Friday, 21 April 2017

'From Phoenix'

These are a series of chalk drawings I photographed on Tuesday 11 April. They ran all along the path around Priory Close. 

I can't pretend to understand these drawings - the words, the kings and queens, the patterns (paths, houses?), the (self?) portraits - but what does that matter? The children who did them were probably occupied for much of the day, and for reasons that are essentially unfathomable to the adult mind. It was probably a one-off, spontaneous thing to do, with just a few found chalks. It probably started with one thing and then randomly extended along the path. I like to imagine that they would have been happy in the moment doing this, making their mark on the estate, making the spaces their own. When it rains, these drawings will get washed away. Then they might try to do it again, although it won't feel quite the same as on that first day because they planned it. They might never do it again. 

Saturday, 4 March 2017


Nothing much seems to happen on the Middlefield estate in its third year of existence. It seldom gets a mention in the Gainsborough Evening News over 1967, and so we can only assume that the estate’s residents on the whole were leading quiet, settled lives. On the 3rd of January, there’s a short piece about someone living on Sturgate Walk who tried to claim £6. 6s. (£6.30) from the Gainsborough Urban District Council, for damage to wallpaper and lino due to a burst pipe. Somewhat inexplicably, the council agreed to pay for the wallpaper, but not for the lino. A month later, the council’s housing committee met and agreed not to raise rents that year – and so in 1967 a two-bedroomed home like ours cost us 23s (£1.15) per week. 

On the 14th of February, the News reported that the council had also agreed to reduce the rental of garages on the uphill estates from 7s 6d (just over 37p) to 6s (30p) per month. When Middlefield was first conceived, the council were keen to embrace the car economy of the future, and 142 garages were built on the estate (about one garage for every three homes, significantly more generous than in the new towns, where the ratio tended to be one garage for every ten homes). But Middlefield’s garages always struggled to be let, which might have accounted for the reduction in rent.

In the same edition, there were indications that the council were nevertheless continuing to think of the future. Talks had long been established with the London County Council to build an overspill estate in the town for what Gainsborough’s Tory MP, Marcus Kimball, described as ‘real Londoners’. Kimball did not like the idea. Gainsborough, he argued, was too far away for those 'real' Londoners to seriously want to move here, but he also had another reason – the town should not be expected to take in London’s ‘problem families’. The council did not agree, and one councillor’s response to this is worth quoting verbatim: ‘the people who will move to this town are human beings, who will move because they have the initiative and the zest to seek pastures new in pleasant surroundings where work and housing will be available.’ Within two years, building had commenced on a new estate – the Park Springs Estate – which would be Gainsborough’s contribution in helping to alleviate what might appear to us now to be London’s perennial housing crisis. I need to do some research on whether there are any sociological studies of the whole ‘overspill’ phenomenon of the 60s and 70s, but I wonder what parallels can be drawn here between that, and what we tend to see now as very twenty-first century issues, of ‘decanting’ and social cleansing?

On the 25th July, the Gainsborough Evening News reported that parts of the uphill housing estates (including Middlefield) were said to be ‘overrun by dogs’ – and one councillor moved to have notices put up instructing owners to keep their dogs under control at all times. For reasons not specified in the article, this idea was outvoted.

On the 12th December, the council were considering a scheme for providing playing fields for children at Aisby Walk. This did indeed come to pass over the next couple of years, causing what the News described as ‘jubilation among parents’. 

And that’s it for the estate in 1967. But as I was trawling through the microfilmed editions of the News for that year, I was also keeping an eye out for one other thing: the week that the latest James Bond film, You Only Live Twice, came to Gainsborough’s ‘State Cinema’. And there it was, in the edition for Tuesday 28th November: an advert announcing that the film would be shown at the State for a week commencing Thursday 30th November. Over that week I saw what is still my favourite Bond film no less than three times: twice with my Mum who was quietly besotted with Sean Connery, and once with my reluctant Dad, who preferred war films. I was seven and a half then, and I was besotted in turn with the look of the world around me, whether it was the fictional (and still utterly fantastic to my eyes today) volcano-as-space rocket launching pad/SPECTRE lair, or the equally fictional (but more plausible, in that it was essentially based on the ‘Autopian’ landscape and architecture of 1950s and 60s America) of Thunderbirds because, in my innocence, I thought I was living in it.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

The Phoscos

The Phosco P107 lampposts that sprung up across the estate as it was being completed in 1964 are all now slowly disappearing, being replaced by some skinny interlopers, one of which you can see lurking at the back of this photo: 

Altogether, there are twelve Phoscos left, and these photographs are intended to document them before they are completely lost.

