This townscape study analyses how councils’ inability to understand a town’s basic structures can sometimes result in insentitive road proposals that could inevitably harm their general character
Originally published in December 1968
Townscape analysis, that is to say the visual definition of a place, the understanding of what gives it its individual character, is a first essential if change is to enhance rather than destroy.
Faversham, Kent, and Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire, are typical examples of towns whose basic structures appear never to have been understood by the planners and consequently stand in grave danger-in both cases from utterly insensitive road proposals.
What the professional experts of the county are doing, is demolishing wholesale the scale and individuality of both towns - the very qualities which the local preservation societies are struggling hard to preserve.
Faversham, nine miles to the north-east of Canterbury, abutting the A2 London to Dover Road to the south and accessible by a slip road north from the M2, is the market town for a prosperous farming and fruit growing district.
Hung round the neck of a navigable creek of the Swale, it is also busy in fertilizers and timber, shipbuilding and petroleum. It has a population of 13,500. Chipping Norton is about a quarter the size of Faversham.
Straddling the crossing of the A44, the A361 and the B4450 roads, this former wool town, set in the fields of Oxfordshire, is the jumping-off point for the best of the Cotswolds. Both towns are formed around a core which is their pedestrian centre, show piece and show place in one.
In Faversham (see plans A and B) the core of the town is the wedge of land hemmed in by the creek on the west and the blanket of land on the east which slowly squashes it out till creek and land meet to the north.
The remainder of the town, the body, dwindles out in a sad incoherent sprawl along the west, south and south-east boundaries.
The major part of this core, Market Place, the heart of the town, is formed by the junction of West Street, Court Street and Preston Street, and where Market Place and West Street meet is the Town Hall, the focal point, 1, 2.
This important building is set in the wide funnel-shaped space of Market Place which contrasts with the narrow West Street.
The core of Faversham starts around the knot of West Street and runs out as one continuous space along Market Place and on into Court Street, 3, and Abbey Street, slowly pinching in, curving and thinning, 4, - then, just as the street ends, you side step left between some more buildings and suddenly, there’s the creek flowing out to marshland and the Swale, 5, 6.
While in relation to the size of its body Faversham’s core is small, the core of Chipping Norton is, on the other hand, large. However, the major part of the core in both towns, the heart, is of similar size.
But whereas Faversham’s runs out gently along Court Street and Abbey Street, Chipping Norton’s core is nearly all heart and nothing more. The core of Chipping Norton (see plans C and D) consists of the Market Place and the thin slices of road running into it. The body of the town is washed in thinly around the structure of the Market Place.
Situated along a sloping ridge of land, this is a long, high, and handsome space cradled in the mellowing limestone of a seventeenth-century architecture, having a clean and airy simplicity about it.
The long, formal frontage of the east side of the market place rises higher than that of the west which is below it across the spacious square.
This west side is more irregular but harmonically scaled … the roofscape rising and falling like a gentle wave while beyond is the rolling country falling’ away before it rises up into a long ridge like a breaker.
At the north end of the market place, where it narrows to a pinch along the A361 as it runs out towards Banbury, is the late sixteenth-century Guildhall.
At the south end, closing the vista, is the classical town hall, 7, built in 1842 in latter-day Georgian. To the right of this, out of sight, the A44 turns at a right-angle down the narrow passage of New street, 8, and then opens up again as it runs along cross country to Worcester.
In both towns the core area consists of closely knit small scale buildings glued tightly together. Chipping Norton’s is a more clearly defined area, with greater simplicity and conformity in style and scale.
At Faversham the core conforms less in style but has a greater degree of rustication in the way its buildings line the core irregularly which gives it its real charm. In both cases the overall structure is just right. Any opening up will inevitably harm the general character.
ROAD THREATS 1: FAVERSHAM
At Faversham, Kent County Council want to cut through the northern edge of the heart of the town as part of a proposed ring road for town traffic. Already in Crescent Road you can judge the effect of such a proposal.
Here part of the road has been built and you can see the disastrous breakdown in scale and continuity which is created, 9, 10.The ring road is intended as part of a plan to relieve traffic from the centre so that Market Place and West Street become pedestrian.
Since traffic can quite easily be channeled along the southern section of this proposed ring road (see plan) there seems little point in completing the merry-go-round, especially when it means introducing an element completely alien in scale to an existing and well formed core.
2: CHIPPING NORTON
At Chipping Norton the problem is different. The main Oxford to Worcester road already cuts right through the heart of the town so that in summer the heavily congested roads are house-high in charas and caravans, all arguing the toss as to who’s first at the New Street corner, where the road bends 90 degrees.
The County Council have proposed, and have already started, the demolition of the northern side of New Street, 8 and 11, for road widening. It will surely be only a matter of time before they do the same at the northern entrance into the Market Place where it also narrows, though not to the same extent.
The New Street demolition will not only destroy some very fine buildings but will wreck the enclosed character of the square.
A by-pass is programmed for the town but not until 1976-1979. But the sad thing is that they’ve all but got one now. Along the ridge in the north-west of the town, and running between the A34 and A44, is an unclassified road, the old Jussaic Way.
In September during the Mop Fair in Chipping Norton, when the market place is closed to through traffic, this road is used as a diversion … and it works. Why can’t this be used as a by-pass and eventually widened when the cash is available? It seems well worth trying in order to save one of the finest market places in the country.
In both Faversham and Chipping Norton it is the blind insensitivity of the local authorities which makes one despair. At the present rate all that will be left of either of these attractive towns in a few years time will be a granny knot of asphalt and concrete.