Buckinghamshire’s first new town was not Milton Keynes but nearby Wolverton, a rail company development that was born out of the railway boom of the 1840s – about 130 years before Milton Keynes began its enormous and mushrooming development.
Wolverton was built by the London and Birmingham Railway Company in 1838 as a staging post between the line’s two termini. Four hours on a train without a corridor (and therefore no toilet facilities) was felt to be beyond the endurance of passengers, so a refreshment break was built into the journey.
Victorians took their personal refueling seriously and the busy refreshment rooms became famous. Twenty-seven staff kept the catering operation going and in the course of a year travellers would get through staggering amounts of food and drink including 230,000 cakes, 3,000lbs of coffee, 43,000 pounds of meat, 3,500 bottles of spirits and enough beer to float a boat. To keep the rooms stocked with bacon sandwiches, the station had its own herd of 85 pigs.
Situated halfway between the two main destinations, it was also an ideal point for locomotive fuelling and repair. At first, the area was referred to as Wolverton Station and was described as The London & Birmingham’s “grand central station and locomotive depot.” The first Grand Central station in the world was in Wolverton – and not New York.
The company constructed railway sheds and a locomotive works and laid down streets of slate-roofed, red-bricked terraced houses on a strict grid plan for their workers. There was an obvious pecking order: those with the best jobs got the biggest houses. It brought in workers from across the UK to work in the new town. It provided them with a park, educational facilities and allotments.
The railway was hidden from the town by an enormous brick wall across the road from the town’s main shops. The long wall, red brick of course, is about two metres high and dominates the town centre. As a result, Wolverton looks as though it has been picked up from a northern industrial setting and transplanted into Buckinghamshire. But what it lacks in architectural charm it more than makes up for in fierce local pride, industrial heritage and a thriving, friendly community.
For many years that community was built around the town’s two main employers – a printers and the railway works – known throughout the town simply as The Works. Locomotive building was moved to Crewe and Wolverton became a centre for building and later repairing railway carriages. Today The Works, operated by rail giant Alstom, employs a fraction of the 5,000 or more people (often generations of the same family) who worked there in the past. Wolverton, outside the responsibility of the Milton Keynes Development Council in the 1970s slipped into an economic decline as Milton Keynes boomed. There was a sense in the town that Wolverton had fallen into the shadow of Milton Keynes. Many of the town’s long-standing clubs and societies, shops and even banks were subsumed by the economic miracle taking place a few miles down the road.
As Wolverton declined, its buildings fell into disrepair and dereliction – a sad echo of a once proud past. It took Milton Keynes Partnership and Places for People to revitalise the old industrial area. The brownfield site has now become an award-winning showcase of how to invigorate a historic site –with shops, offices and homes bringing new life to the area.
Wolverton Park accommodates 290 homes – a mix of one, two and three-bedroom apartments, duplexes, penthouses and townhouses. A key part of the project was the refurbishment of the Royal Train Shed and the Triangular Building which date back to 1845 – to create 80 homes and commercial space.
The site includes the park originally built for Works’ employees. It’s bisected by the Grand Union Canal, which means that most of the homes either have park views or canal-side frontages. Originally the park included a gatekeeper’s lodge, a bandstand, a running track, a cycle track a football pitch, tennis courts and a bowling green. As well as the conversions, the scheme include areas of new build up to eight-storeys high and multi-floor parking, which acts as a sound buffer against the west coast railway line.
Construction work was managed by Willmott Dixon Housing, with whom Rolton Group has worked on numerous projects. Rolton Group worked on roads and drainage for the scheme, providing civil and structural engineering services, and carrying out geotechnical investigations of the site.
The site presented opportunities and challenges for the developers. It is constrained on two sides by rail lines and on the other two by roads, one of which is framed by the giant brick wall that originally screened The Works from the town. What’s more, there is a ten-metre difference in height between the east and west sides of the site. The original park area has been retained for public use, although the football club, model car club and bowls club were all relocated to new venues.
The site’s landlocked location means that the developers worked hard to make the future use of the site as inclusive as possible. The development restored access to the old Reading Room by opening up access through the wall on the town side with further pedestrian and vehicle access to make the project open to the rest of the town. The old buildings’ listed status meant that architects RPS Design worked to incorporate the new homes into the existing structures. For example part of the glazed roof of the old Triangular Building was removed and the remaining ironwork and glass now form a shell for 31 new homes. The result is internal townhouses in a new partly covered street, furnished with original Victorian ironwork.
The regeneration of Wolverton Park borrows heavily from the town’s industrial heritage in terms of the colour palettes used, the re-use of the listed buildings and the style of the structures. But the design of the new homes is high tech and environmentally friendly. The homes have an Eco Homes rating of 'Very Good', which calls for a holistic approach that encompasses sound energy conservation, transport issues, minimal pollution, use of materials, water usage, ecology and the health and well-being of occupants.
The homes in the old Royal Train Shed benefit from solar heating and quiet revolution turbines. These striking five-metre high vertical-axis wind turbines work well in an urban environment, where wind speeds are lower and wind directions change frequently. The elegant helical design of the blades virtually eliminates noise and vibration, critical for use on or near buildings. The use of the turbines reduces CO2emissions on site by five per cent.