Colin's Cornucopia

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Chapelfields A niceplace to live

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Craven Street and Chapelfields

I have worked and lived in the old part of Chapelfields for sixty-five years and have actually lived in Craven Street for six years. I ran the factory around the corner in Lord Street for 45 of those years.  Some might say I must be the most boring man on earth not to have moved more than fifty yards in a lifetime but I have put in a few things in between including seven years living in Canada where I built a series of weapons for the Cold War. Later I built a host of components for the machine tool and car industries of Coventry and then for rally and Formula 1 cars.

I retired at 60, not entirely voluntarily, and have been quite busy ever since. I have often wondered what it is that makes Craven Street such a nice place to live. One of my neighbours once said he liked the security of having a busy pub opposite his house. No one was going to burgle his house in front of a more-or-less permanent audience. This started me thinking and I have done some reading on the subject of what makes cities good and bad.

While I have drawn heavily on a number of ideas of other people this analysis is my own and is about Chapelfields and Coventry.

A nice area to live is one that has identity and provides comfort, convenience, security and privacy. Old Chapelfields has experienced a huge number of changes of inhabitants and use over its lifetime but has survived as a pleasant place to live despite attacks upon it. Its survival is almost certainly due to the love and commitment of its inhabitants – both residential and commercial. 

The area was set out as a live-work space by commercial developers around 1860 and its purpose was to manufacture watches. In this it succeeded well for around fifty years but the watch industry, like most things, moved on. But the area had certain beneficial attributes. Firstly it had a wide mixture of dwellings and small workshops. Every house had a workshop called a ‘top shop’. There were lots of small houses and some huge houses built for the Master Watch Makers.

There were at least nine public houses that formed the basis of community at a time when there were no telephones nor radios nor televisions. All communication was by word of mouth or printing. Meeting face to face was very important and there is little doubt that the pubs would have been most convenient for this.

There were a large number of plots in the adjacent Hearsall Common Lane that were not included in the development but were ideal for providing yards and shacks and eventually a multiplicity of tiny industrial sites. The roads were laid out to a then excellent standard together with sewers and drainage. The developments were essentially private. Although the houses appear to be built in terraces, no two houses are alike: each was designed to private specification on a basic plan.

The focus of the area became the Lord Street Sunday School which developed almost spontaneously and soon attracted the help of the Cow Lane Church Centre. The new building in Lord Street is of the same architectural style as the Queens Road Baptist Church and possibly had the same architect. The Sunday School developed mightily at a time when Board Schools were still some years away. It had around thirty Directors and sported a Football team, a gymnasium, a Mother’s Union and numerous activities for young people. The Sunday School was eventually designated as a Board School.

At about the time the watch industry died, Coventry began its career of making bicycles, motor-cycles and cars.  Chapelfields expanded rapidly as a dormitory suburb to house the thousands of workers that flocked to Coventry between 1910 and 1960.  Old Chapelfields lost nearly all its watch-making and most of the small houses were devoted to living, the top shops becoming derelict or used for storage.

Many of the larger houses were used commercially. In the Allesley Old Road there was a row of around five shops, a tailor on the corner of Lord Street with two small engineering enterprises in the top shops. Then there was another factory, a Hairdresser, A photographer and a wood yard. In the other direction were a newsagent and a chemist shop. There are still several small enterprises between Craven Street and Hearsall Lane. The Lord Street Sunday School was eventually displaced by the Board Schools and was converted to an engineering factory which it remained until around 2003. There is still, to this day, a good collection of enterprises that make the area viable.

The reasons that a mixture of commercial and residential properties works so well are several but essentially simple. This has been summed up by others as “eyes on the street”. During the day in many dormitory suburbs there are no eyes on the street. Miscreants can cruise around all day without being noticed. The majority of people who come through Old Chapelfields, even in cars, get seen and noticed, especially if their activities are suspicious.

This is because commercial activity keeps people in the street during the day, the residents do this morning and evening and the pub patrons do this until quite late at night. The ladies who are fortunate and sensible enough to be full time mothers add more eyes during the day, as do their children. The street is always policed by its citizens. The cost of providing this amount of policing with a formal police force would be enormous and also extremely intrusive. Self policing works extremely well. Even in the middle of the night there are eyes on the street. I was very ill for some years and used to walk in the middle of the night. I was often surprised at the number of people who were aware of my nocturnal perambulations.

There used to be other advantages to living and working here. You could get almost anything you wanted within walking distance. Besides the commercial interests detailed above, and its six pubs, Craven Street had a chip shop, a green grocer, a post office with post box, a bakery and two grocers shops. One of the grocers (Flo Barrat’s) doubled as a bookmaker when betting off-track was highly illegal. There were other commercial premises in Mount Street and Sir Thomas White’s Road. The community was largely self-sufficient.

Many of these things have now disappeared but the area still has benefits. One is continuity. There are numerous families living here with local connections going back well over a hundred years. This gives stability, commitment and tender loving care to the area. People are much more likely to look after their property and develop it sympathetically if they have a history behind them. Financially motivated developers don’t give a damn for anything but their bottom line. Displaced social tenants have little respect for themselves or their homes.

