The historic environment lies at the heart of providing a sense of place and endows the centre of Northampton with a unique and attractive character. The town’s architectural heritage establishes its character and is an enduring reflection of its history and the matrix of complex physical, political and socio-economic forces that have shaped it. An understanding of the town’s history and evolution of its architectural and built heritage is an important first step in planning for the future.
Cities such as Bath and Edinburgh have international reputations and are attractive places to live in and visit due to the quality and management of their built environment. This has not happened by accident but by inspiration, high quality design, sensitive planning, and attention to detail. Recognising how places change and understanding the forces that shape the urban environment are essential first steps in creating a framework in which to facilitate sensitive regeneration that takes account of the town’s unique heritage. Heritage-led regeneration takes account of the features that make the town special and provide it with a sense of place. The town’s fascinating history can therefore provide a firm foundation on which to build for the future. By recognising and using what is valued and cherished it is possible to stimulate an urban renaissance that can play a significant role in helping ensure the social, economic and cultural sustainability of the town’s historic centre to the benefit of the wider community.
The Townscape Heritage Initiative will survey and record the town’s built environment and establish the architectural character of individual streets and areas of the town. It will provide planners, architects, potential developers and others interested in the built environment with important and easily accessible information on which to base informed design-led proposals that take full account of Northampton’s historic heritage.
The town was established in the Middle Saxon period on rising ground to the north of the River Nene just east of its confluence with the River Brampton. The oldest part of the town is immediately south of Marefair, just west of the present commercial centre and east of the site of the former castle, which was raised to the ground on the orders of Charles II following the restoration of the monarchy after the Civil Wars. Following a major fire in 1675 the town was substantially rebuilt and became one of the finest towns in middle England by the early eighteenth century. The rebuilt town generally followed the layout dictated by pattern of medieval streets that had evolved since the Saxon period. A modest number of buildings survived the fire including the town’s three magnificent medieval churches of St. Peter’s, Holy Sepulchre and St Giles and its oldest secular building Hazelrigg House in Marefair. Post the fire, many of the towns new buildings were based on neo-classical designs inspired by the Renaissance in contrast to the vernacular architecture that had previously dominated the town. Fortunately, a number of significant late seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings remain in the town and make an important contribution to its townscape. Of particular note are the Sessions House and All Saints’ Church in the very centre of the town. At the time of the fire the town only had a population of about 5,000 people and during the late seventeenth and eighteenth century growth was very modest. However, the town expanded rapidly during the nineteenth century and its regeneration and subsequent outward expansion, in the second half of the century, have endowed it with a rich Victorian architectural heritage. This period was marked by the rise of municipal power and civil pride, a rapid increase in the scale and number of manufacturing buildings and large areas of suburban housing, mainly to the north and east of the historic former walled town. The town’s impressive Guildhall and footwear manufacturing buildings, and its diverse and interesting housing stock are a wonderful legacy of the Victorian period.
The ‘modern movement’ in architecture arrived early in Northampton. One building of particular note is New Ways (1926) designed by the German architect Peter Behrens and recognised as one of the earliest example of modern architecture in Britain. The town also benefited from the building of some other fine buildings prior to 1945 but the post war period has generally been marked by periods of rapid regeneration or expansion that have too often resulted in buildings of mediocre quality that have taken little or no account of the town’s impressive architectural heritage.
This was especially true during the years of the previous Northampton Development Corporation. In common with many other towns, during the nineteen sixties and seventies, the central area suffered significant damage from areas of insensitive and large scale redevelopment. Many of the town’s least popular buildings, such as the Greyfriars bus station and the Mayorhold car park, date from this period but more recent buildings such as Sol Central demonstrate that the present system of planning and development control is still failing to adequately protect the town’s built heritage or inspire high quality design. Although such developments have blighted some parts of the town the situation is not irreversible and with careful planning and sensitive design the quality of the town’s architectural heritage has the potential to become a catalyst that can help stimulate future economic, cultural and social sustainability. The Townscape Heritage Initiative can provide an important first step in again making Northampton one of England’s finest market towns. However, urgent action is needed to protect its surviving rich architectural heritage and ensure that future development and regeneration respects the past and inspires the future.
SCOPE OF INITIAL STUDY
It is envisaged that the Initiative will be completed in a series of phases which will probably evolve as a result of future consultation. The phases presently envisaged include:
An historical study of the town’s evolution - this has been undertaken with the assistance of the Centre for Urban History at the University of Leicester and identifies the history of the town with particular reference to the evolution of its architecture and the physical, political and socio-economic forces than have shaped its built environment;
A survey of individual buildings and streets to provide a record of areas of historic or architectural importance.
Consultation with local councils, residents, businesses, other organisations and agencies concerned with the town’s built heritage;
Urban review report outlining the architectural character of individual streets and areas of the town including highlighting significant buildings, features and characteristics and suggestions for helping to create a greater sense of place in future developments
POSSIBLE SUPPLEMENTARY STUDY
An action plan with a vision for the future illustrating how sensitive intervention (conservation surgery) could help enhance the central parts of the town such as the area north of the Grosvenor Centre including Sheep Street; the Market Square and Abington Street; Marefair and Gold Street, and the area south of the County Hall. The action plan could also consider outline proposals for an integrated transport policy.
A town centre model to test future development proposals, which could form part of a public exhibition with educational material for local schools..
The Townscape Heritage Initiative has the potential to empower the aspirations of the
local community and civic leaders and to inspire an urban renaissance in the town. It can
compliment and add to the information provided by the Town Centre Commission. Good quality design and a respect for the town’s architectural heritage can help transform Northampton into an attractive and vibrant town capable of meeting the challenges of the twenty-first century with confidence.
It is important that the Initiative takes a holistic overview of Northampton and considers all the physical, economic and socio-economic forces that the urban environment. It should be a catalyst that allows all those interested in the town’s heritage to join together for the common good taking full account of the wide body of research and other initiatives in relation to Design and the Historic Environment undertaken by CABE, English Heritage, and other organisations. It should also fully consider successful regeneration projects in other towns and cities in Britain and continental Europe.
The Heritage Lottery Fund and other agencies are currently supporting similar projects in other towns and Northampton should not miss the opportunity to record and enhance its architectural
heritage to the benefit of all those who live or use the town and for future generations.
- Paul Hobden MA DArch RIBA
Please let us have your views on this draft proposal. (An Appendix with information on
Hobden Group and criteria for successful regeneration projects is available on request).