Stevenage: 1999


This is a tea towel that was part of my leaving present when I left POhWER, an advocacy organisation I worked for.  However, it is one of those tea towels that makes links between various other parts of my life and therefore has some very special memories for me.  I can almost hear Steve and Liz, friends of mine who worked with me in Stevenage, cringe at that last sentence.

When I went to Swansea University, I did a degree in Geography and Sociology.  One of the modules that I did for two years was Urban Social Geography and a significant part of that was about the development of the New Towns during 1950’s and 1960’s, following the New Towns Act of 1946.  The government recognised that there was a huge need for new housing after the second world war: partly because of the bomb damage in places like London and Liverpool, partly because of the poor state of the housing stock and partly because of the increase in population.  There were 28 New Towns identified; these were not completely ‘new build’ but constituted the addition of small self-contained communities onto existing small towns and villages.  I chose to look at Stevenage and Cumbernauld (in Scotland) in more detail.  I have to say, for this piece of work, I received the highest mark of all my course work (and I had never visited either place until many, many years later). The Abercrombie Plan, which was the blueprint for the New Towns Act, called for a ring of New Towns, around London initially.  Stevenage was designated as the first New Town on 1 August 1946. The plan, as with all New Towns, was to have small additional communities, each with it’s own shopping centre, community hall and pub, within easy walking distance of parks and open woodland and a place of worship.  Each community would have it’s own primary school and several communities would share a secondary school.  Simple.  Sounds good. The proposal for Stevenage met with a huge amount of opposition.  There were protest marches, petitions and a referendum; all showed a significant opposition.  Residents called for meetings with Labour Government ministers.  But, of course, at this time, before it became a New Town, Stevenage was very small, so it had a very small voice, less than a population of 7000.  Lewis Silkin, a Labour Government minister came to meet a delegation (including a ‘sit-in’) at the Town Hall.  His words were “It’s no good your jeering, it’s going to be done”.  Consultation is so good!!  He did promise that the new communities would surround the Old Town, rather than demolish the Old Town.  So what happened? Six new communities were developed, as planned, over the following 20 or so years but the first building to be knocked down was the old Town Hall where the protesters met with Lewis Silkin, a promise not kept.

Things about Stevenage that you might not know: (a) The Pied Piper pub in Broadwater is the only pub in Britain to have been opened by the Queen (b) The pedestrianised town centre was the first purpose-built, traffic-free shopping zone in Britain (c) Lewis Hamilton, Jack Wilshere and Ian Poulter were born in Stevenage – obviously a good place for sports people (d) Stevenage has the tallest street lights in Britain (e) EM Forster lived there (f) The Woodland Trust rate Stevenage as the best town in Britain for access to woodland; 99.9% of the population are within two miles of woodland over 5 acres in size.  This is better than the New Forest. (g) Stevenage had the first segregated network of cycle tracks (h) Stevenage was in the Domesday Book; it’s Old English name meaning ‘a place at the strong oak’ and an oak tree is at the centre of it’s Coat of Arms (i) In 1281, Stevenage was granted a Royal Charter to hold a weekly market and an annual fair, which are still held in the High Street (j) In 1986, 2000 silver Roman coins were discovered when a housing estate was built at Chells Manor (k) The earliest signs of settlement in Stevenage are the Roman remains from the 1st Century AD and during the development of Stevenage as a New Town a lot of Roman remains were unearthed (l) Stevenage was a Stagecoach stop on the Roman road that follows the AI (m) Stevenage, as part of it’s development, was designed with as few traffic lights as possible, only to be replaced by a huge number of roundabouts (large, small, mini, double, multiple and treble) which are in fact a feature of the whole of Hertfordshire and many of the New Towns.

With all this history and social development you would think that Stevenage was the place for me; I love a bit of history. All the ‘hype’ about New Towns would suggest that Stevenage would be a fascinating place.  Charles Dickens wrote in 1861 “The village street was like most other village streets: wide for it’s height, silent for it’s size, and drowsy in the dullest degree”.  Personally, I can think of no other way of describing Stevenage than as souless, concrete, cold, full of the most annoying and badly designed roundabouts, totally without atmosphere.  The communities of shops, community centres and pubs were all identical.  You could drive around Stevenage and get lost very easily because everywhere looked the same.  Stevenage, in my opinion, was ugly.

So how did I get to know Stevenage?  That’s a long story.  Are you ready?  In 1996, I was working in an advocacy organisation in Leicester.  I’d been there 6 years, set it up from scratch and really enjoyed it. Then one day in November my husband, John, dropped dead, suddenly and unexpectedly.  Dead within 12 minutes of an ambulance being called.  It was a hugely difficult time and whatever anyone says, if you go through something like that you are never the same person again.  You can go through that dark tunnel, come out the other side, live a really fulfilling life, enjoy yourself once more but you are never the same.  Being bereaved, you become hyper-sensitive to what is happening around you.  People don’t know what to say to you but I was aware that people were waiting for me ‘to get over it’, to return to normal.  When you are the boss, that is a big pressure to bear because I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  My decision was, taken without consultation with anyone, that I had to change jobs, start afresh, preferably out of Leicester.  Anyone will tell you that if you are bereaved you should not make any big decisions!  Over the next few months I applied for a lot of jobs, filling in long application forms; jobs in Edinburgh, Newcastle, Bristol, Harrogate, London, Wakefield….I withdrew most of the applications before I knew if I had even been shortlisted.  Then I saw a job in Hertfordshire with POhWER, an advocacy organisation based in Stevenage.  It actually sounded like a great job, a job that I could do and I worked out that I could commute.  Commuting would take a bit of time but then I needed something to occupy my time and I probably wasn’t in the right frame of mind to move house.

