Some good to be found in the simpler designs of buildings

Thorp Estate
Thorp Estate

ANYTHING built between 1945 and 1985 tends to be plain.

Buildings of this period typically consist of rectangles with little in the way of visual interest. The Post Office in Oldgate and the Telephone Exchange come readily to mind. They are not without a sort of puritanical dignity, but their best friend wouldn’t call them beautiful.

The Telephone Exchange is an industrial building with brick panels to make it a little more acceptable. It has one insignificant doorway on the front, no chimneys and no eaves, and although the glazed units form a repeat pattern, its flat frontage does not lead to a play of light and shade. If it wasn’t for the landscaping at the front, it would be a hard building to live with.

The older streets of the Thorp Estate provide several examples of architectural rhythm, and it isn’t accidental. Building affordable houses on standard-sized plots to comply with sanitary regulations led almost inevitably to streets of nearly identical terraced houses.

Transport, or lack of it, was an important consideration. When people had to walk to work or school, or to the shops, towns had to be compact. It was only with the advent of buses, and later cars, that ordinary people in Morpeth could live further out in houses set in bigger plots.

But there was another factor. The landowner, Mrs Isabella Thorp, née Fenwick, laid down a specification covering external materials, roofs, the building line and the height of the dwarf walls round the front gardens.

In Olympia Hill, for example, the only thing allowed to project beyond the building line is the bay. Porches are not allowed, and the residents by and large still respect the rules that Mrs Thorp laid down over a hundred years ago. The result, in Hood Street, Northbourne Avenue, Olympia Gardens, Olympia Hill and Fenwick Grove, is a sequence of chimney stacks, eaves, windows, doorways, and dwarf walls that create a rhythm of shape, light and shade.

THERE used to be a picturesque old pub in Newgate Street, called the Nag’s Head.

It had two wings projecting into the street, each one complete with Tudor-style half-timbering and overhangs.

In T&G Allan, The First Hundred and Fifty Years, Rodney Allan tells what happened next: ‘The board’s policy was to open further branches in the north-east, … The new towns like Cramlington and Killingworth were considered, but the forecasts of trading figures in traditional centres seemed more reliable, and in 1970 Morpeth became the first of a new generation of branches.

‘The company took a long lease on the site of the Grey Nag’s Head from the Dean and Chapter of Durham, demolished the old building and replaced it with a modern two-storey shop. The demolition of the old pub was not well received by local antiquarians; while the work was in progress one of these suggested hopefully to one of the contractors’ men, ‘I expect you have found some interesting things in there’, receiving the reply, ‘Aye, six different types of woodworm’.

‘The company intended to trade only on the ground floor, leasing the first floor to another retailer, but after a few years, results and prospects were felt to justify expansion and the Toy and Fancy departments were moved upstairs.’

Allan’s new shop was a worthy attempt to use traditional materials in a modern way. The frontage was sandstone with a deep fascia of what looked like grey marble, the roof of natural slate, but with no eaves, and the windows framed on each side with brick, the overall result being, as Alec Tweddle once said in a lecture to Morpeth Antiquarian Society, ‘to no effect whatever’.

But then, on Sunday, December 20, 1987: ‘The men in Martins the butchers in Newgate Street, Morpeth, working early preparing turkeys for Christmas, realised that what they had thought was sunrise was a fire in Allan’s’ shop across the road. Heat from faulty wiring in a heating unit had built up to such an extent that it blew out one of the front windows; the resulting fireball ripped through the whole of the ground floor in a flash.

‘Such of the stock as was not completely destroyed was ruined, coated in black, oily soot … The store was re-opened at the end of March and provided the first view of the newly-designed company fascia, uniform and carrier bags.

Mercifully, the ground floor now has a traditional shop front, with timber fascia and pilasters. You can still see the original design at Lin-Mor, next door. In fact, being smaller, Lin-Mor actually provides an attractive foil for the more traditional premises in the rest of the street.