1968 April: Townscape, Eyes On Tenderden
[ARCHIVE] A recent report published by the Kent County Council entitled Tenterden Explored is particularly relevant in view of the present York conference on historic towns and cities. Every delegate should study this sensitive evaluation of a town’s architectural and townscape qualities, for it sets a high standard for a local authority publication and is an eye-opener in the truest sense
Tenterden, a prosperous small town in the Weald of Kent, is set astride the main road from Margate to Hastings. It is a linear town of great character as yet comparatively unspoilt. But how long can it remain so?
Recognizing its importance, Kent County and Tenterden Borough Councils recently commissioned Frederick MacManus and Partners to prepare a special architectural and townscape study, as a guide to an overall plan and to subsequent development control.
They called in Gordon Cullen to do the townscape appraisal and the result is a brilliant joint effort which describes in a unique way the anatomy of a town centre of high quality.
The casual visitor to Tenterden is struck by its long attractive High Street, the parish church centrally placed yet slightly back from the main street and discreetly screened by shops (see above).
Most of all perhaps he enjoys the dramatic widening of the same street to the west with broad grass verges to either side and a fine avenue of trees (recently mutilated by bad branch lopping), the footpaths looping away on their own separate course.
Also he will be disturbed by the heavy traffic. But impressions are inadequate when it comes to safeguarding a place - the whole thing must be understood; how it fits together, what is especially important. Until then planning is blindfolded.
The town’s problems: first of all it is bisected by through traffic which is bound to increase. Second, the character of many of its buildings is being wrecked by brutal conversion, particularly the insertion of full-width plate glass shop windows which destroy the buildings’ apparent connection with the ground.
Thirdly, the shopping area is spreading and private houses on either side of the centre are being turned into shops and their attractive front gardens replaced by bleak forecourts. At the same time, the area behind the High Street, particularly to the south, is virtually derelict.
As the authors ruefully remark ‘while Tenterden has no example of 20th century architecture worth mentioning, the 20th century is busy destroying all the other periods …’ One of the chief causes of misunderstanding is a preoccupation with individual buildings while remaining ignorant of the town as a whole.
For the beauty and character of a town is derived not just from its special buildings but from the way buildings relate to one another, the spaces they create and the vistas and rhythms set up between them.
Having placed the town historically and regionally and traced its growth and development, the report gets down to a very full and careful architectural appraisal of the buildings.
For instance every building in the High Street is listed with a key photograph for identification and related notes which show Ministry grading (in the case of listed buildings) and also the authors’ rating of their value as part of a group and what they do for the street.
This makes for instant recognition when there is a planning application involving change. Then follows the townscape analysis by Gordon Cullen under the following headings: landscape setting, shape, entrances, town centre, close range. The forms are dissected and reassembled with all the art of a skilful surgeon.
As the authors say, they were asked to define what makes Tenterden the unique place it is now, so the fact that many of the effects are accidental or intuitive becomes irrelevant.
They must be recorded in order that future development will use the findings as a springboard, not destroy through ignorance.
The study ends with a carefully considered conservation policy for the town. Since the report is 117 pages long only a sample can be shown here, but the next two pages give some idea of the method employed.
Penetratingly observant, it gets beneath the charm - the picture postcard Tenterden - to how it all works. For example:
The linear plan is described and its component parts defined, 8. Each has its own distinctive character which is subsequently analysed in detail.
At the centre the High Street narrows to approximately 50 ft., while to the west lies the most spectacular part of the High Street which, constricted at either end, here widens to a spacious 200 ft., tree-lined and with grassy swards on either side.
To the east is a pleasant triangular space making a good entry to the town, East Cross. Levels are important. A section along the High Street (A-A on 8) shows the centre to be the highest point of the street with the ground falling away on either hand, 4.
Three drawings (5-7 and keyed to the plan) show the considerable variation in cross section along the street with, at the west end (B-B), the northern pavement considerably lower than the road and the grass verge sloping up between them (see also 2).
C-C shows the section at the widest point and D-D at the centre of the town where the ground now rises slightly to the north (i.e. the church is built at the highest point of the town), then falls steeply to the railway below.
DIAGRAM V REALITY
Later the views along High street are studied at ground level. Actual form is defined by contrasting it with the diagrammatic picture which a linear town, main street 1,000 yds. long, church on left, would suggest - Tenterden as it might have been but for accidents of topography and growth, 9. How the actual departs from this image is then shown.
First, since the centre is raised you only see half the town at a time, 10 and 11. Thus the centre appears to be the end from which ever side you approach.
A further modification is that at the centre the road width is restricted, 12. This does two things. First the linear flow is impeded, creating a sense of backwater, 13. Second a sense of compression is created closely followed by one of release.
This emphasizes the sense of CENTRE, of bustle and juxtaposition of people and goods. By contrast, the sudden release coincides with well-treed vistas.
In effect the town centre has been intensified and then juxtaposed to the great landscape elements of sky and foliage. Highly successful, this effect must be kept. In short, no building on the vistas, preserve and plant trees and retain the narrow centre.
Later another refinement of the town structure is considered. While the town consists of rows of buildings, they tend to fall into groups-not groups that are architecturally homogeneous but simply groups of continuous buildings.
For instance in 14 (looking east down the High Street) you can read L-F as a continuous, coherent group, seen as a single wall, although it forms part of six different places.
