Archive for January, 2013

Toad’s Hole Valley

It may well be that the fate of Toad’s Hole Valley on the outskirts of Hove was sealed 75 years ago when it was purchased by local builders BW Cook (Brighton) Ltd in 1937. Now that a ‘Vision Document’ has been released by Enplan to pave the way for the development of ‘toads hole valley [sic]’, what is certain is that the desire to build on this unloved piece of countryside is more pressing now than ever before.

At 98 acres, Toad’s Hole Valley is Brighton & Hove’s largest potential development site. But it is an untouched piece of the South Downs, directly adjacent to the South Downs National Park.

Whilst I am personally opposed to the development of the site, which Adam Trimingham from The Argus called a “scruffy stretch of land” back in 1999, I do appear to be in a minority amongst local commentators. Neither David Robson from the Regency Society nor Tony Mernagh from the Brighton & Hove Economic Partnership place the same level of emphasis as me on the importance of the land as a buffer to urban sprawl. I believe though that the bar should be set incredibly high when building over green spaces on the edges of urban areas.

The most recent large-scale development to take place locally was the New England Quarter. I wonder how different the 21-acre scheme would have been if its best feature, the Greenway, had been built to snake around the whole site. It is too late to change it now of course so the lesson must be that the fundamental decisions, upon which a successful scheme relies, must be taken at a very early stage.

If Toad’s Hole Valley were to be developed, my dream development would be high-density. There would be no social housing, just homes of all different shapes and sizes to suit the differing needs of those who choose to live there. Cash saved from subsidising social housing would be poured into better landscaping and architecture. Indeed, each large building or terrace would be designed by a different local architect. Without uniformity, the buildings would evolve gracefully, without detriment to a composition or rigid theme.

Enplan’s plans for the site do inspire to some degree, especially the proposed high school and adjacent ecology park. If the land is to be built on, let’s not rush it. A few more years will make little difference.

Shipping Container Homes

Although I don’t believe that a single shipping container home currently exists in Brighton & Hove, the general concept has been around for some time. Most of those that I have seen though have been built as architectural statements, rather than as practical housing.

A project has been proposed by Brighton Housing Trust (BHT) for some very practical shipping container housing on an undeveloped site beside Brighton Station, which I first assumed to be Block J, the last of the empty New England Quarter plots. The site in question is actually part of the yard of G. E. Richardson & Sons, the scrap metal dealer, that opens onto New England Road below the bridges.

The scheme, which should go to planning soon and, if improved, be completed by late spring, is to consist of 36 shipping containers; each for a single occupant. There is to be one block of three storeys at the front of the site and a second of five storeys to the rear. The already modified containers have been sourced from Rotterdam by Sussex-based QED, the property company that owns the site and that was largely responsible for the New England Quarter development. The purchase will be completed if planning permission is won. There are 100 available in total so perhaps more could be bought if the project is a success.

The modular nature of the containers will make for a quick construction process – and vice versa when they are taken down in a few years’ time. They can be stacked easily and services connected without any fuss. The containers will be reached via a landscaped garden and the upper storeys via external staircases. At the very top will be green roofs with water-harvesting facilities.

An example of this sort of accommodation abroad is the Keetwonen scheme in Amsterdam where 1,000 shipping containers have been turned into some incredibly desirable housing for students. The Brighton scheme though is to be designated
‘move-on accommodation’ to cater for a specific need within BHT’s range of different housing options.

Although I was optimistic about this idea from the outset, my first reaction was actually that it would somehow annoy those in certain quarters. At 25m2, each of these homes will actually be larger than many flats locally. They will be well insulated and newly decorated. It is hard to see how any sensible person could be against this wonderful proposal.

The Haunting of Tabitha Grey

I last wrote about Preston Manor in the context of mourning in the Victorian age. An event at the house, with a talk from local historian Sarah Tobias, confirmed that the aftermath of a death in Victorian times was a more creepy affair than the death itself.

My latest visit involved a tour of the building with Vanessa Curtis whose novel for teenagers The Haunting of Tabitha Grey was published earlier this year. Her ghost story features Weston House and the Thomas-Fulfords, rather than Preston Manor and its former residents the Thomas-Stanfords, so it’s pretty obvious what was in mind.

Preston Manor is rather fascinating in that visitors enter the building straight into one expansive room that takes up a large chunk of the ground floor. This arrangement was clearly not the original layout. Four ionic pillars, which replaced a wall, easily give this away. Past the pillars is a 17th century light grey marble fireplace.

At the rear of the building is the morning room which served as a sitting room for Lady Ellen Thomas-Stanford, whose death in 1932 signalled the end of Preston Manor’s time as a grand family home. The room, like every nook and cranny in the building, is filled with period furniture, paintings and ornaments. One most unglamorous feature though is a plain mirror which is situated outside the room’s doorway. It was used by servants who had to look their best for Lady Ellen.

A long staircase leads to the first floor. What is now the south-west room is essentially a small library though it did once serve as a bedroom. Vanessa’s book draws attention to the views across the manor’s gardens, where croquet-playing ladies can be easily imagined on the flat lawns.

I’ve always been fascinated by Ellen Thomas-Stanford’s bedroom, which is at the front of the building. It contains several attractive pieces of furniture, along with a photograph of one of the family’s beloved dogs. But a rather crude cabling system – which allowed Lady Ellen to operate a night bolt from the comfort of her bed – appeals to the engineer in me.

Whilst our tour was more architectural than ghostly, I was reminded of the more sinister elements of the historic building when I overheard the lady at reception recount the story of her first day at work. She heard “Kill, kill” just before a door slammed and the lights went out.