Let’s be loyal and support our local town by George Evans
Goodness knows where the first town centre was or how long ago but I suppose it must have been started when someone set up a stall by the side of the road several millennia ago.
Naturally people who grow food trade their surplus and the best places to do that is where there are lots of people as customers. The best and most obvious places are river crossings, safe harbours and cross roads. These places grow into villages, then towns and cities as they become more popular, some of them fortify themselves with defensive walls and maybe a castle. Many grow into huge cities. Another popular place for a town to grow is at the crossing of two main routes or near a mine. These are the natural or organic ways in which settlements grow and the middle of a town is where business is usually done. That is a naturally formed town centre; there is usually a bit of planning involved in its growth.
A newer and partly artificial way of starting a town is when it is planned. Planned towns are sometimes quite ancient; I read once that the first of the planned ‘new towns’ was Ur of the Chaldes in around 5,000 BC. Once I wanted to do a thesis on ‘Planned New Towns in Shropshire’, listing Viroconium (Roman), Ludlow (Norman), Newport (Medieval), New Dale (Industrial Revolution), Craven Arms (Railway Age) New Donnington (Last World War) and Telford (recent and ongoing). There are lots of other planned developments including New Town Wellington; I wonder who still knows where that was.
Sometimes towns fail and can do so for odd surprising reasons. Harlech, for instance, was a Norman town and a port. The port area is now a caravan site because the sea level has fallen or the land has risen. This hasn’t killed the town but it’s no longer a port. Hodnet was once a market town but its trade was taken by Shrewsbury, Wem and Wellington. It’s now a village with a tourist attraction. Some towns like Chester were probably originally Welsh, then founded by the Romans, fought over, refounded and renamed by the early English and Normans and are now surrounded by assorted housing estates and suburbs.
Most of our older towns have ancient origins yet many of them show traces of some sort of town planning. Shrewsbury for instance has a Norman castle (replanned by Thomas Telford as a mansion) that had many houses demolished to make way for its construction, not to mention a railway station built over the river. Wellington had a market square in medieval times with streets like New Street and High Street laid out as burger plots along the street and long narrow strips behind, where traders lived and kept their workshops, pigs, hens and apprentices (in order of importance). In High Street in particular many of these burger plots had rows of slums for the poor. All these, including Naylor’s Court (now a car park) were demolished under Government ‘Slum clearance’ laws though some local authorities confused slum clearance for making space for their latest council housing trend.
When eventually the idea of a new town arrived in Dawley, Shropshire there had already been several new towns built for various reasons. Some of the best were for the workers in new, expanding industries; the best of these were often conceived by wealthy, religious, generous industrialists like the Cadburys’ Bourneville. The Quaker Cadburys intended to a build some sort of Utopia where their workers were comfortable, loyal and well treated, therefore a reliable team, keeping the factories, the firm and therefore themselves and their families prosperous and happy. This concept is a long way from the way many firms are run nowadays, and probably would be laughed at scornfully by most of the international and multinational businesses which dominate world trade now. Penny pinching treatment of the lesser employees as a means of accumulating huge unnecessary wealth for those at the top has replaced generosity and openheartedness. The world would be better run if we could change this rule by selfish individuals.
After the Last World War a lot of Government inspired new towns had been built, especially in USA and USSR, where there was often plenty of space for them. These were discussed in universities and Telford was being designed by some graduates who had not realised that there were many well-established communities that stood in the way of a simple solution to the design of an implanted new settlement. Consequently a series of housing estates, industrial sites, business parks and a ‘town centre’ were squeezed into the farmland between the established settlements together with some needed superstructure. The houses were mainly filled with people from industrial towns in the Black Country and others who had been lured to ‘leafy Shropshire’.
A small incident illustrates the ham-fisted attitude of the authorities. As the American mall called a town centre was being built a bus was stationed in Wellington town centre – in Market Square actually – offering free lifts to the Telford town centre, where one shop (Carrefour) had been built. The gormless organisers were amazed when I pointed out that they were actually in a town centre, not going to one. Unfortunately many people have adopted the name town centre for the Yankee out of town mall, not realising that the old towns had proper centres. Madeley town centre was cruelly smashed and replaced by badly designed and built trash, which I’m told has been bulldozed and replaced by something better now. Oakengates and Dawley were also vandalised; several attempts to interfere in Wellington have been resisted.
Our real town centres can thrive but they need the loyalty of local inhabitants. Shop locally, buy from locals; support your own town. Trust your own neighbours; save petrol. You are the customers and can change things if you act now. Otherwise our towns will die. You can do it!