In a post-right to buy estate-scape, where residents have been allowed to put up their own fences, this one has ended up inside a back garden:

This one has suffered the fate of being hybridised:

CU Phosco Ltd are still going strong in that postwar county stronghold of the council estate and new town, Hertfordshire. They still make external lighting of all kinds, including the P107. It would be nice if they could be maintained on the Middlefield Lane estate as part of the original designed fabric of the estate. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The estate in early Autumn: A Tuesday morning, 4 October 2016

Autumnal blinds/The blinds of Autumn

Jess's den over a year later

Richard Long woz 'ere

Richard long gone

New fencing



The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden 1620-1820-1964-2016

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Children of Middlefield

'... unburdened by worldly cares, unfettered by learning, free of ingrained habit, negligent of time, the child is open to the world.'

(Yi-Fu Tuan, Topophilia: a study of environmental perception : attitudes and values, Dept. of Geography, University of Minnesota, 1972, pp70-71)

'... lacking social awareness, his perception of the environment is not "tainted" by social considerations. He has not acquired that selective vision that distinguishes the beauty of the flowers from that of the weeds.'

(Colin Ward,  The Child in the City, Penguin Books, 1979, pp.23-24)

These images are details from photographs of the Middlefield Lane estate taken in the early 1970s. They are reproduced here courtesy of Paul Kemp.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

50 Years

The Middlefield Lane estate was finally completed on 27 November 1965, when the community centre on North Parade was officially opened. Sadly, and perhaps fatally for the estate in future years, the centre was never really intended for the whole community. It was to be primarily used instead by what the Gainsborough Evening News, on Tuesday 30 November, referred to as 'the old folk', who lived in the adjacent ground floor flats. This early 70s photograph shows the community centre as it was back then, situated at the end of the block of flats:

In its typically genteel but equally blunt style of provincial reporting, the Evening News went on to state that the centre had an ‘L-Shaped sitting room', which was ‘tastefully furnished with easy chairs in grey and green leather cloth', that could nevertheless be ‘easily sponged’.

So what happened on the estate after then, 50 years ago? Throughout 1966, the Evening News gives Middlefield just four mentions, the first being on 4 January when it was reported that a library book service was to be introduced to the ‘new’ community centre, where a selection of books would be available to borrow on Wednesday afternoons in the communal lounge.

A week later, it was reported that the last of the six shops on the Precinct had been let as a ‘sales shop of ladies and children’s wear’. As someone who hung around the Precinct almost on a daily basis, I don’t especially remember that shop at all, but then at five years old I might not have been taking much notice – although I seem to think it might have been in the unit that later became the ‘Washeteria’:

The biggest news of the year as far as the estate was concerned came in May, when a bedroom fire was reported on Priory Close: ‘The first ever fire in one of the houses on Gainsborough’s new uphill estate’ stated the Evening News, as if it cheerfully expected many more to come. And finally, on 7 June, ‘concern’ had been expressed to the Gainsborough Urban District Council Housing Committee about the dangers of planting new trees on the estate too close to the houses (a year previously, in May 1965, the Finance Committee had approved a spend of £510 to Crowders of Horncastle to supply, plant and stake 340 trees on the estate). The architects of the estate, Fisher, Hollingsworth and Partners, were consulted and they responded with their usual single-minded determination to maintain the aesthetic purity of the environment they’d designed, stating that any removal of trees would ‘upset the balance and layout of the estate’. As a consequence, ‘no action was taken’, and the trees remain as an important facet of the estate today:

And that was it for 1966, and for the Middlefield Lane estate 50 years ago. On 8 November however, the Evening News reported that a ceremony celebrating the completion of the nearby Pasture Road development of 500 new council houses had taken place. The postwar, local authority housing boom was pressing on, at a scale both unprecedented in Gainsborough back then, and completely unimaginable anywhere today. Pointedly, the Evening News article set out to ‘meet the housewives of Newtown’, with their centrally heated homes, each complete with a ‘sun porch’. This, it seemed, was the new 'Newtown'. In the ‘White Heat’ of the 1960s, and within just two years of it being completed, Middlefield's moment of modernity had already been eclipsed; it was already of the past.    

(Archive photos courtesy of Paul Kemp)