The Twentieth Century Society

Obituaries: Norman Scarfe

by Alan Powers

The historian and topographical writer Norman Scarfe was a long-standing member of the Twentieth Century Society. He was born in Felixstowe, and, despite service in the D-Day campaign, an Oxford degree and a job at the University of Leicester (as a colleague of W G Hoskins), Suffolk pulled him back. In 1963 he settled at Shingle Street as a freelance writer, with Paul Fincham, a former student and by then a school history teacher. Suffolk became the focus not only of his scholarship but also his dogged work as a co-opted member of the county planning committee, and a leading figure in both the Suffolk Preservation Society and the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust.

Scarfe wrote three Shell Guides, and it is for these that he is best known. The first, to Suffolk, appeared in 1960 and was twice revised before reappearing as The Suffolk Guide from a small local publisher in 1988, after the demise of the Shell series. In 1968, Essex was published, and in 1983, Cambridgeshire. His background as a medievalist was always evident in the introductory essays and parish-by-parish entries, but so too was his eye for recent architecture. The language of his judgments was unconstrained: of the Cambridge University Library, for example, ‘1930s awful… its storage-tower a portentous landmark’; of Casson and Conder’s Sidgwick Site buildings, ‘the chalk-pale cladding is pleasing in this church country, and the concrete impressively dressed up as granite.’ James Stirling’s History Library was ‘a gigantic descending Wurlitzer organ, of glittering glass and tomato ketchup red hanging tiles.’

His taste was in line with that of the Architectural Review in the time of Ian Nairn – more concerned with sense of place than with fashion. Often-derided Harlow New Town got a star billing in Essex, its marketplace ‘delightful, like Norwich’s or Leicester’s, but on a more agreeable scale with gay awnings, and modern bronze sculpture that is already as much at home as an antique column in a Roman market… and stalls full of country green-groceries and fishing rods as well as the inevitable rolls of lino.’ Basildon won similar praise, and particularly the later development of Noak Bridge by Maurice Naunton and George Garrard, a prototype Poundbury with less fuss, about which Scarfe wrote in Country Life in August 1989. The enemy, as it was for Nairn, was placeless suburbia, castigated at Sudbury, which – between the 1966 and 1976 editions of Suffolk – was expanded for London overspill with ‘the new massed suburban dwellings at Cornard, the new barrack-like housing near Waldringfield Road roundabout and, perhaps worst of all, the expensive Surrey or Middlesex middle-class suburb on Melford Road, solemnly called “Chaucer Estate”. What do we think we are doing to Suffolk?’

The Lowestoft-based architects Herbert Tayler and David Green became friends after Scarfe showed pictures of their Woodton housing in a lecture, not knowing that Tayler was present, and he generously contributed a foreword to the exhibition catalogue of their work that Elain Harwood and I wrote in 1998, linking the layouts and skylines of their terraces of rural council housing to the subtle shapes of the Loddon district’s landscape.

A new generation of visitors flocking to Suffolk owes a debt to Norman Scarfe for opening the eyes of many to the true qualities of its villages, towns and buildings, and for many years of resistance against those who failed to see.

Norman Scarfe, born 1 May 1923, died 2 March 2014.