Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Windy Estates

Hampshire and Hertfordshire (where 'urricanes 'ardly ever 'appen*) have quite similar geology.  The underlying chalk gives a smooth, eye-pleasing roll to the hills, and the valleys are lined with fertile but claggy and flint-filled clays interleaved with beds of sand and gravel, all the legacy of the last ice age.  Before the mid-twentieth century, settlements tended to avoid the chalky uplands (known as "downs") -- they're dry, exposed, and the soil is thin -- and clustered instead in the valleys, mainly along the arterial routes that have spread out from London since Roman times.  I was born and brought up close by one such, the Great North Road, which had been the main mail-coach route from London to Edinburgh.

Things changed when major public housing projects were set in train after WW2.  Housing estates began to be built on any land that could conveniently be bulk-purchased in contiguous blocks.  In the south and east of England, this land was often those high, thin-soiled, low-yield downland acres that farmers were all too ready to exchange for cash in the bank.  Many post-war generations have now grown up, like me, on windy council estates draped with varying degrees of subtlety over undulating downland topography, where knobbly flints and labourers' clay pipes -- and the occasional bit of Iron Age archaeology  -- are often turned up on a garden spade.

This geomorphological connection (plus the use of a limited range of off-the-peg architectural patterns) means that there is a distinct family resemblance between estates built in Herts and Hants during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  It's not just the houses, it's the whole approach to infrastructure, in large part determined by the landscape.  Major roads tend to be sunk into cuttings, or offset from residential areas by barriers and large areas of grass and shrubs, with the honorable intention of providing green space and separating people from traffic.  However, this also means that paths and cycleways have to run over pedestrian bridges or through underpasses, with the apparent intention of making life easier for vandals, taggers and muggers.

One of the more forgiveable failures of the estate planners of the 50s and 60s was not to foresee the current levels of car ownership, or the inflated size of some modern vehicles.  As a consequence, all those nice new roads were made far too narrow and off-road parking space was rarely provided -- for one car, never mind three per household.  The rolling land means that the houses tend to be packed tightly together in creatively-jigsawed, high-density clusters.  The resulting combination of convoluted street layouts, unexpected dips and rises, and saturation parking makes negotiating an ordinary car down some streets a challenge; to manage a refuse truck or delivery van requires either the nerves and judgement of a fighter pilot, or utter indifference to collateral damage.  Probably both.

* Somehow, these days "The Rain in Spain" from My Fair Lady doesn't seem to get the regular airplay it used to when I was a kid...


Zouk Delors said...

Housing estates began to be built on any land that could conveniently be bulk-purchased in contiguous blocks

Isn't this a somewhat dubious account of the creation of the New Towns?

Mike C. said...


Wel, yes, but New Towns are a special case (for special people)... My point is not about New Towns as such but the close resemblance between new-build estates in, say, Stevenage and Southampton. Every time I go to Sainbury's here I get a little nostalgic jolt, as it sits in a hill-top estate that could *be* Stevenage -- it's uncanny. Ditto the outskirts of Eastleigh and various other spots round here.


Martyn Cornell said...

The estimated car ownership rate when 1950s housing estates were built was 15 per 100 homes.