The spirit of the area was well judged in 1970. At that time it had suffered from the neglect of official policy in building new estates on green land and ignoring the plight of old areas. The presumption at that time was that the slum clearance bulldozer would deal with the area eventually. On a hot summer night in the middle of 1970 Councillor McClatchie hired the Nissen Hut style church hall that then stood on the large bomb site in Craven Street now known as Hilton court. He came with some of his officers to tell the good people of Chapelfields how he was going to knock down the whole of their six streets and build six brand new high-rise apartments like they were then doing in Hillfields on the other side of the city.

But the people were armed and ready. The abysmal problems of the high-rise flats were already becoming apparent. The re-housing of much of Hillfields in the distant Wood End was a complete disaster that still worries us forty years later. The meeting was packed and the windows were wide open and people surrounded the church and hung in and out of the windows. The good councillor left with his tail between his legs. Within a few months the area had been designated a General Improvement Area and substantial grants were offered to nearly every household for property improvements.  Later the area was designated a Conservation Area.

Much of the improvement work was done by a building firm in Hearsall Lane called Brandon and Seery. They were both friends of mine and they did much excellent work but in those days we knew little about conservation and much damage was done by stripping slate roofs and pebble dashing lime mortar built walls. But at that  time the area had become dilapidated and improvements to living conditions took precedence. Many cellars were filled in needlessly and features such as doorways and staircases ripped out. There still remain a few houses that display some of the best early features. It is to be hoped that future ‘improvements’ will not remove remaining features and may even put some back.

This is the heritage that helps make Chapelfields so pleasant to live in. But you cannot live on sentiment alone. So what practical things does the area enjoy? We have a doctor’s surgery in Mount street and another nearby and two dentists and an optician on Hearsall  common. The shops of Earlsdon are in easy reach and in The Arches there is and array of support functions for those of us who consider keeping old cars to be a sensible option. We also have there a snooker hall, gymnasium, bedding shop, carpet shop and new and used car sales. The chippie, hairdresser and balti, outdoor and pie shop in Spon End are within easy distance as are the shops at The Maudsley. We even have our own Balti in Craven Street. We also have our own St. Mary Magdalen Church and there are three other churches nearby.

The Supermarket is within reasonable walking distance and next to it you can buy stationery, furniture, electrical goods, bedding and curtains and the delights of a huge hardware store. You can even get a Big Mac or a MacFlurry. Out of town shopping malls have wreaked serious havoc with our city centres but if you happen to have one within walking distance and it is accessible by walking then it is quite beneficial for you and the area.  This particular shopping centre, at the Alvis, is quite good because it is easy of foot access. Many modern centres are designed for, and are accessible to, only the car. 

I have already explained how eyes on the street give security to the residents of the area. The retention of multiple uses is a key to this to ensure the street is used at all times of day. It is also important that every house, and preferably commercial building also, should have a window on the street. Developments should not face away from the street and pretend they live somewhere else. That is imbecile and also extremely rude.

Comfort is given by the knowledge that you know and  can trust your neighbours and that the street is safe at most times. Convenience is given by the presence of local suppliers of services. Using those services so that they remain viable is very important. We have just lost our bakery, arguably the nicest bread in town, probably because of the demise of Jaguar Cars, a significant customer, but mostly the laziness of local people who prefer to shop at Morrisons even though the quality of their bread is not within a country mile of Pails’.  Pails’ bread was superb and not expensive – just less convenient to get.

Privacy is given by the nature of houses that essentially do not overlook each other and allow the fencing-off of private gardens. The absence of private space in many modern developments is a diabolical error. The extraordinary privacy allowed by apparently cramped back gardens has allowed at least one local person to indulge his naturism without offending his neighbours and another nearby to smoke pot his garden quite safely.  Privacy is a fundamental need of all people at some time. So is the need to leave their houses at some times and participate safely in a lively urban scene. The pubs in Craven Street and Lord Street provide exactly such a service. Even if you do not use pubs you benefit from knowing your road is being policed – and mainly by perfectly ordinary people.

On some nights the youngsters gather to drink heavily but this is usually their first port of call and by the time they are the worse for their stupidity they are ready to leave the area and take their aggression to town. This does not do the city centre much good but it means that Craven Street has the benefit of all those eyes on the street without the problems that might come later in the night. I am a night person and am frequently on the street at midnight and have never felt the slightest concern for my safety.

I started this by saying that a nice area to live in is one that has identity and provides comfort, convenience, security and privacy. I think I have shown that Chapelfields has all those qualities and I think it worth some effort to help secure the future of those assets. To that list I think I can safely add commitment by a lot of people who care what happens to them, their property and their community.

