Sometimes you need to put distance and time between you and a particular place to appreciate it and sometimes a place creeps back up on you unsuspectedly. The guide to Cwmbran featured above was published in 1973, the year I left home and I never returned to live there again. Talking about his home town,Croydon, John Grindrod makes these observations.
…I knew nothing about the town I’d grew up in and that it was actually emblematic of a whole moment in postwar planning and architecture that was at once massive and everywhere and at the same time culturally completely invisible.
This has also been the fate of Cwmbran, my home town. I had become interested in 20th Century architecture via a number of Twitter/Blog accounts and through reading the excellent post war history books of David Kynaston. This in course led me to John Grindrods book “Concretopia: A Journey Around the Rebuilding of Postwar Britain”. This included a large section on the development of the New Towns and surprisingly included my home town Cwmbran. I say “surprisingly ” as in most coverage of the post war new towns, Cwmbran New Town hardly gets a mention. The focus is usually on the outer London developments (Harlow etc) with maybe a nod to Peterlee and Cumbernauld. So it was refreshing to find that John Grindrod had taken the trouble not only to include it in his book, but had visited and talked to people locally involved in the development of the new town. Like many of my friends in the late 60s/early 70s, I had left and gone to college and only returned on fleeting family visits. So John Grindrod’s book led to me wanting to find out more about the development of Cwmbran and John kindly recommended, Phillip Riden’s “Rebuilding a Valley”. I also remembered a local publication I already had on the history of the new town, “The trains don’t stop here anymore”.
These give very contrasting views of Cwmbran’s development. The first, written as an official history of the Cwmbran Development Corporation, the second giving more of a view from local residents, many of them – as my family – original Cwmbran village residents who saw, sometimes with jaundiced eyes, the new town growing around them.
According to Phillip Riden ….my father grew up in the “worst housing anywhere in the designated area” right next door to his eventual employer, the Guest, Keen and Nettlefold Ltd (GKN) iron foundry. A check of the census data shows the area mainly inhabited with families from Ireland, such as my fathers.
“Between Cwmbran & Pontnewydd stood Forgehammer, depleted by the demolitions of the 1930’s but still isolated in its decay and its ill -repute. These were some of the worse houses of the working class, and the locals seem to have been regarded with some trepidation by the people of both villages” From: The trains don’t stop here anymore…A pictorial history of Cwmbran from the 1930’s (Village Publishing 1985)
However, by 1952 my parents were living in Cocker Avenue, a ribbon like development of council houses on the extreme edge of the original village, with a park to the front and behind nothing but fields all the way to the top of Mynydd Maen, our local “mountain” – in reality a long ridge forming the eastern edge of the South Wales coalfield.
As I grew up the fields behind us slowly disappeared to be replaced with the new town neighbourhoods of St Dials, Greenmeadow, Fairwater, Fairhill and Coed Eva as Cwmbran developed to be a dormitory town for the eastern valley. The idea was as John Grindrod puts it,
to marry the best of the countryside with the best of the town. For instance, they adopted the idea of ‘neighbourhood units’, areas for anything up to 7,000 residents – a number derived from the population that could be supported by a single primary school. The unit would have its own small centre – a parade of shops, a pub and a community centre – and the neighbourhood itself would be made up from various smaller clusters of housing. John Grindrod “Concretopia”
These neighbourhood centres were never very successful, probably because many of the planned facilities never materialised and most people went to the town centre for their shopping. In fact in the long term this has turned out to be the towns major asset as the covered shopping parades and free parking have continued to make Cwmbran the prime shopping location in the eastern valley. To me these were exciting times and the building sites of the new estates and the new town centre became a giant playground, with always some scaffolding available to climb. For my mother, however, the changes were not so welcome and she never got over the fact that people she didn’t know were passing our front door. The new town centre provided a great meeting place when we became teenagers, mouching around the record departments of Boots or David Evan’s or just hanging about General Rees Square listening to John Peel on a transistor radio.
The architecture, now much in vogue, was a backdrop, it was just there an accompaniment to our pursuits. The thought that people might study it, visit it, write about it would have seemed absurd. But I can remember feeling proud of it and knowing we were different – and disliked – by other areas of south wales.
Hywel Pontin, director of Llantarnam Grange Arts Centre, says Cwmbran has become a magnet for students. “What you have is some absolutely classic 1960s urban architecture … and the outlying estates are very representative of their time.”
The feature which made Cwmbran hard to build on, it’s sloping valley sides, to my mind set it apart from other new towns, with the Mynydd Maen ridge nearly always visible as a green backdrop.
The town has changed a lot since I last lived there, and changes with every visit. What they have done to the Congress Theatre is a crass destruction of its original stark concrete lines, and the covering of the walkways looks a bit tacky, though very practical in a welsh town that was dubbed “windy city” due to the funnelling effect of the original town centre architecture.
Some of the original housing, though innovative at the time has not fared well. The Greenmeadow neighbourhood for instance, was built with flat roofs as standard, not a great idea in the south wales climate.
Lots of other mistakes were made with the original planning, such as the cavalier treatment of the original village centre (side lined, ignored) and the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal (filled in, and a road built over it). Many of the original low rise flats have had new pitched roofs retro fitted and the iconic Tower – originally the tallest building in Wales – has been re-clad in brilliant white.
The new towns were a response to the post war housing crisis. Lewis Silkin the Minister responsible for New Towns designated under the 1946 New Towns Act described the challenge: “They (new towns) set out to show that we in Britain could do something better than soulless suburbia…” Growing up there, as I did between 1953 – 1973 I saw a village of 13,000 transformed into a town of around 50,000 people. It was definitely not soulless, with plenty to do for young people and families, especially via the forward looking, purpose built, Community Colleges attached to the schools. I enjoyed my childhood, though the planned swimming pool and College of Technology and that ever present of 1960’s town plans, the helipad, never materialised. I don’t see the town through a rose tinted haze as it was hard going and tough at times and you quickly learnt to avoid the underpasses after dark…
However I think it more than achieved its original aim to provide dormitory accommodation for people working throughout the eastern valley. How its doing now I can’t say as I’ve been away too long, however the local council still promotes a positive future for the town.
“We’re very proud of Cwmbran’s success as a new town that has continually bucked the trend. Most notably, it’s been one of the few towns in the UK where housing and retail demand have thrived in recent years and looking ahead at the plans for the future, I believe it’s very well placed to continue it’s remarkable growth and success.” Bob Wellington Torfaen Council 2014
Oh, and there’s that Goldie Looking Chain video…. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dvuxYxmlfrc Further reading Phillip Riden, Rebuilding a Valley, Cwmbran Development Corporation, 1988 Jonathan Preece and Mel Withered (editors), “The trains don’t stop here anymore” Village Publishing 1985 Frank Schaffer, The New Town Story, Paladin 1972 John Grindrod, Concretopia, Old St, 2013 http://www.cwmbranlife.co.uk http://dirtymodernscoundrel.blogspot.co.uk https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com https://municipaldreams.wordpress.com/2013/11/05/stevenage-new-town-building-for-the-new-way-of-life/ http://www.jonestheplanner.co.uk http://www.c20society.org.uk