Horseshoed around its mere, Diss is dominated by its church tower. Nothing should be allowed to upset this balance. Inside the town, the remarkable sequence from St. Nicholas’s Street to the Market Place, which falls through a series of squares, is unique
Originally published in AR February 1966, this piece was republished online in September 2011
Diss, Norfolk, is a small market town half way between Ipswich and Norwich. As yet unspoilt, it is something worth going a long way to see. Not so much for its individual buildings as for its unique townscape.
Built round the edge of a small green lake, The Mere (six acres in extent), the town is horseshoed round three-quarters of it and the remaining quarter is a public park (see plan).
Not the usual polite municipal park of twee flower beds and neat asphalt paths, but a relaxed, undulating meadow with good trees and a reedy uneven bank giving cover for duck and heron.
From this park, the heavily buttressed tower of St. Mary’s church is the focal point of the composition. It is on the north side of The Mere, where the ground rises steeply; in fact whichever way you look at Diss the church always dominates.
With a population static at around 3,600 for the last hundred years, and this stability reflected in the buildings, it is disturbing that Diss has been suggested as a possible town for GLC expansion. Indeed, the local authority are believed to favour an increase in the population to 10,000.
Such a population explosion in this very special place could be disastrous unless most carefully handled. Otherwise the delicate relationship of shapes and spaces is bound to be broken.
A recent study of the town by the Kingston School of Architecture, intended to show how the town could be expanded, in fact only emphasized how impossibly difficult it would be; at any rate without wrecking the existing structure.
As Ian Nairn has said in the ‘Observer,’ the only possible way would seem to be to build between the present town and its railway station half a mile away to the east, leaving the old town as little touched as possible. A new road on this side, built adjacent to the railway, could then take through’ traffic out of the existing streets.
As for Diss itself, certain things could be done with advantage but they would need great care. For instance:
The view of Diss from the park is particularly important, the special image of the town, and also particularly vulnerable to any ill-conceived development. All the same this image of a town round a lake could be reinforced by carefully placed and designed new houses (in the area shown hatched on plan).
No high building of course, and the houses would need to follow the curve of the mere, use the slope and respect the existing scale. (Sketch 9 shows the sort of thing.)
At present Diss seems to turn its back on The Mere; and indeed from the streets you are quite unaware of it. This is a pity. However, at the back of the present council offices there is a high-level terrace (now wasted as a council car park) and this should be cleared of cars and made available to the public with steps down to the lakeside.
This is the natural vantage point for the town with a fine view across the lake to open country beyond the park. Unfortunately this view is endangered.
Already at one point, on the opposite side of The Mere there is unforgivable visual squalor; a glittering jumble of secondhand cars and garage mess encroaching right to the water’s edge. If the garage must stay then it must hide the mess.
A high wall and tree screen for instance, with the wall set back far enough to allow for a much needed footpath by the water in front of it. This footpath could with advantage extend round much of The Mere, as shown in the dotted line on plan, and link up with the terrace already mentioned.
Care must be taken though not to disturb the existing waterside trees which now reflect so beautifully. No opening out or planting of municipal flower beds is wanted.
The existing park, Park Fields, is fine, but beyond it to the south, and smack in front of the lookout place mentioned above, visual blight is creeping along Park Road. This consists of a bus station, car park, fire station and small industrial estate.
Right in the eye of the town, this development has little depth so far and it is imperative to halt it before it ruins the outlook. It is now part screened by trees, and this screening should be thickened up and no further development permitted to the south.
Apart from The Mere the most individual thing about Diss is the Market Place and the roads leading into it (Mere street and Market Hill). From both of these approaches the church tower, as in the view from the park, is the dominant factor and slap at the end of the streets.
This could be dull if there were nothing more to it, but it is only the beginning; a clear statement locating the centre of the town. Coming in from the west by St. Nicholas’s Street, the church tower is dead ahead. After some 70 yards the road forks, a steep gable parting the ways. This way or that?
Suddenly the thing has become complex, a conjuring trick. If you go straight ahead things are much as you would expect until you are brought up short at the foot of the tower at a T junction.
However, if you bear right you descend Market Hill and traverse a series of spaces which are something special to Diss and are described in detail later.
The first is held by another gable end which in its turn is neatly echoed, with frills, by the Dutch gable at right angles. Four squares, or rather off squares, the last and largest of which is the market place itself with the double gable of the ‘Diss Express’ office terminating the space.
The triangular island of building left between the two routes is split by narrow footways which link through from one street to the other. The approach from the south is up Mere Street.
This starts badly with a blatant new garage front insensitively clamped bulldog-like to the shoulder of a most attractive classical facade.
After a small waterside park the street continues straight and narrow pointed at the church. Suddenly the buildings to the right step back to open into the Market Place.
This step back coupled with the swing of the left-hand buildings, following the shape of The Mere behind them, produces a strange triangularish space with the church tower shooting up from the top and its nave acting as an end wall to the square.
The shops on the east side, due to the levels have access from a raised terrace. It is important that the introductory narrowness of Mere Street should not be widened at all or the market space will spill out.
At the north end space is kept in by the nave of the church and by the row of thin houses which do a father and son act with the church tower making it seem even bigger than it is. Keep these buildings both as space holder and scale giver.
Straight on takes you under the tower and beyond it the curve of Mount Street blocks the view out, again preventing leakage of space. If, however, you bear left from the market up Market Hill you climb through the series of squares already seen in the opposite direction. This sequence is worth describing rather carefully for in townscape terms it is the most unusual thing about Diss.
Squares in Sequence
The exit from the market square is defined by the steeply climbing road being pinched between the island site and the continuing curve of the left-hand wall of building. Space compressed.
This wall after about 30 yards shoots out at right angles to the slope as Barclays Bank: In conjunction with the return face of the island building, this forms the first square (Square 1) through which the road Space released.
Telling effectively in this square is the porticoed shop on the right. The front wall of the bank then follows the street line and a second compression occurs.
But already another angled building B has stepped into view like a stage wing to announce Square 2. This square is memorable on account of the fine gabled facade and lamp of Gostlings the chemists.
Beyond are the early Georgian UDC offices with a passage through to the lookout terrace already mentioned. Another wing building, has appeared and is preceded by a further narrowing of the street.
Then, in the slit seen from the top of Square 2 a new personality appears and really comes into place as you reach Square 3. This, the climax of the ascent turns out to be the fine portico of the Corn Hall (1854, by George Atkins of Diss) with its giant ionic columns.
Finally the street is visually closed by a stepped road junction so that a row of buildings faces the street end. Throughout, the spaces have been active; there has been no dead ground and the sequence has unfolded like a well told story. How did it come about? Perhaps as sketch above.
No matter; what is significant apart from the need to keep this fascinating sequence intact, is the lesson in space manipulation which it has for urban designers right now: the idea of a route climbing at an angle through a series of linked squares.