not have continued to thrive.
Wolverton had certainly grown in an unusual way because of Railway Board decisions. Once Bury, Garnett and Walker Streets had been razed, the commercial traders had to move but before too long the Front and Church Street had formed a new shopping centre ith residences to the east, south and west. When the little streets were flattened in the 60s the eastern side was gone and the town became once more lop-sided.
The planners and builders of the Agora could have justified their decision had they built a shopping centre with important tenants – but a warehouse doesn’t cut it!