Stratford on Avon, centre of the British tourist industry and in the news with the Shakespeare quatercentenary celebrations, is the subject of this month’s townscape study. It has a lot to look at that is good, a lot that is bad, and plenty that is just ordinary
Originally published in AR August 1964, this piece was republished online in September 2011
Stratford on Avon is a fairly ordinary English town, to which one chance event has brought millions of people determined to find something quite unordinary. Of course Stratford responded. Shakespeare was an Elizabethan; and though the town still has a number of notable sixteenth-century buildings, there were evidently not enough; so more had to be made.
The reconstruction of the birthplace itself is perhaps just excusable; but several seemly Georgian facades, clearly visible on drawings done at the turn of the century, have given way to smart half-timbering which muddies the historical picture and devalues the genuine work. (The worst instance is the New Place Museum, a building which used to provide a beautiful and calm foil for the late Gothic of the Guild Chapel, but is now fussily and self-consciously obtrusive).
Worse still: there was, to all appearances, a phase earlier this century when it was a rule that all new buildings went up in half-timber. The National Provincial Bank at the top of Bridge Street offers a rare example of this being done boldly and with some flair; almost all the rest are flimsy, timid and drab.
If tourism has brought bogus Elizabethan junk it has also produced a very genuine up-to-date traflic chaos. All English towns are choked with cars most of the time; but Stratford, as well as being at the junction of two trunk roads (and others), has a nightmarish parking problem.
Recently the car-park in the meadows off Warwick Road has been extended to take 4,000 cars per day: it will hardly be enough; and though this year is exceptional, there is no reason to believe that pressure will appreciably slacken later.
(a) The river. Stratford doesn’t enjoy many natural advantages in its site; there are no possibilities for drama as at Shepton Mallet, Chipping Norton or Knaresborough. The town lies on a gently rising gravel bank on the west side of the Avon. Though there were wharfs and warehouses by the canal, the river bank has never been built up, so that the theatre now gets the prominence of its isolated position.
Though Stratford rather turns its back on it, the river provides a fine open space and is on the whole well treated. The east bank has simply been left alone and should always be so. On the west side the theatre is the chief incident; it is not a very distinguished building, but the scale is satisfactory, and its river front is pretty, combining well with mature poplars.
To the south, between the theatre and the church, there is good, straightforward landscape-gardening with more big trees. In the street called Waterside, west of the theatre, there is a very large garage, whose fairly restrained design prevents the nearby cottages from being overwhelmed.
To the north, between the tramway bridge and Clopton Bridge is the sawmill (still working) - a large, simple and pleasant wooden barn; nearby, the treatment of the canal basin and lock, recently restored by the National Trust, is outstandingly good-crisp, workmanlike and efficient in the best functional tradition, 3.
The one bad feature of the waterfront - and it really is bad - is the Bancroft Gardens, between the theatre and the sawmill, on both sides of the canal basin. This has partly been left as a featureless green patch, partly adorned with formal rose-beds, etc., entirely inappropriate in scale and design.
Elizabeth Scott and her partner Shepherd worked out a scheme for landscaping the Bancroft when they designed the new theatre in 1927; it is high time that the present feeble municipal gardening was replaced by this scheme or something equally suitable.
(b) Bridge St, originally the main street of the town, 4, climbing gently westwards from the end of Clopton Bridge. Though almost always choked with parked or moving cars, it is Stratford’s only wide street, a bit like a long market-place, for which indeed it was long used. A collection of houses called Middle Row used to divide it; the last of these disappeared a hundred years ago.
Unfortunately the flanking buildings (many of them of only two storeys) are too small for the resulting width. Also, the charming, though maltreated, early nineteenth-century market house (now Barclays Bank) is far too small for its important position at the top of the street. Tree-planting and a rearrangement of the floorscape are suggested, 5, as the best that can reasonably be done for this promising but disappointing street.
(c) High St - Chapel St - Church St - Old Town. The first three of these form a continuous street running south from the market house parallel to the river, and contain not only Stratford’s best buildings (an excellent mixture of vernacular styles) but also incomparably its best townscape effect, 6-9, providing indeed an object lesson in how to make a long corridor street significant and interesting.
It is also the one street in the town where the relation of width to building heights is consistently right. As one moves southwards, the street is punctuated twice-by the two most important buildings: first the town hall, then the Guild Chapel, each initiating a slightly fresh line of the street, each given prominence by its special position.
At the south end of Church Street, the succession comes to a formal stop, where two large Georgian buildings at right angles to one another impel one eastwards into the altogether different atmosphere of Old Town, a sudden change from bustle to relaxation, effected simply by the change of accent and direction.
