My last post was inspired by a wonderful set of colour photos that recorded the day in 1965 when Pat Phoenix (a.k.a. Elsie Tanner from Coronation Street) came to the Middlefield Lane estate to officially open the Precinct shops there. Since then, the Gainsborough Heritage Association has unearthed another superb photo of the Precinct, which they’ve kindly allowed me to reproduce here:
I’m not certain of this photo’s date although it was probably taken mid to late 1970s. Our attention today is probably first drawn to the scabby square of grass in the foreground, the bald patches of which almost immediately label this scene as that of a ‘typical council estate’, dragging up all the pejorative stuff that continues to flow from our increasingly manipulated prejudice against any aspect of the welfare state. But for me this scene is fringed with joy. It is taken from the end of a little cut-through which led out onto The Precinct as a whole. The white fence on the left marked the end of the back yards attached to the South Parade block of flats. In fact I can certainly date this photo to being taken before 1979 because that year is when The Nolans had their first top 20 hit, and sometime after that – most probably after 1980 when they had their biggest hit, ‘I’m in the Mood for Dancing’ – some wag on the estate sprayed ‘The Nolans are God’ on one of those white panels.
The state of the grass is a puzzle because the bald patches don’t correlate with any particular everyday activity that I can recall – there isn’t, as you might expect, a path worn diagonally across the grass leading to the shops, nor is there a particularly distinctive patch that might have been made by a makeshift goal area. In fact, I don’t remember kids playing here at all – this patch of grass was rather dingy and always too small and too tucked away to do anything useful on. I suppose what I’m trying to say here from the start is that this might well appear to be symptomatic of the council estate stereotype – a rough place, abused – but it is perhaps due to little other than bad drainage and a lack of sunshine, possibly even poor landscaping work from when it was originally done. Any estate – public or private – must have one corner that the planners don’t quite know what to do with for the best.
Look beyond the grass however, and there is The Precinct in all its glory – a typical early 60s Modernist complex of shops, maisonettes, and pedestrianised landscaping – pictured here a decade or so after it was first completed. There’s the ‘Washeteria’ where we used to try and hang out when it was raining, playing a form of ‘Twister’ on the black and white tiles in there, before we were inevitably thrown out by the manager. Then comes ‘Deakins’, the newsagents. Another celebrity connection with The Precinct for the TV nerd amongst us here is that Mr and Mrs Deakin who ran the shop have a daughter – the actress Julia Deakin, known mostly for her role as the permanently sozzled landlady Marsha in Simon Pegg’s cult TV classic ‘Spaced’. For me, Deakins was my regular haunt for buying the Beezer, the Beano and, best of all, TV21, the Gerry Anderson comic offshoot which was my gateway to the future throughout the 60s. About the time this photo was taken, I'd be going to Deakins to buy ‘Sounds’, the now defunct music paper. A few years later, in my late 70s/early 80s post-punk days, I used to get the once brilliant but now nearly defunct itself because it’s rubbish these days NME.
After Deakins came the ‘mini-market’ that took up the two centre units (a ‘Vivo’ when The Precinct first opened, and a Spar much later in the 90s – but I can’t quite tell from this photo whether it was still a Vivo when it was taken), ‘Glanco’ the fruit and veg shop next to that and, finally, the Parkhill Off-Licence referred to the previous post here (although what I failed to mention then was the fact that the owner of this shop came from Sheffield and he named it after the now-iconic Park Hill flats of his home town – a neat, synchronous instance of the post-war modernist zeitgeist).
The Precinct was a typical example of the neighbourhood centre concept that was so dear to post-war planners – a coherently designed and planned amenity placed centrally in the estate amongst open, pedestrianised spaces with the intention to bring a new community together.
At this time the shops were busy and well used.
People did sit on those benches, blokes did pop to the off-licence for twenty Players on their bikes, and kids in shorts and ankle socks did play in the central square. We bombed up and down the ramps there on our bikes and, late 70s onward, on our skateboards. In those days the ramps seemed to be there not out of a present concern for disability access (although this might have been a factor given that the ground floor flats you can just see to the left and right of the shops were designated for elderly residents) but because ‘ramps’ were the future weren't they? Or at least the nearest I was ever going to get to a TV21-style future with the overhead transparent tube walkways and moving pavements that I always imagined we’d have by 2014.
It is a bitter irony for me therefore that an environment which once seemed to be the embodiment of a projected twenty-first century (albeit one based on Stingray and Thunderbirds) was doomed within the first year of the new millennium. A meeting of the West Lindsey District Council Planning Services Committee on Wednesday, 18th October 2000 granted consent to demolish The Precinct. The minutes of that meeting noted that five of the six shop units were vacant, and only one of the maisonnettes was still occupied. The Precinct was in serious decline because of a ‘a long history of low demand’ and ‘serious vandalism’. By then, this was also the story for the estate as a whole. The background to the deterioration of the Middlefield Lane estate reflects that of Gainsborough itself – in the early 1980s the town’s big industries closed with mass redundancies which resulted in a marked social and economic decline. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, WLDC increasingly concentrated ‘problem’ individuals and families in the flats here and across the estate in general. As a consequence, the original fabric and environment of the estate began to deteriorate. Many of the original tenants slowly moved away; those who remained tended to be elderly. Houses and flats were left empty, some were used as ‘emergency’ housing for those deinstitutionalised after the implementation of 'care in the community' schemes, others were squatted and/or trashed.
In 2005, forty years after it was completed to such a star-studded fanfare, The Precinct and much of its wider complex of flats was demolished. It used to sit across the space beyond the two rows of houses you can see below, running more or less along the line of the orange fence behind the van in the near-centre, and looking back down onto the green in the foreground. But now all that's left in its stead is a disjointed, unplanned gap, a ghost roofline of the old block of shops and a few new bungalows that are part of an 'affordable' mortgage 'shared ownership' scheme.