The Queens Gardens in Newcastle under Lyme. It’s a favourite place to relax in a suburban setting. A quiet place to sit and eat your lunch, and forget about the brown stuff raining down on you from above at work. An urban retreat with trees, flowers in orderly beds and overseeing it all, the statue of Queen Victoria gazing sternly across the immaculately manicured grass. The gardens are carefully tended by council workmen and the displays changed four times a year. To this end they’ve managed to win Britain in Bloom more times than you can count. And no, you don’t really begrudge your council tax being spent on keeping this place shipshape, it’s an oasis of calm amongst the bustle of a busy market town.
But things are soon to change. The trees in the gardens have been covered in netting to stop nesting birds, and ominous yellow A4 notices have appeared on the wrought iron lamp posts. The sleepy old Victorian school that’s provided such a fitting backdrop to these gardens for over a hundred years is to be imminently bulldozed, seemingly on a whim by the Borough Council. In its place they have decided to build a modern glass and stone four-storey civic ‘Hub’ to centralise all the council services under one roof. All of this slap bang in the middle of the town’s somewhat ironically named ‘conservation area’. There won’t be much chance of going mad in the midday sunshine in the Queens Gardens once the Hub is built, it will loom menacingly over both gardens and the neighbouring buildings.
Local MP Paul Farrelly is certainly not in favour of this act of cultural vandalism. He’s written a blistering letter listing many valid reasons why the Hub should not be built, and the school remain. Neither are the local Civic Society, Dave Proudlove of Urban Vision, or in fact the Victorian Society in agreement, they too are horrified at these proposals which seem to have been rushed through at breakneck speed, before local people have a chance to realise exactly what’s happening to such a pivotal part of their town.
I attended the planning meeting which delivered the final death warrant to an already doomed school. The spokesperson for the planning committee could barely get her words out, the acoustics was awful, yet the solemn crowd in the public gallery could just about make out what was being said, and our hearts grew heavier the more we strained to listen. The mayor herself claimed that the school was derelict, unsafe and had to be supported internally with scaffolding (the latter being incorrect) but the watching public barely heard the planning spokesperson’s denial of this, delivered sotto voce as it was. What I did hear though, was one of the councillors turn to face the public gallery and announce that we, the members of the public were living in the past. It was the 21st century now, and there was no place for Victorian attitudes (or buildings, it would seem) in our town any more. As I stared back at one of those I’d helped to elect with that ill-advised cross on the ballot paper, I just felt sorry for them. Sorry that they had no appreciation of old things, of architecture and history and places with atmosphere that actually make you feel something inside. With a complete lack of imagination to see old buildings in a modern context, to renovate, to recycle and improve. I felt sad for all the councillors and planners who will be remembered for making the final decision to demolish something old and full of character, and erect in its place a modern monstrosity, that might last 20 years if we’re lucky.
Local Civic Society member Ken Glover launched a spirited rebuttal against the council’s proposals for the development. Sadly his sterling efforts were in vain, as it was clear that the planners and most of the councillors had already decided in advance that they knew what was best for our ancient market town. In 1995 St Giles and St Georges School proudly celebrated its centenary. 10 years later it closed, the children being relocated to modern purpose built premises on the outskirts of the town. After its closure in 2005, it was boarded up, waiting it seemed with increasingly folorn hope to once again be a public amenity that the townspeople could use and enjoy once more.
I’m one of many that feel that the planners and councillors are pillaging our heritage. Once these buildings are demolished and replaced, we can never get them back. A piece of history dies, and only lives on in people’s memories and old photographs. What sort of a precedent does this set for other old buildings in the town like the Guildhall, and especially others within the conservation area ? Will these too one day be on the receiving end of an ill-judged wrecking ball from the Council ? What of Hassell Community Primary School, a thriving school based in another Victorian building in the town centre, and the terraced streets that surround it ? I’m very afraid of what future devastation the Council might intend to unleash on our remaining old buildings and the communities that make up their very fabric.
Today as I round the corner to the old school site on Barracks Road, I can hear the sickening sounds of a bulldozer clanking and banging against old brick, over the hum of the traffic. As I look sadly on at the carnage being inflicted, the red brick dust floats up into the blue above me and quietly disappears, in the same way as the hopes and aspirations of those who have fought so hard to save it. Applications have been made and lost to Historic England for listed status, to the Government’s head honcho for planning, but all to no avail. In the gardens themselves all is quiet, the birds and wildlife scared away by the din. I gaze up at Queen Victoria, and wonder what on earth she would have made of all this. Luckily she’s facing away from what remains of the school, but if I look carefully I fancy I can detect a look of grim disapproval on her stony features.