Horse-drawn canal boats passing through the double lock at the east entrance to the Islington tunnel on the Regent’s Canal, London c.1827

The preserve of the forelock-tuggers

Modern Buildings in Britain offers an encyclopaedia of potential future losses

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Heritage: A History of How We Conserve Our Past, James Stourton (Head of Zeus, £40)

Robert Aickman, John Betjeman, John Cornforth, Stafford Cripps, Richard Crossman, Margot Fonteyn, Billa Harrod, Jennifer Jenkins, Simon Jenkins, Jim Monaghan, Tom Rolt, Gavin Stamp, John Summerson and Swampy. 

This is part of James Stourton’s galère of persons who have, one way and another, done what the wantonly destructive, crassly philistine, risibly-named Conservative party seldom does — conserve. 

Duncan Sandys, Geoffrey Rippon and Michael Heseltine were notable exceptions. The dismal norm as Kulchur Secretary is some creature like the scouse slapper Nadine Dorries, or a statesman of the stature of Stephen Dorrell whose proudest achievement was to rename “Care In The Community” as “Spectrum Of Care”. He also announced he would not want his children to grow up in London. 

Such anti-urbanism is commonplace amongst the English bourgeoisie. It is of little moment, save when professed by out-of-their-depth electoral fodder who make policy according to their bias. Stourton rightly notes that English towns and cities fare poorly against those of continental Europe, which apparently compensates by trashing its coasts. 

Really? His comparative characterisation of the English coast as “a triumph” is ignorant. Has he ever driven from Southampton to Brighton? From Lymington to Poole? Given his shaky knowledge of southern England’s bungaloid miles, it seems improbable. Can he not read a map? Winchester is not at the “head” of Southampton Water; it’s 12 miles north. If it has a “head”, it is Totton whose contributions to heritage are a football team (the logo is a stag with a ball in its tines) and one of Britain’s two extant tide mills (trading, of course, as the Eling Tide Mill Experience).

Southampton Water is not the greatest natural harbour in England. The laurel goes to Poole. Brownsea Island in that harbour possesses all the obvious components of “heritage” — undemanding prettiness, picturesque, furzy and quasi-martial importance: it was part of Henry VIII’s coast defences and a site of the fledgling Scout movement’s sleepovers. 

The island’s castle, its many additions, blockhouses and piers are an olla podrida, a farrago of crenelations and illiterate fenestration. That it is listed Grade II evidently suggests there is something amiss with a system whose rubber stamp is inclined to favour dubious historical association (especially if royal, ecclesiastical or military) over aesthetics. Britain’s social hierarchy and blood worship is made explicit in what is preserved. 

Stourton repeatedly shows that there exists a consensual appetite for forelock amongst members of multitudinous committees, “philanthropists”, pressure groups and the ever-expanding curatocracy. At the same time, countless variegated and opposed tastes are reflected in the causes that are espoused. 

On one hand, there’s a petition that a minor renaissance painting be saved from the clutches of Johnny Maecenas. On the other, populist anomalies (supposedly people’s culture) get special pleading: unemployed factory workers dressed as jolly unemployed factory workers of 150 years ago stage a kiddy-friendly re-enactment and gross misrepresentation. The days of laudanum and pneumoconiosis were less quaint. 

With canal restorers, he no longer dices with the possibility of lèse-majesté

“Heritage”, it becomes clear, can qualify anything, even land use. Insufficient attention to its conflicting demands by post-war governments — intensive food production versus recreational facility — resulted in an “erosion of spiritual values in the ordinary countryside”. Although this is a simplistic sentiment that might be expected of a writer such as Henry Williamson and his National Socialist otter, Stourton makes the unexceptionable point that at the time of the Kinder Scout mass trespass, half the population of England lived in cities within 50 miles of that Chatsworth-owned moorland — yet only one per cent of it was open to the public. 

The inequity of ownership remains. Seventy years ago, Augustus John advised in his autobiography Chiaroscuro that we ought not to admire hedges and drystone walls no matter how handsome the patchwork they form, for they are instruments of ownership. Stourton overlooks John. He comes up with the familiar justification that great estates have spared the country mass housing. Familiar but, frankly, bollocks. 

A few years ago, the Longford estate in south Wiltshire conducted a hilariously mendacious campaign to build houses out of sight of the castle on frequently-flooded land. The culprit was an artificial branch of the Hampshire Avon called Navigation Straight, a canalisation of the pre-canal age. 

When the author gets on to canal restorers, he no longer dices with the possibility of lèse-majesté: bearded, folky, real-ale-drinking geezers do not demand deference. Tom Rolt began exploring canals, many in desuetude, during the inauspicious winter of 1939–40. He later became a popular writer on Victorian civil engineering. He saw the worth of reusing canals and their buildings as if they were earthworks or cathedrals, which had also outlived their purpose. 

His sometime friend and founder of the Inland Waterways Association, Robert Aickman, proselytised for their recreational potential. Rolt wrote, “for me they represented the equivalent of some uncharted, Arcadian island inhabited by simple, friendly and unselfconscious natives where I could free myself from all that I found so uncongenial in the modern world. 

Both these men had equally eccentric and strong-willed wives who left them. Rolt’s became an assistant clown in Billy Smart’s circus, whilst Aickman’s ended up as a nun in a Hertfordshire convent. 

Locks and lift bridges may be low-tech, but they are perishable and precious

Stourton confuses the Stratford-upon-(Warwickshire)-Avon canal with the Kennet and (Bristol) Avon canal. He is more on the money when he notes that nobody knew how to go about restoring them. One leading restorer, the architect David Hutchings, is described by the current chair of the Stratford canal as “a complete lunatic with almost no awareness of health and safety”. That may be a sort of commendation. It is ultimately due to hands-on companions of the awkward squad such as Hutchings that aqueducts, lift bridges, flights of locks live on. 

They may be low-tech, but they are perishable and precious. They require maintenance to an extent that paintings, objets de vertu and manuscripts don’t. Furthermore, no matter how architecturally notable they may be, warehouses and lock-keepers’ houses are bereft of the supposed worthiness that attaches to great churches and opulent palaces. 

They also lack advocates who will argue on behalf of that which is not yet dignified as heritage. Gavin Stamp observed, “to a remarkable extent the history of conservation has been the art of keeping one step ahead of public opinion”. It is, for instance, a given that public opinion is sympathetic to, even enthusiastic about, the modernism of the 1960s and 70s. 

Whether the deadbeats of Westminster will acknowledge it is moot: the more open-minded of them ought to study Owen Hatherley’s tremendous Modern Buildings in Britain, an encyclopaedia of potential future losses.

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