29 April, 2014

Wythenshawe - Manchester's garden town

It's a long journey from the slums of Manchester to the not-quite garden city of Wythenshawe.  Not quite garden city because the suburb for seventy thousand people was never intended to be self contained.  Thanks for this blogpost must go to all at William Temple Church especially Stephen, Tony and Andy who made me feel so welcome and took great trouble to show me round their 'turf'. So it would be fitting to at least begin with the start of Wythenshawe in 1926. Wythenshawe began almost by chance when Ernest and Sheena Simon bought Wythenshawe Hall in 1926 and presented it to Manchester 'for the public good'. Alderman Jackson persuaded the Council to buy 2500 acres of farmland to plan a garden suburb council estate. Specifically rejecting the Vienese solution of flats Alderman Jakson brought in Barry Parker from Letchworth as planner and architect. The innovation in Wythenshawe was neighbourhood units with shops, churches and the usual amenities in neighbourhoods rather than all travelling to the centre for the civic amenities. This is demonstrated in small parades of shops in the communities although schools seem a little more haphazard. The main shopping centre is a bit small for an estate of 70000 people. But it has an Asda superstore (formerly the Co-op) and some of the shops such a town needs.  There is also the forum which has childcare, a library and a sports centre including swimming pool.  The theatre that it once had has gone, as nobody really wanted to see plays in Wythenshawe. 
The other innovation was parkway roads to separate traffic and pedestrians, although this is rather less effective. The housing on the estate is quite modest: in the early parts of the estate the feeling is cottagey, often with mansard roofs to economise on bricks, interest provided by occasional gables on the ends of terrace blocks. The later post world war two houses are a bit more ambitious but a lot more uniform with fewer twiddly bits. However for the Manchester slum dweller the gorgeous, green surroundings with blossoming trees (I came to Wythenshawe in blossom time) this new world must have represented a paradise, although they might have found it hard to get to work - it's a long way to the city centre, something that cars would alleviate in the post war world but not for all. Some tenants did dread being sent to Wythenshawe as it would make their commute to work a nightmare, although there were some factories there from day one. However even as others abandoned the people to their fate the Church did not. The first church to be built was St Michael and All Angels Lawton Moor. And what a church - unique in its star shape and with a huge concrete cross on the top it was designed by Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day who we met at St Saviours Eltham. The church and adjacent vicarage was built in 1935-6. The East window is filled with hand painted stained glass showing angels - 128 panels plus the smaller panels at the top, each showing one or two angels. That's quite a lot of angels! The slender concrete columns support the roof and a huge chandelier and the whole church is surmounted by a concrete cross. It's a wonderful building. The choir stalls are very plain and simple in style: They look as though they are made of plywood but they are quarter sawn oak, the most expensive cut of oak. The outside of the church is hard to photograph but take it from me it still looks good after all this time.

William Temple Church had the foundation stone laid in 1963 and was consecrated in 1965 so it celebrates 50 years next year 2015. Designed by one of the most influential modernist church Architects, George Pace, the church is opposite the Wythenshawe Forum and Civic Centre in the heart of the town. We met George Pace's work with the bell tower at Chester Cathedral, but this church is exceptional. The font is firmly in the centre of the church in front of the sanctuary. The congregation sits in four blocks using pews reclaimed from a previous church with hassocks in a striking modernist design. The new fittings for the church use black iron looking rather spiky and what appears to be limed oak.  Attending the morning service the space works quite well with decent acoustics and accomodation for the whole congregation round the altar rail.  The church is pleased to offer baptisms to all and weddings to those eligible.    So all in all a worthwhile visit to Manchester's take on the garden suburb.