We are, in 2010, entering a period of great uncertainty; much more so than at any time since 1945. The thing that is going to change most is energy. Since 1945 our use of energy, supplied by coal, oil or nuclear piles, has multiplied by a factor of ten. There can be little doubt that that increasing use has now reached its limit. The fear of possible Global Warming is one driver for reduction of energy use. There is much debate about ‘peak oil’ and arguments about when we will reach that. The world may not yet have reached peak oil but Britain’s share of available energy supplies almost certainly has peaked. From now on our fuels are going to get much dearer. This is clearly already happening. This will affect the way we live.

We may actually have to reintroduce heaters capable of burning solid fuel. The burners are unlikely to be anything like those of our parents and grandparents but neither will they be as cheap and simple as gas fired central heating. The presence of chimneys in houses may well be a very useful feature. Energy efficiency will become very important and terraced houses have a natural advantage of small wall area. I have written elsewhere about green energy. I will add nothing here except to say it will be expensive. We have enough coal to last some hundreds of years but it is ‘dirty’ and expensive.

The increasing cost of transport will mean that locally sourced goods will eventually be more economic than those shipped half way around the world and up and down our motorways. This may be a slow process but it will happen and locally produced goods will mean a demand for local workshops and Chapelfields is well placed to provide this. We will never have huge factories around here again but service industries will become more important as the cost of manufactured good increases.

A possible problem in this could be the planning process. Much of our planning law is based upon nineteenth century ideas formulated as a result of the revelations of Dickens and his contemporaries. They are now a hundred years out of date. The nineteenth century ill health and plagues and much else were blamed upon crowded cities when the real problem was lack of cleanliness and sewers and sewage works. These problems were largely solved in Victorian times but planners still insist on designating uses. It is for instance virtually impossible to get a new commercial building licence in a ‘residential’ or ‘conservation’ area. This is silly. The very thing that makes areas worth conserving is the diversity that comes with having mixed uses. To make any policy that denies this will ultimately destroy the area.  

My first inclination is to say that there should be no planning constraints but experience has taught me that there will always be some people who will abuse an unregulated system. To defeat the tyrants we need planning law but it should be minimalist. Legitimate planning functions include laying-out and maintaining the line of streets and the line and (sometimes) height of buildings and the specification and securing of sewers and the location of other utilities. There is a good case for restricting particularly noisy or smelly uses but these must be considered on a case - by -case basis with sensible local public consultation.

Most other things should be left to the people who build the houses and workshops and offices, especially in established areas. Most planning laws are now objectionably authoritarian and their main purpose appears to be to secure employment for the planning staff. Many of the individual laws are utterly ludicrous. Zoning use is forcing excessive commuting and ensuring that no district has the security of mixed use. Many industrial estates are notorious black spots for crime because there are no eyes on the street.

Modest and fitting redevelopments should be allowed and encouraged. Having new buildings mixed with old ones is a fundamental requirement of a mixed economy. ‘All - new’ build is devastating to any area and ‘all - old’ dereliction equally devastating. An area must grow and develop naturally as its people desire. There will be good things and bad but the diversity will be a thousand times better than the conformity of planned development. It is also important for diversity to have a mixed age of buildings. New buildings tend to be expensive and need wealthy users. Older buildings can house less affluent users. The cheaper buildings allow opportunities to the less fortunate to get a start in life and the high class properties give an incentive to the less fortunate and mean that those who have succeeded do not necessarily have to leave the district to improve their lifestyle. Left to their own devices, people will soon learn how to draw suitable dividing lines without inducing the life destroying sameness of big developments.

One of the other major issues that planners love to mess with is the car and its roads.  The onset of expensive fuel means that this country is at peak oil usage now - even if the rest of the world is not. If we are at peak oil then we are probably also at peak car usage. We have spent a hundred years re-designing our cities for the car and now we are going to spend the next hundred adapting to a massive reduction in its use. Walking may once again become normal even if it is not to be enjoyed.

Chapelfields has the spaces to adapt to new requirements providing always that the psychotic moguls in Whitehall and City Hall let us get on with it. We have the proximity of a once-vibrant city centre. We have excellent road communications including lots of public transport passing very near. Most of what we need is within walking distance and this will become more important as time goes on.  This change is not necessarily going to be drastic or even sudden but looking back in even fifty years the world and Chapelfields will be a very different place. You may think that fifty years is a long time but we live in a city that was essentially built over sixty years ago. That is how long it takes to build a city.

For the moment all we can do is watch for the signs and adapt to them as we will. We will adapt to them because that is life - but we do not need to let Big Brother tell us how to live our lives. We must take that responsibility for ourselves. We must cherish our area and do our best to understand how it works and what is good and what is bad for it and act accordingly.

The first act we need is commitment. I don’t expect to be here in 2020 but I am working and acting as though I shall be here forever. This is where I live and I shall attempt to do whatever is needed to sustain my environment. That is the way to sustain our neighbourhood. We must use the facilities of the area. We use them or lose them.  And if we lose them we will lose our comfort and security and character and the place will no longer be a desirable place to live.

Colin Walker

Original 4th January 2010

revised 12th February 2010

revised 18th February 2010

revised 28th March 2011

revised 7th October 2012

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