Listed Buildings – Wolverton

Thanks to Andrew Lambert for this idea. I am going to go on a tour of the listed buildings in the area. I’ll start with Wolverton, then do Old Wolverton, Stony Stratford and New Bradwell.

I can’t help but comment on the arbitrary nature of the listing process. The original Engine Shed did not get listed and was consequently flattened to make a Tesco car park, but the Triangle Building, started in 1845 and much enlarged and adapted over the years, makes the list. The school of 1840 is not listed, nor is the Royal Engineer of 1841. Why is the Aylesbury Street School of 1906 listed and not the Moon Street School of 1908?

The information below is presented as links to the British Heritage site. The information is under crown copyright and cannot be reproduced here. Just as well perhaps, since there are a number of instances where the descriptions are factually wrong.

Area map of listed buildings

Blue Bridge

The Blue Bridge was a farm track from Stacey Hill Farm to the fields sloping down to Bradwell Brook.

Church of St George the Martyr

The building and history of the church has been covered in various posts.

Classroom at Wyvern First School

Former Railway Works Building

In 1845 the LBR used the land on the east side of the line to build a new shed. In time this expanded to fill the whole triangle area between the canal, the Stratford Road and the old railway line. It was henceforward known as the Triangle Building.

Reading Room

I rather think that it would take some serious archaeological work to identify which part of this building was the original Reading Room of 1840. Back then it was certainly a single storey structure and the road and canal bridge were lower. The openings for doors and windows do not resemble anything visible on the surviving planss from the 840s.

Former Royal Train Shed

Funny what the word “Royal” can do. This long shed and workshop was built in the 1880s when the main line was diverted and sat on the embankment above the Park. It was used in the 20th century to store the Royal Train when it was not in use, thus giving the building a significance which it might not otherwise have had.

Church Institute

Park Keeper’s lodge

This is the best photo I have at the moment, surrounded by boards, empty and awaiting some fate.

Methodist Church

Railway Bridge over Canal

The barn was built in the 1840s when the new farm house was built on top of the hill. (Formerly Stacey Farm had been closer to Bradwell Brook.) It was a large timbered structure and was given a Grade II listing. Unfortunately it burned down in a fire in 1996 so the preservation order didn’t help very much!

Stacey Hill Farm House

The farm house, built I understand, by the very young Charles Aveline is now occupied by the Milton Keynes Museum and can be visited during opening hours.

Skew Bridge

Garden Pavilion

I haven’t got much idea of what this is. I assume from the description that it was a garden structure in the grounds of the Vicarage.

Viaduct

Wyvern First School

The girls and infants continued to use the 1840 school on Creed Street until 1906 when this was built. At the time it was Wolverton’s grandest school until the Secondary School opened at the end of Moon street in 1908. The Creed Street School did service as a Market Hall until the Agora was opened.

Wyvern Nursery

This was in 1896 the new Boys School and remained so until about 1946 when the Secondary Modern came into being. From that time on all the Wolverton schools were co-ed.

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?

The Elms

The rather good-looking house at the bottom of Green Lane (now two houses) was built by the Stony Stratford architect, Edwin Swinfen Harris. (Harris was very active in the area in the late Victorian period and deserves a separate article when I get round to writing it.)
The railway company had built a house and surgery for the company doctor/surgeon in 1844 as one of six villas beside the canal. For various reasons – not least the relative isolation of The Firs – the LNWR decided to build a new house and surgery at this location. In the fashion of the day the house was named after trees. (The remaining four villas were named The Firs, Yew Tree House, The Hawthorns and The Limes, and the large houses beside the tennis courts were called The Beeches and Yiewsley.)
The house was first occupied by Dr. Harvey and when I was a boy by the husband and wife team of Doctors Eric and Marjorie Fildes. Dr. Eric Fildes was our “family doctor” as they were called in those days. In fact, being a family doctor and thus looking after all generations of the family was part of the effectiveness of diagnosis in those days largely free of medical technology. When Dr. Fildes came to visit me as a boy in the 1940s when I contracted one or another of the prevalent illnesses (yes Doctors did make house calls) he would park his black car outside the door, come upstairs to my bedroom, place a thermometer under my tongue and, while that was registering, place a cold stethoscope on my chest. Having made his diagnosis he would give my mother some instructions and scribble out a prescription. And that was basically it. After a few days I recovered with more bed rest and regular spoonfuls of medicine.
The Elms was a little more isolated than it is today. There were grounds extending to Moon Street of more than one acre surrounding the house. The surgery entrance was on the right. This door led to a waiting room where people sat until called into the surgery, a smaller room at the back. There may have been another room behind this for more detailed patient examination, but I never saw it.

