I’ve been living in Westbury for around 5 years now but my relationship with the town goes back to 2003 when I was the English Heritage manager responsible for the White Horse. It’s a funny old place. Most people simply drive through it on the busy A350 , a route which doesn’t show the town in its best light. There is an historic core which is pretty much hidden from the drivers passing through. This means that not only the commuters and travellers using the A350, but even the new residents of the many houses built in the last 10 years, are unaware of the history of the town in which they live.
Despite nearly doubling in size, like many towns it has suffered a massive decline in its retail offer with just a small number of mostly small independent shops (baker, butcher, chemist, cards and stationery) and a range of charity and fast food shops. It does of course have the wonderful Aladdin’s Cave, Davies store where you can find pretty much everything from a tap washer to a clothes airer, to baking and sugar craft essentials along with plants and garden equipment; without it Westbury would be much poorer.
At a recent consultation session I led for the Westbury Neighbourhood Plan it was sad to hear so many older residents talking wistfully of the range of shops that there used to be and which are no more. I guess this would be common in most small UK towns. When asked for suggestions to improve the town it was clear that they simply wanted a return to the past. The change has been so rapid for those people that they cannot conceive of any other more positive future for the town. Many of them clearly felt that there was no hope for the town and that “they” had given up on Westbury.
Undoubtedly Westbury has not benefitted from any major public investment for many years. A failed attempt in 2009 at a by-pass which would have compromised the setting of that famous White Horse appears to have resulted in Wiltshire Council washing its hands of the town. There must have been planning permission for over 1,000 new houses in Westbury in just the last 5 years with more still on the cards but the town seems to not to have benefitted from any imaginative use of Section 106 or Community Infrastructure Levy from the developers. This growth in the town should have reaped economic benefits for the community but there does not appear to be any and the population growth might have been expected to result in more growth in retail and other services.
Going back to the history of Westbury this is long and rich. Like most Wiltshire towns you don’t have to dig (either literally or figuratively) very deep before finding evidence of the past as a recent blog from the Wiltshire Archaeology Service demonstrates. That historic core hides a pre-Norman centre to the town with a fine Grade I parish church and an attractive churchyard with houses clearly linked to the church community with names like “Verger’s Cottage”. Beyond that are some fine Georgian buildings such as the Old Town Hall and town houses built for the owners of the local mills and other local gentry. The Lopes Arms, a coaching inn dating back to the 1700s. It is an attractive building that has lain empty for over 2 years and would require considerable investment to be able to open again. The ‘Market Place’ hasn’t fulfilled this purpose for some years and would benefit from some radical thinking to make it a more attractive public space which could benefit both residents and businesses alike.
But the new developments are inward looking and often have very poor pedestrian access to the rest of the town. It’s easier to drive to the next town than to walk into Westbury.
Our towns in many cases, it seems to me, have become less human. They are designed for the car not the pedestrian. We seem to spend more time shut up in our homes viewing life vicariously through electronic devices or with our heads bowed staring at a screen and less time talking to others beyond our immediate circle. Our towns need to be better shaped to enable encounters and create opportunities and spaces to join together in community activity.
I have been following the work of the Wiltshire based artist James Aldridge for some time. I first came across him in connection with his work in the Stonehenge landscape as part of the preparation for the Stonehenge Visitor Centre which opened in 2013. There’s another blog developing in my head which connects to his work on walking, art and landscape but for the purposes of this piece I’m interested his most recent project Asking Andover on which he has recently published his own blog.
I attended a celebration event for the project at the Andover Museum. It was great to speak to team members from the Hampshire Cultural Trust who led the project, James Aldridge, volunteers and people who have participated in some of the sessions. Everyone was positive about the experience. Some had loaned family items to the exhibition to share their memories of Andover with the rest of the community. James’ workshops had led to the creation of some beautiful work which will be added to the Museum’s collection in time.
I love this quote from his blog:
‘We need a town with places for meeting, connecting and sharing’ was for me the main message that came out of the session.
The hopes and dreams for Andover that the participants in the project shared with James were very similar to the comments made by those people who spoke to us in Westbury. These are the same issues being discussed by the members of the heritage sub-group which I chair, and the steering group of the Westbury Neighbourhood Plan which is being led by Westbury Town Council.
- Focusing the town centre on pedestrians and cyclists rather than giving priority to cars. Linking up green spaces and existing pathways
- Strengthening the relationship between the town and surrounding landscape
- What can we bring into the town centre to replace the empty shops – homes, work spaces, artist studios, community spaces and many other ideas
- Making the town more inclusive and welcoming
I am slowly turning ideas over in my mind for something in Westbury using some of the great ideas from the Asking Andover project to help the community of Westbury reconnect with and learn to love their town and its community. If you have an idea, please get in touch as it could only be done in partnership with key organisations already working within the community.