Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire


Times of change

Another white van goes past, and then a car, and as the traffic clears and I raise the camera to my eye a steady procession of pedestrians crosses between me and the building. I lower the camera again and wait. It’s not that I necessarily object to including people in my pictures – there are always people in a busy market place on a Saturday, after all. But not everyone wants to be photographed, and not everyone wants to appear on the web, so I lower the camera.

Perhaps I should just take a photograph of the clock turret and leave it at that. I’m an admirer of the wooden clock towers that often appear on traditional market halls and town halls. Architecture books seem to say little about them – they’re seen, I think, as minor carpentry-stuff, rarely attributable to a specific craftsman or designer, and fit more for the fancier of clocks than for the serious business of architectural history. However, I like their variety and their usefulness and I’m pleased to spot this one. I’ve already assumed, without looking very hard, that the red-brick building that it’s topping is the town’s market hall. Another gap in the traffic, and I look more closely. The building bears a sign saying ‘Fire Station’. ‘Wrong again!’ I think.

But not entirely. This was indeed the site of Leighton’s market hall, and for centuries there was a market building here with an arched lower section for stalls and an upper room used for courts and meetings. The structure was rebuilt in 1851 in brick along similar lines and that, substantially, is the building that still exists. Except that in the early-20th century it was converted for use as a fire station, with a big arched opening for whatever appliances there were to come and go.

The upper part of the building – the big window, the pinnacles, the decent brickwork in a sort of honest simplified Gothic, the clock turret that caught my eye – is very much as it was in the Victorian period. The lower part was remodelled for the fire service with the addition of the big arch and the neat stone plaque. It continued as a fire station until 1963 and has since had other uses. It’s a restaurant now, and is not the first garage-style building with generous floor space to make this transition.

Buildings (like pop stars, political parties, magazines, and the rest) seem to need to reinvent themselves from time to time in order to survive. Buildings are often made redundant because their original user needs more modern premises, or goes bust, or relocates. At this point, many buildings remain empty and decaying until the land they stand on is worth more than the bricks and mortar, and they get pulled down. Unless, that is, someone comes along with some lateral thoughts about how the structure can be used. That’s where the reinvention comes in, and here in Leighton Buzzard instead of firemen sliding down slippery poles there is pasta sliding off forks. And we can all enjoy this Leighton landmark standing proud among the clutter and the crowds. Tortellini, anyone?

9 comments:

Hels said...

Firstly I agree with you totally: "I’m an admirer of the wooden clock towers that often appear on traditional market halls and town halls. Architecture books seem to say little about them... rarely attributable to a specific craftsman or designer, and fit more for the fancier of clocks than for the serious business of architectural history". Architectural historians are an awfully snooty lot.

Secondly consider the clock tower of a much later building group. Art Deco & Modernism Architecture Tasmania notes that a T&G Tower block in Townsville block was demolished a few years ago, for no reason :( See http://modernismtas.blogspot.com/2010/04/t-building-hobart.html

It seems that no clock tower is safe :(

Philip Wilkinson said...

Hels: Thanks for the link. How sad that that beautiful tower has gone.

I'm starting to photograph these town hall clock turrets, and no doubt more will appear on the blog one of these days. I'll also no doubt be going on about the hierarchy of materials (in Britain at least) that dictates that structures in stone get taken seriously, but anything in, say corrugated iron, is looked down on. Wooden constructions like clock turrets seem to be towards the bottom of the heap – although old, timber-framed houses are nearer the top. Funny old world.

Anonymous said...

Best not to visit Fordingbridge in Hampshire just yet. The town hall clock has gone away for repairs.

It was taken down in December. Readers of the local paper have been asked for their memories of its predecessor. It's hoped that the tower will be replaced by September.

Anonymous said...

There is another clock tower in Fordingbridge, at the former workhouse. The building now forms part of Fordingbridge Hospital.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Anon: Thanks for the links. I used to go through (or past) Fordingbridge quite often, but not recently. I hope to revisit – after September.

Unseen Rajasthan said...

Beautiful,lovely and fantastic shot !!Simply awesome !!

Lord Carrot said...

Leaving people in shot also dates a photograph very specifically. But I've certainly had some long waits. And long bouts of swearing quite unnecessarily.

Pigtown-Design said...

So funny... i just did something mentioning Leighton Buzzard... and Queen Camel!

Philip Wilkinson said...

Brilliant! I've always had a soft spot for Queen Camel. There must be more of these zoological names. Anyone for Hawkshead or St Bee's?