Porcelain, people and the pride of a city

People & porcelain

I’ve been lucky to meet many of the men and women whose skill, passion and graft made Worcester Porcelain the international phenomenon that it was. I love hearing their tales; more than anything I love their unabashed pride in the story of which they were a part. Their products were a marriage of beauty, art and science made possible by the extraordinary skill of Worcester workers.

For 250 years, Worcester excelled in the production of exceptional porcelain. From exquisite pieces for royal tables to the production of 30,000 spark plugs a week during WW2, through numerous changes of ownership and direction since the first firings in 1751, porcelain production has been synonymous with the city. The city takes enormous pride in its sons and daughters whose talents graced the dining rooms and exhibition halls of the world: people such as Richard Seabright, the Doughty Sisters and Harry Martin.

Royal Lily pattern, Flight of Worcester Porcelain, 1788

Royal Lily, the pattern that won King George III’s approval in 1788, and transformed the fortunes of Worcester Porcelain.

My childhood memories of the porcelain works are vivid: visits to grandparents in Worcester marked by trips to the vast ‘seconds’ store, rack upon rack of endless gleaming and glittering wares. A feeling of life, work and industry that made it quite unlike any other shop. I never could spot the flaws which had consigned a vessel to the ‘seconds’ outlet: all seemed impossibly perfect.

The city is steeped in porcelain. The factories were in the heart of the city: the Royal Worcester works lie just 50 metres from the Cathedral Close. Factory waste was often sold as rubble: it finds its way into yards, gardens and fields for miles around. Contorted slithers of kiln furniture and biscuit-fired wasters are familiar friends in the archaeological assemblages that I work on week in, week out; Worcester Porcelain is quite literally embedded in the soil of the city.

Production ended in the city in 2006, after years of falling demand. The Severn Street factory site lies empty. Parts have been sold off to property developers. The wonderful Museum of Royal Worcester occupies part of the site; it tells the breathtaking story of the finest English porcelain ever produced: a story of industry and aesthetic perfection, but above all, a story of people. I’m delighted that, last week, the Museum announced the receipt of a £1.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore and celebrate the social history of porcelain production in the city, telling the story of the workers, the community and the factory’s significance to the city.

Pride & Planning

Two days after that announcement, a decision was taken that will see the demolition of eight buildings within the conservation area, including many of the remaining elements of the Porcelain Works; the late-18th century ‘Farmhouse’ will go, as will many other 19th century buildings including all bar the façade of the factory buildings fronting Severn Street. And what’s to go in their place? Seven townhouses and three apartments.

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

Royal Worcester Porcelain, Severn Street frontage

The Severn Street factory façade will be retained in front of these dwellings, but that’s all that will remain. There’s a name for this practice: ‘Facadism’. It’s a bad idea. What façadism does is to cement the idea that the architecture is all: you can erase all trace of the human element, the lived experience, as long as you keep a small section of the most visible part of the outer shell. No matter that the shell, removed from its context, is a meaningless bauble, in this case uncomfortably juxtaposed with some smart townhouses.

It’s a cop-out. If a new build is truly worthy of its place, and the benefits outweigh the loss, let it stand on its own terms. If not, then it doesn’t justify the removal of the old. A façade is an apology: an acknowledgement that the new can’t match the old, and a tacit betrayal of the observer.

In order to understand how we’ve got to this point, it’s worth looking at the background. In 2012, The Bransford Trust put forward plans for a ‘cultural quarter’ on the site. The philanthropist and local businessman behind the proposal, Colin Kinnear, said at the time:

We are not intending to knock down the existing buildings, as these are sacrosanct, but we do believe we can enhance the glories of the site’s past and use music and art to create a wonderful place”. Colin Kinnear, 2012.

The proposals were universally warmly welcomed, and planning permission was granted in 2014 for an £11 million scheme that would see the site transformed into a cultural hub including a concert hall, viewing tower and open courtyards with cafes and restaurants, alongside studios and workshops for potters and artists, retaining most of the existing buildings.

Showroom, Royal Worcester Porcelain Works

The Grade II listed showroom, to be retained as a concert venue

However, the Bransford Trust has now decided the scheme is unviable, and proposed a new scheme costing £3 million. The revised scheme retains the concert hall in the (Grade II listed) former showroom, but little else. The ten proposed residential dwellings that will replace the demolished factory buildings will generate just one-sixth of the funds required, with the Bransford Trust meeting the remaining costs. Internationally significant industrial heritage will be demolished for a net gain of just £550,000.