On the way to the interview, I practiced my answer to the question “Why have you applied for the job?”.  I thought all that stuff about bereavement was a bit dramatic but in the end I told the truth – I needed to change my job, I needed to get out of Leicester  and I could take my time about whether or not to move house.  The interview was at the Novotel in Stevenage, everything happened in the Novotel.  As soon as I met the interview panel I knew I wanted the job and that is how I got to actually go to Stevenage and see the New Town policy in action.

I was based in Chells (one of those 6 communities) but my job involved managing projects across the whole of Hertfordshire – Ware, London Colney, Welwyn, Potters Bar and St Albans.  Stevenage, itself, might have been naff but the job was great – very challenging, lots of great people and two friends of mine from Leicester (Steve and Liz) later joined POhWER so were company on the long commute.  The best part of my memories of Stevenage was working with, and for, Dave Morris.  Dave was a disabled man who was the Chief Executive.  He changed my life; he changed my way of thinking; he was a role model.  He was an activist in the disability movement nationally; he was a great advocate of campaigning against assisted suicide and assisted dying; he had set up an organisation to enable disabled people to live independently with care designed around their needs; he was a campaigner for Direct Payments and the Independent Living Fund.  He was a man with the most outrageous T-shirts; he loved heavy metal music, art, film directing, travelling on narrowboats in France and beer, especially beer.  He was a fan of real ale.  He was passionate about access to education and always claimed that he wasn’t fortunate to get to university because he had no choice about his education; he went to Nottingham University because it was the only university that could cater for his needs.  He hated ‘specialist’ education of any sort.  He had a great sense of humour, didn’t suffer fools gladly, did not tolerate poor quality services.  He made POhWER a superb organisation at that time.  I had a two year contract and as the two years were coming to an end I was offered a permanent contract.  By that time I had had enough of commuting and started looking for other jobs but would only leave if I found the job of my dreams, which I did.  I was sad to leave POhWER and had a great leaving do with this tea towel at the centre.  I was sad to leave Dave but met up with him for many years after I left.  He became the Equality Advisor to the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone and was an advisor to the London Olympics.  He sadly died in 2010.  I miss him greatly.

This tea towel represents the old and the new of Stevenage: the Roman road, Stagecoaches, the charter for the market and the fair as well as the hideous clocktower of the New Town.  It is a very special tea towel with very special memories even though I think Stevenage is one of the least attractive places in Britain.

Update: 2 November 2015

One of the exciting ‘side effects’ of my Tea Towel Blog is that sometimes friends of mine contact me to add their memories to my thoughts.  In relation to Stevenage, Steve rang me.  For over 18 months Steve and I travelled daily from Leicester to Stevenage by car (my car, since Steve didn’t drive and I was still able to do so), starting at about 6.45 am and not getting home until about 7pm.  When he rang, we talked about how we actually managed to while away the time on those journeys.  Steve reminded me that I introduced him to Radio 4 (being much younger than me, he was usually a Radio I  listener although I understand that with the passing of time he has joined the Radio 4 brigade).  Steve would always try and ‘nod off’; if, on the other hand, you are a car driver there is nothing more annoying than your passengers falling asleep so I made great efforts to keep him awake.  In the evenings the journeys were more about ‘therapy’, off-loading the day so by the time you got home Stevenage was a distant memory.  Most of the conversations started with “You cannot tell anyone this….”: this was about secret weddings, new relationships, awful social workers, people we didn’t get on with, situations that we may not have handled in the best way and other things of little consequence to the overall scheme of things.  But conversation never dried up.  If the journey was a little longer than ususal I was able to introduce Steve to the Archers on Radio 4, something he was not familiar with and I would probably go as far as to say that he hated (and still does apparently).  I had forgotten that Steve’s love life was always of interest to me and he was skillfully able to avoid telling me anything – didn’t stop me asking!!

The 168 miles round trip, to and from Stevenage, could be done by three different routes: MI to Junction 10 and through Luton, A47 to Peterborough and south onto the AI or A6 to Market Harborough and then onto A14 and A1.  If we did the A6 route, we passed a Little Chef restaurant just outside Market Harborough.  There were never any cars parked outside of it; we could never understand how it managed to survive.  Steve, Liz (who later joined us) and I promised ourselves that we would have a Christmas celebration there to help them out; at least we knew we didn’t have to book! And at Christmas 1999 that is just what we did.  How sad is that?  There was also a fish and chip shop in Desborough which had our custom on a number of occasions, especially when the journey had taken longer than expected.  What memories!! Thanks for the phone call, Steve and thanks to the tea towel for reminding me.

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