O Brave New World?

Reporter: Anne Grimshaw

O Brave New World?

The AGM, held on 22 March, was followed by an excellent slide-talk by David Burnett entitled O Brave New World – its title should really have ended with a question mark. Its sub-title was the Post-War Redevelopment of Sudbury – which pretty much said it all – and could have been virtually anywhere in the Britain of the 1950s-70s whose planners were swept along on the tide of ‘a fresh start’. David referred, charitably, to the post-war planners as “people of their time”. Less charitable would be that they continued where the Luftwaffe left off.

Sudbury did indeed suffer at the hands of post-war planners and developers but perhaps not as badly as some places. Stand at the top of Market Hill and look around – there isn’t one horrible building in sight. After looking at David’s photos of early 20th century Sudbury, what an even nicer place Sudbury could have been given the present attitudes towards ‘heritage’, new uses for old buildings and the desire for ‘make-overs’. This not a case of hindsight being a wonderful thing for such attitudes were voiced at the time but were drowned by the roar of the concrete mixer and the clang of the wrecker’s ball.

David referred to the landmark book A Full Life in the Country by Keith Jeremiah published in 1949. It was certainly of its time: the emphasis on sweeping away virtually anything Victorian, especially rows of old cottages which undoubtedly were sub-standard but could have been modernised given the will and the skill. Indeed, Sudbury Borough Council commissioned architects who stated that the weavers’ cottages on Inkerman Row presented a first-class case for renovation but down they came, nevertheless, in favour of a car park and later Playford Court which, fortunately, does have architectural merit, interest provided by decorative coloured brickwork and is quite pleasing – so unlike the flat-roofed, brutal horrors inflicted on North Street and, of course, the Borehamgate precinct and the Post Office.

Part of the legacy of post-war redevelopment in North Street

David showed photos of cottages on Gregory Street, all swept away and in their place a wide, one-way street that encourages speed, flanked on one side by architecturally mediocre, poor quality, off-the-peg houses that add neither interesting character nor a sense of place – mere blueprints of those that were duplicated in a hundred other towns.

Houses in Church Street, never mind that they were the oldest in Sudbury dating from the 1300s, also went, as did the 1820s cottages of Gooseberry Row (bottom side of North Street car park), the old Police Station, The Mount on North Street (now Sulby House) and so on… not that they were necessarily outstanding examples of their periods’ architecture but they were not replaced by something better – far from it.

Gooseberry Row – probably the oldest terrace of weavers’ cottages in the town

There is much to regret in what happened in those post-war years – demolition is forever – Sudbury’s post-war legacy could have been so much better but, it could also have been so very, very much worse. Let us hope that lessons have been learned, painful though they were, and that future generations will approve of what ‘we’ are doing in the early 21st century. Or, maybe Borehamgate Precinct will one day be Grade I listed and have a blue plaque… as an example of what not to do in a rural market town?