Sunday, June 21, 2020

Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire

Filling up, filling in

The frustrations of lockdown: lack of contact with friends and family; lack of secondhand bookshops in which to browse; inability to go and look at interesting buildings. Antidotes to the above: keep in touch with people by telephone, email, social media (the latter in moderation); rereading books I like, browsing my own shelves for inspiration; doing blog posts about buildings I have seen in the past but not got around to writing about, researching places to visit in the future when travel and social contact are possible once more. Here’s one of the latter.

Before the motorway age really got going, those planning a car journey over a long distance thought in terms of major roads. And there was no road more major, no more obvious symbol of moving around by road, than the Great North Road, the artery running from London northwards to Doncaster, York, Darlington, and on to Scotland, a route so important that when the roads were numbered it became the A1. When the route was joined by the first extended north-south motorway, the M1 that runs slightly to the west of the A1, the Great North Road did not fall into disuse. It was still much-used and still is in normal times. And as traffic increased in the 1950s and 1960s, it acquired numerous garages and filling stations, the ubiquitous accompanists of the lorry and car.

Most of these buildings are unremarkable architecturally, but there was one that was rather special. This was the filling station at Markham Moor, Nottinghamshire, between Newark and Doncaster. The distinguishing thing about it is the roof, made of a thin shell of reinforced concrete in a hyperbolic parabaloid shape. The architect was Sam Scorer* (he designed a church with a similar shaped roof in Lincoln), and he worked with the engineer Kalman Hajnal-Kónyi. I love the sweeping shape of the roof, but I don’t like what happened to it later, when someone built a restaurant underneath it, in place of the forecourt where the pumps originally were. The arrival of the Little Chef, however, may have saved the roof from demolition, and it is said that the restaurant building does not compromise the roof’s structure and could be removed without harming the shell. An earlier photograph gives an idea what the building was like in its heyday.

Why such an extravagant roof for such a modest building? First, it’s a landmark. That means that it’s easily visible from passing vehicles. Drivers can see it coming, and have time to stop and pull in. If they pass regularly they recognise it, and maybe will make a point of filling up there – so the roof is an advert, in a way. Second, fashion. When it was built (1959–60), architects and engineers were enthusiastically exploring the new kinds of structures they could build with concrete. Shell roofs like this had a hint of the future about them – even more so a couple of years later when those flying to New York might see Eliel Saarinen’s remarkable TWA Terminal building, with its roofs like aeroplane wings. Third, economics. Steel was rationed, and this kind of roof used much less of the material than a roof with steel posts and beams.†

What will happen to this building after coronavirus? The Little Chef restaurant business closed a few years ago. As far I know, the site is empty now, and fuel is supplied from a more modern facility nearby. The roof structure is listed, so its demolition is unlikely. However, it also needs to be looked after and used somehow. I for one hope a role can be found for it – if only for the selfish reason that I’d like my spirits to be lifted by it as I make my way, one of these days, along the sometimes relentless Great North Road.§

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* Hugh Segar ‘Sam’ Scorer (1923–2003) lived and worked in Lincoln, where he designed numerous buildings including the church of St John the Baptist, Ermine. He liked fast cars, especially Jaguars.

† I am indebted to an article by Karolina Szynalska, ‘The Markham Moor Papilio: A Picturesque Commentary’, Open Arts Journal, Issue 2, Winter 2013–2014, here.

§ Thanks to two readers, who have told me that the building now houses a branch of Starbucks.

The recent photograph below is by Richard Croft and used under this Creative Commons licence. The early photograph above is reproduced in Karolina Szynalska’s article; apologies if I have infringed anyone’s copyright – I will credit or remove the image if the copyright owner wishes.


Anonymous said...

I think it's a Starbuck's now: see

Themissrayne said...

I think it’s now a Starbucks, it was sold last year but my usual annual journey down th A1 is on hold at the moment

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thank you both – I do appreciate it when readers update me about places I've not seen for a long while.

Brian Harris said...

A number of other former Little Chef premises alongside the A1 are now sex shops!