Architecture

“Ideal” Places — Richelieu and Grantown-on-Spey

I don’t know if it is because I spent a lot of my childhood in Welwyn Garden City but I really like towns that have been designed as ideal towns — one man’s dream — models of social engineering. I sense it the moment I enter — the street lay-out, the civic pride — the avenues of trees — the fountains!

The Coronation Fountain, Parkway, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire.

Welwyn Garden City was the brainchild of Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928). He founded the Garden City movement that spawned Letchworth and WGC, probably in an ornamental pond surrounded by flowering cherries! He had a utopian vision — people living happily in harmony with nature, tamed by an enlightened municipal workforce — that is pretty well how I remember it as I grew up there.

Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642) also had a vision (I don’t know enough to examine his motives), but I wonder if Ebenezer ever visited the cardinal’s hometown in Indre-et-Loire, France. The moment we blundered into the small town which carries his name, we knew it was no ordinary place.

Richelieu — a planned town with wide boulevards and squares and a magnificent market hall — the biggest oak framed building I have ever seen.

It reflects the social order of its time — there was a massive palace nearby that was demolished by 1805 when times had changed. The town though survives with its surrounding canals servicing the artisans dwellings and the centrally placed town houses built for the bourgeoisie (currying favour with Richelieu, the man). He was Louis XIII’s first minister — cardinal, politician, patron of the arts — a very powerful man who died of tuberculosis at the age of 57.

The fortified gate to Richelieu (Wikipedia).

I am reminded of all this by our recent sojourn, birdwatching, in Grantown on Spey. As we drove into the town along its wide central vista with its impressive central buildings I thought “this is an ideal town!” And it was.

Grantown on Spey founded in 1765, by Sir James Grant “Good Sir James”. At that time poverty was rife in the Highlands.

Sensibly he started with a linen mill to provide employment — this thrived and bought other trades and services to the town. By 1860 when Queen Victoria visited and stayed, as we did, at the Grant Arms, the population was about 1300. With the advent of the railway the town became a centre for tourists visiting the Highlands, made popular by the Queen.

If I couldn’t live in the country or a walled medieval hotchpotch, I think I might like to live in an “ideal” town.

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