Going northwards, the process is less impressive; but note the admirable effect of the street’s narrowing between the tower of the Guild Chapel and the jutting-out end of the Falcon Hotel, 1, while the pediment of the town hall holds the distant centre of the view.
Northwards again Lloyds Bank (in fact on the north side of Bridge Street) provides complete closure from the west side of High Street, 10, but from the east side, Union Street (cut through in the nineteenth century) opens the view as it disappears downhill, 11.
(d) Minor effects. The progressive revelation of the town hall as one moves eastwards along Ely Street, 12-15, the view held by a tall house on the south side; the quiet enclosure of Scholar’s Lane; John Street in the ‘New Town,’ a domestic backwater of impressive scale off the noisy channel of Guild Street; the little pedestrian Cook’s Alley, agreeably linking Henley Street and Wood Street.
(a) Most of Stratford’s streets have no proper scale. The town is predominantly of two storeys, and the streets are too wide for the height of the houses. This is especially unfortunate in Bridge Street, Wood Street, Henley Street (the west end), and above all in Rother Street, 16, the big triangular market place, which is quite insignificant as a town place; only the handsome Georgian offices of the Borough Council on the west side give a hint of the right scale.
Since most of the buildings in these streets are of no great interest in and for themselves, the opportunity should be taken, when rebuilding is necessary, to increase their height to three storeys; but this must be done consistently to avoid a too jagged roofline.
(b) Many streets begin well and then peter out as they move away from the centre - see Wood Street and Henley Street (westwards), Chapel Lane and Sheep Street (eastwards), Union Street (northwards). All of them need consolidating when opportunities offer.
(c) Stratford seriously lacks vertical accents, especially in the west part of the town, which often appears simply trivial. A five-storey point block is proposed in the Frederick Gibberd scheme for the area between Wood Street and Ely Street. Six or seven storeys, if slender, would be better; and something of the same sort is needed to the west of Birmingham Road, near the junction with Windsor Street.
New buildings in Stratford are now no longer all half-timbered, though fancy restorations still go on - see the dreadfully mean treatment of the White Swan in Rother Market.
(a) Cornmarket site (comer of High Street and Sheep Street) - new shops by Frederick Gibberd, 17. The job was obviously difficult, and the scale is right; but the design tries too self-consciously for a ‘modem’ equivalent of ‘traditional’ half-timber and gables. The result is a building that seems somewhat timid and weak beside its more confident and straightforward neighbours.
This effect is increased by the building’s being set back about twenty-five feet - too much or not enough - leaving what it is too charitable to call a square. It is, rather, a messy little comer, which has been made worse in the usual municipal manner by spattering the ground with wretched little flower-beds.
A good (though possibly accidental) effect is to be gained by looking westwards from under the overhang of the new building, 18, which neatly reflects the skyline of the houses in Ely street.
(b) Meer St. Being almost completely rebuilt, 19. The architectural details are poor; but again the scale is right, and the emphasizing of the curve of the street bold and convincing.
(c) New GPO in Bridge St. A dullish building, but once again of a good scale and handsomely joined to the roof-line of its neighbours.
(d) New Shakespeare Institute, Henley street, 20, in the gardens immediately west of the birthplace: ostentatiously modern and ostentatiously expensive (or so it appears). The site seems well-filled, but the details are coarse and the massing clumsy.
(e) J C Smith’s Shop, High street, 21, a grim piece of neo-Georgian, making a vicious gash at ground-floor level and, above, a stretch of sheer dullness in this otherwise cheerful street.
(f) Facelift. Several streets in the centre of the town have recently had the treatment, each one taken on by a different firm of architects., The general impression is of too much fuss and too little coherence. Bright colours everywhere (pastel is now out) - often vulgar and pointless, as where a decent brick facade has become shiny blue or khaki.
Lettering sometimes good (the Anchor Hotel), sometimes merely modish and cheap (Land’s, Bridge Street). Incidentally, Stratford is a rich storehouse of lettering examples, which range from excellent (of several types) to genteelly depraved, with sometimes both extremes on the same building.
PROPOSALS AND OPPORTUNITIES
(a) The centre of Stratford will be barely tolerable until the traffic is almost entirely removed. The Ministry is being asked to consent to an east-west bypass south of the town, crossing the river near the old WR railway, in addition to a new bridge, north of Clopton Bridge, to take through traffic on the A34 from Oxford to Birmingham.
The northern bypass is already agreed on, as proposed by the town council. Until the northern bypass is built, the Birmingham traffic will have to use Guild Street, as it does at present, but via a very awkward dog-leg. Restrictions will be necessary on Clopton Bridge to oblige traffic to use the new route; the New Town will be as effectively isolated as before the existence of Union street.
Guild Street is seen by the town council as eventually forming part of an ad hoc inner ring, continued along Birmingham Road, Arden Street, Grove Road and Evesham Place.