The new proposals drew criticism from just about everyone with expertise in the significance and management of historic sites. Historic England objected. The Council for British Archaeology objected, as did the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the conservation area advisory committee and several former Museum curators. Many local residents, myself included, registered objections. I’m sure there would have been many more, but few outside of Worcester City Council were aware of them before it was too late. An unadvertised ‘public exhibition’ and small notices in the classified ads of the local paper appear to have been about the sum total of the public consultation.

The objections were overridden. Planning permission was granted. Behind-closed-doors meetings between developers and councillors had evidently convinced them of the worth of the new scheme. One Councillor is quoted as arguing that few of the buildings earmarked for demolition are “historically pure”, as if buildings are valuable only if they are pickled from the moment of creation, unsullied by use or adaptation. I feel for the heritage team at Worcester City Council, many of whom I respect and admire, who were placed in an impossible position by their employers.

This is a difficult and complex case. I am sure that Colin Kinnear is genuine in his concern for the site, and his desire to enhance the use of the former showroom as a cultural venue. He has demonstrated his commitment to other cultural venues such as the Swan Theatre, and is by all accounts a decent and charitable man. However, he is not a historic buildings specialist, and there are aspects to this project which are bound to raise alarm, and which risk being seen in a less favourable light. It comes perilously close to a pattern which anyone with experience of historic buildings and property development will recognise: a vacant site is acquired with grand stated ambitions, time passes, buildings are allowed to deteriorate, the scheme is found to be ‘unviable’, a much less sympathetic alternative is proposed, the new scheme is accepted as ‘only feasible option’. It’s a trick as old as the hills. I’m sure that wasn’t Mr Kinnear’s intention, but when so much is decided behind closed doors, it risks being seen as such.

Ten dwellings is hardly the answer to the housing crisis. Worcester has a very comprehensive document that sets out how to meet the demand for housing supply. It’s called the SWDP. It took a lot of work, is very detailed and is nothing if not comprehensive. This site is not in it. Mr Kinnear’s original vision is expensive. There is no doubt that the site needs considerable investment. Any scheme has to be ‘viable’ and sustainable, and someone has to foot the bill. But Worcester City Council has demonstrated the will to pursue capital projects of a similar scale, such as its £8 million investment in a replacement swimming pool. And if the long-term economic health of the city depends on tourism, as the City Council’s ambition for Heritage City status attests, then surely more funding options for the original scheme could be pursued. At the very least, the people of Worcester deserve the opportunity to engage in open and honest consultation, rather than private briefings behind closed doors.

Here, in a nutshell, is why I believe that the revised scheme is ill-advised:

  • Worcester performed impressively in the RSA’s recent Heritage Index: ranking in the top 10 nationally for the potential of its heritage, it topped the national table for its industrial heritage. Demolishing much of the most significant industrial site in the city would seem a perverse way of capitalising on this success.
  • Worcester City Council is committed to pursuing ‘Heritage City’ status, with the aim of increasing revenues from tourism and capitalising on the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the city. An invigorated cultural quarter would be a boon: ten private dwellings behind an empty façade, juxtaposed with an oddly-isolated concert hall, would not.
  • The proposals, in their current form, risk re-igniting anger and resentment at loss of heritage in a city in which demolition of historic buildings has been a source of considerable reputational damage to the City Council in the past, most notably in the case of the demolition of Lich Street in the 1950s and 60s, which caused a national outcry and led directly to the formation of RESCUE, the British Archaeological Trust.
  • The developers’ heritage statement admits that “the overall character of the site will see a negative effect, as a number of buildings which contribute to the group value and historical association of the site to the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works, will be demolished. This will have a moderate detrimental impact on the significance of the complex as a whole”.

I simply can’t see how this development would meet the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to be sustainable. Planning practice guidance urges that “When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting”.

This site offers the opportunity to engage in constructive conservation which enhances, rather than demolishes, the heritage associated with our city’s most famous industry. This proposal falls far short of that ambition. It boils down to whether it is worth compromising 250 years of industry and civic pride for the sake of £550,000. I don’t believe that’s a price worth paying. If you agree, I’d urge you to make your feelings known.

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From resisted to Resistance: Greenham Common

Above a mêlée of resistance fighters and craft, green grassy hangers loom over the rebel airfield on D’Qar. Star Wars: The Force Awakens chose a strange and beguiling corner of Berkshire for the resistance base, a site itself steeped in resistance and conflict.

