In 1965 the sleepy little town of Alnwick, not noted for blowing its own trumpet, and perhaps taking its heritage a little too much for granted, was notably absent from a new official list of 324 historic British towns in need of protected status.
In that same year a headline appeared in the Northumberland Gazette : “Development Project for Town Centre is planned in Alnwick – Could be Finished by 1968.”
The article went on to list the virtues of the proposed scheme: “The removal of the Northumberland Hall is planned so that it can be replaced by better social facilities in the central area and lead to an improvement in the appearance of the Market Square”. The existing Market Place and Town Hall were to be demolished, apart from the clock tower, and by the sweeping away of every building in Fenkle Street, apart from the 1930’s Post Office, “a vista of Alnwick Castle will be opened up …… The new Market Square will be properly landscaped and planted to create a spacious and attractive central feature”.
The article went on to reveal that the plan had been put forward to the council by the London firm of Costain Property Investments Ltd, and had been approved by eleven votes to two.
However preposterous this might seem now, it was a real threat in 1965. It wasn’t just Alnwick that was the target of get-rich-quick developers in the 1960s. They’d got away with wholesale demolition in the centres of Northampton, Nottingham, Worcester and other towns where opposition wasn’t organised. And big business was not the only driver in this rush to modernity sweeping the country. In the universities, Urban Geography was a growing academic discipline, with many of its disciples having minimal regard for local heritage, character and community. Just as towns had expanded for centuries in concentric rings, the next logical step, they preached, was to begin again at the core and repeat the process. Joining the collective madness were the elected members of local councils, not wanting to be seen as standing in the way of progress. “We can’t live in a museum” was the mantra.
It was a serious situation at the time, there being no realistic channels for opposition. It would be two years before the Civic Amenities Act of 1967 gave protection to historic townscapes. And there wasn’t then a local society dedicated to conservation.
But Alnwick was no pushover. A public meeting was quickly convened in the Northumberland Hall, where, by a vote of four hundred to six, it was agreed to oppose the scheme and to start an Alnwick Society to look into the value of the town’s historic buildings. For months the controversy raged in The Gazette, with the council facing a barrage of indignant protest. The rallying cry against the “Plan for wholesale destruction” was sounded by Gareth Adamson of 1 Bailiffgate.
“Are we really going to sit back and watch our town centre swept away and replaced by trumpery little building units slotted round a great empty yard? Are we content to surrender our freeholds along with our property so that we may pay rent to a London based property company for something we don’t want?”
“On the face of it, this miserable scheme seems too oafish to bother about – but it had better be taken seriously, since it is backed by powerful financial interests. Some councillors support this scheme because they hope to be remembered for ‘putting Alnwick on the map’. If we don’t act now they will have Alnwick scratched off the face of the earth”.
The Gazette was even – handed. “The Urban Council vice chairman, Councillor H. I. H Reavell, views the plan as constituting an exciting challenge to the townsfolk. He believes they must look forward, accept change and march with the times, otherwise there is a real danger they will be left behind, while towns of a similar size to the north and south will prosper to Alnwick’s disadvantage”.
But the mood of the country was on the side of the people. Communities were beginning to have their voices heard up and down the land by the mid-sixties. Parliament was taking notice. Conservation Areas were being created. Civic Societies were springing up and raising awareness of the priceless inheritance of our urban townscapes. It became easier to oppose bureaucracy as the decade wore on, and the Costain development scheme was consigned to the dustbin.
Alnwick can take pride in being one of the first communities to challenge the imposition of harebrained schemes from above and outside, to capture the spirit of a pivotal age, and to effect a small but significant ripple in the tide of history.
Article written by Avril Meakin and published in the Winter 2018 edition of The Cheviot
Alnwick Civic Society was formed in 1974, following the defeat of proposals to redevelop the town centre with a modern shopping area. Since then it has sought to influence development proposals, especially in the town centre and conservation area, to ensure they protect and enhance our heritage.