When these arrangements are completed, a one-way system may be devised to make it impossible for through traffic to use the centre at all. Something like the scheme worked out for Hereford, where all roads into the centre turn back on themselves, may be the answer.
Finally, some of the unsatisfactory junctions (top and bottom of Bridge Street, corner of Windsor Street and Guild Street) may be eliminated, and the wretched roundabouts removed to provide paved areas which could do much to unify some incoherent collections of buildings.
(b) The quadrilateral bounded by Rother Street, Wood Street, High Street-Chapel Street and Scholar’s Lane contains at present a jumble of partly used backyards and decaying sheds. The area behind the street-fronts is to be rebuilt as a largely pedestrian shopping-place, with some flats and houses.
A plan has been worked out for the Borough by Frederick Gibberd, which leaves the street-fronts almost untouched, except for Ely Street, which bisects the site from east to west, but adds a north-south pedestrian axis. The plan suggests an agreeable collection of interlocking spaces; though if some of these are to work, it seems essential that Ely Street cease to be a through-traffic road. And of course the architecture will be everything.
It has not yet been decided whose responsibility this will be. It is very important not only that the plan is kept to but that heights and masses are carefully controlled and related. At least we can now say that the plan represented an intelligent and fairly intensive re-using of derelict land to bring more life to the town centre.
(c) Rother Street, where the market is now held, gives for six days of the week the impression of a neglected back-end of the town. The new development immediately to the east may add some life, but won’t change the sense of windy openness that comes from little buildings round a big space.
This space is in fact a pair of long triangles, with their axes at right angles. We suggest forming two separate triangles by a row of buildings continuing the line of the south side of Wood Street across the end of Rother Street, 22 - if possible with the upper floors continuous (no gap at all), the ground floor open so that the two triangles remain linked.
There would still be ample room for the market: indeed the floor area need hardly be reduced. The American Fountain would have to be moved - probably to the small triangle - though some might think this an excellent opportunity to get rid of it altogether. By cutting the open space into two spaces which remain linked, each part and the whole would be given much more cohesion.
The buildings on the angle between Wood Street and Meer Street are shortly to be demolished. The design of their replacement (by a new Westminster Bank) is a matter of considerable importance for this part of the town; something bold and coherent (though not brash) is urgently needed to avoid the fribbling away of one end of the open space.
(d) To rebuild Middle Row is, alas, out of the question. But trees would perform one function of houses. To reduce the apparent width of Bridge Street, we suggest therefore a row of forest trees, probably rather nearer to the north than the south side, 5.
At the same time, if the traffic can be reduced by, say, four-fifths, it should be possible to pave or cobble nearly half the width of the street, the extra pavement being used, for example, for cafe tables. Again, a change in floorscape to help give coherence.
(e) Much tree-planting is needed everywhere, especially on those roundabouts which cannot be removed, and which are at present decorated with ludicrous flower-beds which no one can possibly look at and which can be a serious distraction to the driver.
Trees, too, to shield the car-parks, especially by Clopton Bridge, where the row of poplars could well be extended, though a bushier tree would be more appropriate. This would be a splendid place for limes, which could and should be allowed to grow to their full size and natural shape.
(f) Guild Street needs to be built up, not left as a collection of bits and pieces. There are a few short early nineteenth-century terraces along the street, but recent flats have cut into the street-line in an ugly and arbitrary way.
(g) Street-furniture: Stratford is on the whole amazingly free of clutter; the lamps in particular are exceptionally well done - simple, unobtrusive brackets on house walls: no wire at all. Guild Street and Birmingham Road have frowsty concrete standards which should be replaced; there is an exceptionally badly placed ‘no-waiting’ sign at the Wood Street end of Cook’s Alley, and an appalling mess by the roundabout at Bridgefoot, 2.
This area is indeed the most squalid in Stratford: it includes two filling-stations, two bus garages, two roundabouts and the edge of the car-park, and is probably seen by everyone who visits the town in any way at all. If redesigning must wait for the new bridge, there is no reason why the litter shouldn’t be cleared up now.
There is neither need nor desire for a radical change in the appearance or physical character of Stratford. But it does need stiffening.
Stratford needs to be able to recognize and make the best of its good features and to improve its not so good - to see that unfashionable buildings like the Victorian warehouse in Union Street, 24, have a sturdy strength especially valuable in this fragile town, while an amiable if simple modern building is not improved by a large, ill-proportioned picture window put in at one end to give interest (see Bailey’s shop in Wood Street, 25).
Above all, Stratford must learn to play down the more frivolous aspects of its tourist trade, which have resulted in the genteel feebleness of so many of its buildings and its truly fearful display of gimcrack insults to Shakespeare.