The Twentieth Century Society

Review: The Buildings of England: Bedfordshire, Huntingdonshire and Peterborough

Charles O’Brien and Nikolaus Pevsner (Yale University Press, 798 pp, £35)

Reviewed by Robert Drake

This new ‘Pevsner’, which appeared last September just in time for the Society’s Bedford event had not previously been revised since the original edition of 1968. That covered an area often overlooked as ‘on the way to somewhere else’, whether via the A1, A6 or M1. Pevsner concentrated on monastic sites such as Elstow Abbey in Beds, Peterborough Cathedral, and the fine Georgian brick townscapes of Woburn, Kimbolton and Godmanchester, though he did briefly mention some early monuments of the Modern movement: Berthold Lubetkin’s Elephant House and the now demolished Giraffe House (1934/35) at Whipsnade Zoo, and two hillside weekend ‘dachas’ (one for Lubetkin himself), as well as Kit Nicholson’s London Gliding Club of 1935/36 near Dunstable. These are given much more coverage in this new volume.

There is also much more detail about the major towns, especially Luton, which greatly expanded in the inter-war period, with motor vehicle works and a range of significant C20 churches by Giles Gilbert Scott, Albert Richardson, Caröe, Seely and Paget and local firms Franklin and Briars (pre-war) and Dunham, Widdup and Harrison (post-war). Both Luton and Peterborough had large new town halls in the 1930s, by Bradshaw, Gass and Hope (1934-36) and E Berry Webber (1929-33) respectively: both won in competitions, and with some fine surviving interiors (although Pevsner deplored their conservatism in 1968).

Bedford and Peterborough both had huge brickworks nearby, as well as engineering and agricultural industries. Bedford also saw the development of the ill-fated airship at nearby Cardington, and the huge sheds needed for their construction. A garden village for the workers was built close by at Shortstown (Cackett and Burns Dick of Newcastle, 1917-1919), and another for London Brick Company workers (E Vincent Harris,1926-1937) at Stewartby, a few miles SW of Bedford, where Sir Albert Richardson provided post-war housing and an attractive colonnaded Common Room for retired employees(1955-56). The C20 event drew attention to the lack of any statutory protection for these buildings (although part of Stewartby is a conservation area).

Peterborough doubled its population as part of the third and final phase of New Towns and cities (alongside Milton Keynes and Northampton) in a series of four ‘townships’: Milton (later Bretton), Castor (unrealised), Orton and Paston (later Werrington). The book relates how Chamberlin, Powell and Bon contributed to the original plans with a rigid separation of pedestrians and traffic in the city centre, although a less radical plan by Tom Hancock and John Hawkes was later adopted.

Post-war, Bedford is probably the most interesting large town in the area. Following the report Bedford by the River (1952) by Max Lock, an attempt was made to orient the town centre more closely to the Great Ouse, and Lock built a number of high-rise flats, such as Ashburnham Court (1954-55) (opposite the railway station) which was C20 Building of the Month in April 2014 and featured in Yorke and Gibberd’s international survey Modern Flats (1956). Other highlights are its late C19 school buildings by Basil Champneys and later ones by Oswald Milne, such as the Dame Alice Harpur (now Bedford Modern) School (1936), as well as 20th century churches by local practitioner G P Allen and others by Cachemaille-Day and his former partner Felix Lander. One of the best is The Transfiguration, Kempston (J Harold Gibbons,
1939-40).

However, Sir Albert Richardson – architect of the first post-war building to be listed (Bracken House) – is the region’s undisputed genius. He lived at Ampthill from 1919 until his death in 1964, discreetly restored many churches in his adopted county, most notably Millbrook and Eaton Socon (actually in Hunts), and was actively involved in the preservation of its landscapes. It is sad that his unparalleled collection of 18th century furnishings at Avenue House is now dispersed.