The Pineapple

I’ve often remarked that Wolverton was an architect-free zone, and that is largely true. Only a few public buildings, the churches, the schools and the Science & Art Institute were designed by architects and for the most part Wolverton was built by experienced builders who built practical designs that worked. Their monument is the buildings that are still in use after 150 years. Obviously built to last and functional.

In recent times there have been two notable intrusions by architects into Wolverton – the Agora and the Cricket Pavilion nicknamed the Pineapple. I have discussed the Agora here. Now thats the cricket season is underway I want to turn my attention to the Pineapple. It is a building which I have never seen, because it came and went during a period when I didn’t visit Wolverton. If I should ever wish to see it I will have to make a trip to a chicken farm in Somerset!

Some background. Cricket has as a long a history as Wolverton itself. Several cricket teams played the game, but in 1893 the teams were organized into a single cricket club.  Early games were played in a field near the Gables. I am not sure of the precise location but it could have been in the area now occupied by Moon Street and Victoria Street. When this was required for building a new field was acquired on its present site at the top of Osborn Road. The pavilion was typically Victorian in design with a raised stand to view the game and changing rooms inside for home and away teams. Thousands of these were erected across the country and many of the rituals of the game became associated with buildings like these. It certainly fitted in with peoples notion of what cricket was all about. Later a club room was created from an old railway carriage which sunk comfortably in the ground under the weight of the very comfortable upholstery. A newer structure was added to this at a later date.

The Old Cricket Pavilion and Bowls Club House

By 1972 the old wooden Cricket Pavilion was rotting away at the foundations and the Cricket Club turned to Milton Keynes for assistance. At the time the Corporation was overloaded with young architects wishing to make their mark on the world and one of them, Pierre Botschi, was offered to the unsuspecting committee. He came up with an avant garde design using stuts and fibre galss and probably much influenced by the geodesic designs of Buckminster Fuller – much in vogue in those days. Buildings of this genre were inexpensive to build and were lightweight while being structurally strong. Thousands of “Good Life” enthusiasts across the United States built their own geodesic domes or variants only to later find that they were difficult to inhabit. Noise was one problem, heating costs another and added to that the inhabitants had difficulty in adapting furniture to the space. They also leaked after a few years. Very few survive today.

Well I am not blindly resistant to new design ( and I think that is true of most of us) but the designs have to be functional and useful. The Newton Notepad computer (if anyone remembers that) was useless, but the iPad is billiant – a design whose time has come.

The new building was characterised as a Nissan hut with warts by those who could remember WW II but it became more popularly infamous as the Pineapple.

Photo from Living Archive

There were obvious and immediate useabilty problems. The cricketers could only get on to the pitch by a side door, wiping out one of the rituals of cricket where the batsmen walk down from the pavilion to the crease. There was no raised pavilion seating for the members – again a treasured convention of the game. The glass panels under the canopy were apparently invisible as they showed no reflection and there were several incidents where dogs unssuccessfully treid to make their way through this apparently emplty space. On one occasion, I am told, one little girl tried to run through. Fortunately she was not badly hurt.
To compound their problems the club committee discovered that buildings of this design were ruinously expensive to heat in winter – a fact that was probably never considered by the architect.

The building’s history was ignominious and short. The cricketers and the public were listened to and the structure was sold to a Somerset farmer for chicken housing. In its place a proper cricket pavilion was erected.

Architecture is and should be about introducing aestthetic into the built environment, but is also about being true to its function. Churches are usually designed with high ceilings so that the congregation can aspire to communicate with God. Snooker rooms may be designed with low ceilings so that the tables can be fully lit. What happened here was that the architect was oblivious to the needs of the cricketing community and the gerneral aesthetic of Wolverton. Wolverton may have been a rather drab, monochrome town without much to enthuse the avearge architect but it was what it was. This new structure was an intrusion without antecedents or any reference to Wolverton’s heritage as it then was. Worse still, little attention seems to have been paid to the requirements of the community the building purported to serve – the cricket, tennis and bowls clubs. The old building had viewing stands on both sides, for cricket and tennis. The Pineapple provided amenities for the players and public but divorced itself from any practical association with the games it purported to serve. They got the building because the architect wanted an opportunity to experiment with a new building form and presumably it allowed the corporation to keep down building costs. The clients (who should have been the cricket, tennis and bowls clubs) were ignored in the design process. The consequences were predictable.

The architect no doubt enjoyed the plaudits of the architectural community and it is possible that lessons were learned and the error not repeated. Wolverton was used as a laboratory for an experimental building; fortunately it was able to recover.