Pencil sketch of Building 280, Greenham Common

Building 280, Greenham Common. Pencil Sketch. R Hedge 2016

The story of RAF Greenham Common began during the Second World War on a patch of common land just southeast of the town of Newbury, on the banks of the River Kennet below the chalk of the North Wessex Downs. Used by the United States Army Air Forces during the war, it was subsequently mothballed.

The story might have ended there, but for Cold War tensions that led the United States to move its Strategic Air Command further west, behind the protective screen of RAF fighter forces. Greenham was transformed, and throughout the 1950s and early 60s the roar of jet bombers split the air for miles around. In the early 1980s it became host to ground-launched cruise missiles (GLCMs), igniting a decade of protest that placed Greenham at the heart of the battle over nuclear arms.

The GLCM ‘Alert and Maintenance Area’ (GAMA) hangars filmed for The Force Awakens once contained those missiles. Their massive banks and triple blast-proof doors, designed to withstand a nuclear attack on the base, housed 96 missiles: 16 in each of the 6 hangars. In times of tension, the launchers could disperse from the base to launch sites in the surrounding countryside. Each missile carried a W84 warhead with a maximum yield of 150 kilotons, ten times that of the ‘Little Boy’ warhead that destroyed Hiroshima. 96 little warheads, each less than a metre long, but with the combined power of a thousand Hiroshimas. A thousand Hiroshimas, in six hangars on the edge of neat, genteel Newbury.

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

It was these structures that were at the heart of the impassioned protests of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camps. There’s a pleasing circularity there: in life, as in fiction, the hangers were a focal point of protest against armies and ideologies wielding weapons of terrifying power. They just switched sides: from resisted to resistance.

The camps and legacy of the women of Greenham Common have been extensively and brilliantly investigated by archaeologists. Their work opened my eyes to the potential and value of contemporary archaeology. If you’re wondering what such a survey can tell us, and why it’s valuable, the 2009 British Archaeology article is a great place to start.

I never saw the camps, or the missiles – the last were withdrawn in 1991; I was still a child. But long before I came to live nearby, I knew the name: Greenham is home to an important Mesolithic hunter-gatherer site, one of many along the Kennet Valley.

Later, I spent three years living in Newbury. Like the airbase, my relationship with the town was problematic. It’s a lovely place to live, shop and enjoy. Lazy pub gardens on the tidy canal, upmarket shops and not a paving slab out of place. But I didn’t quite fit the mould. Habitually emerging mud-stained from a decrepit van or grease-stained from beneath an ancient Land Rover, I felt like a grubby Hi-Visibility fly in the ointment of a world of London commutes and country retreats.

But Greenham, I loved. I still do.

It’s a wildlife haven now: lovely lowland heath in which the public can wander freely. Gravel paths circumnavigate the colossal runway. Much of the concrete from that runway found new life as hardcore beneath the Newbury Bypass: from one controversial routeway to another.

On a visit just after Christmas, children meandered in unsteady arcs on new bikes, and packs of dogs raced gleefully around cold wind-frothed pools. The place buzzed with life. Bright splashes of gorse added colour.

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

Abandoned equipment, Greenham Common

But the traces of its past are all around: concrete shelters and twisted tentacles of circuitry lurk among the brambles, as if the departing airmen stripped what was sensitive and left the rest, conscious of the passing of an era. Plates affixed to twisted steel cabinets tell of contract numbers, dates and maintenance schedules. American fire hydrants stand incongruously by gravel ponds. Leave the main track and a buoyant avenue of young birch opens out onto Building 280, all breeze blocks and corrugated iron. The buildings could almost be agricultural, but for the faded flaking warnings tattooed onto their cold, heavy façades.

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

Fire training plane, Greenham Common

Behind Building 280 is a favourite of mine: the naked ferrous skeleton of a ‘fire plane’, perpetually marooned in its shallow lagoon for fire crews’ drills. It’s a reminder of exactly what was at stake here. An accident in 1958, in which a parked bomber was set alight by an exploding fuel tank jettisoned by another plane, took 16 hours and a million gallons of water to contain, and cost the lives of two airmen.

MoD sign, GAMA area, Greenham Common

GLCM Alert and Maintenance Area Hanger, Greenham Common

The GAMA site remains fenced from the runway area, defiant warning signs still in evidence. 25 years after the final removal of an arsenal that, at its peak, contained the potential to obliterate entire nations, the looming hangars are the backdrop to a child’s first forays without stabilisers, and the polite chatter of dog walkers lamenting the state of their muddy, panting companions.

There’s something inspiring about that.