It is also possible to read F-H as a group and also I-G. In other words, the same length of building can be in two different groups depending on where you stand.
To be noted also is that the continuous curve D-E forms part of two enclosures (High Street east and East Cross). This is important when considering alterations or repainting.
Then in studying the central narrows, 15, we are made aware of an assertive and a passive side to the street. Again, looked at from the east end of the street the central constriction appears quite spacious, 16.
Yet on entering it, this is no longer so-it appears both narrow and compressed, thereby heightening the sense of being in the centre.
Why? It is a question of angle of vision and foreshortening. At a distance, A and B read their true elevational values while the angle of visionon to the roofline is flat, 17.
But from inside B is foreshortened, losing value and A seems much higher since the angle of vision has been greatly increased. Thus, space and size are not absolute but depend for effect on the position of the observer.
Later we are madeturning the to look carefully at an important corner (by the ‘Woolpack,’ D on 15) where an alleyway leads through to the churchyard, to see how it works. First we see the T-square solution, 18 - a lifeless diagram, but all too common.
Then 19, with the space enclosed in the angle given life by a gap - no longer a dead corner collecting old newspaper - we can pass through it.
And 20, with the impersonal blocks given scale by the small building projecting from the front line of buildings. Next the corner itself is given its own internal life by the public house which commands it and which corresponds with the shop opposite, 21.
Then the blackness of the tree-shade beyond gives depth and recession to the facades, 22. Finally, 23, the facades are given direction. The street faces out to the busy road, the shop turns the corner and gives on to the space.
The pub shares this but gives life to the alley and the town hall porch extends the space - the final picture is composed (see 3 on page 277).
COUNTY COUNCIL PLAN
Simultaneously with the consultants’ study, the county council published its plan. This was in draft form so that public comment could be made before any final decisions were taken.
The preamble points out that though the town is harassed by through traffic (on A28) which should be diverted, the road also acts as a residential spine road and as the main shopping street in the town centre.
The fact that shoppers are enabled to reach the central shops by car is one of the trading attractions. The main proposals are briefly as follows:
(i) The area shown coloured on map 1 is to be designated as a Conservation Area.
(ii) Outside the main shopping area, no further conversion of any building is to be permitted if it will result in adverse change of external appearance.
(iii) Grass verges and trees in High Street and the small garden at East Cross are to be preserved.
TRAFFIC AND PARKING
(i) A by-pass for Tenterden is intended in the long term, possibly taking advantage of the disused railway line, A. Car parks will be provided adjoining the by-pass with foot access to the centre.
(ii) A new distributor road, B, south of the High street is to be provided, serving a number of car parks as well as service roads giving rear access to the south side of the High street. Footpaths will link through to the High Street.
(iii) The High Street is to be turned eventually into two culs-de-sac, to restrict use by vehicles, with area shown hatched reserved principally for pedestrians.
To meet future demands a site, C, will be allotted adjacent to the main shopping core, served by pedestrian links to High Street and car parks. Small scale shop units only will be allowed in order to retain the intimate character.
Further intensification of commercial use is to be resisted along the High Street and no commercial intrusion allowed in existing residential areas in the town centre.
The basic intentions appear sound, namely to take through traffic away on a by-pass, to provide a loop road to car parks in backland with a way through via new shops.
Also the suggestion to block off the central narrows and pave it so that shoppers can still get by car near to the centre but not through.
But since the by-pass to the north seems unlikely to be built for at least 20 years, Tenterden may well have gone past saving by then.
Surely this means that the proposed relief road to the south, B, will have to be made capable of carrying through traffic with consequent wide intersections, in fact as shown on the map 1. This would have the following great disadvantages.
(a) It would spoil the delightful space at East Cross previously listed as something to be preserved under the conservation heading.
(b) It would sterilize valuable land at the back of the houses on the south side of the town.
(c) It would make a gaping hole with swept corners and probably a roundabout slap in the best (treed) part of the High Street on re-entering it-indeed the curves on the plan suggest this.
(d) Car parks near the by-pass to the north would be inconvenient, for the ground rises steeply to the town and it would mean an uphill trudge.
Would it not be wiser to scrap the idea of a future by-pass on the railway route, which anyway would not absorb the traffic from the Hythe and New Romney roads, and to build a by-pass now on the route shown in map 2?
This would not touch the town but would pick up all the roads to the south. Then, with through traffic relieved, the local loop road serving the car parks could be much narrower and slower, largely using existing roads.
On the site it seems an obvious choice. Also the construction of this road would probably pay for itself through betterment of the land use.
The wisdom of developing future shopping here, well placed between car parks and High Street (as the council suggests), is apparent, much better than further spread along the High Street itself.
Today this is scruffy backland, 24, but the opportunity is there, for the backs of the High Street buildings are often better than the fronts, having been less altered.
Also there are many down-at-heel but good buildings here. This is the chance for a new shopping square or squares, 25. Tenterden is not the place for multiples but for small-scale shops.
Having accepted Tenterden as a special place, the aim should be to attract small clean industries, such as furniture making, appropriate to its character.
A question mark remains - how do you ensure that those qualities described in the consultants’ report are in fact guarded when the diagram plan is translated into reality; when the development applications come in.
Surely, having got the feel of the place through the intensity of their scrutiny, the consultants should be retained to advise on ‘where we go from here’-to show how things could be and to guide future developments in the town.