OFF with the Old, on with the New: the Changing Face of Leek. A long title for a large and potentially emotive and controversial topic but well within the scope of one of the Society's most knowledgeable and fluent members when it comes to local heritage, Dr. Faith Cleverdon.
The history of the built environment is, for Faith, the study of change in religious beliefs, ownership, and economic developments. Leek splendidly illustrates the impact of such influences from its ancient burial mounds, boundary stones, medieval crosses, churches, through to its street pattern and the encroachment on the market space following the initial granting of its charters.
Faith took us to The Black Swan, a cruck-framed building of around 1591. An early image showed how The Bird in Hand probably looked very similar before it was demolished and the William Larner Sugden's mock-timbered pub put up in 1889.
And herein lay the irony and challenge of Faith's presentation – how a building today has come to epitomise the style and character of the town, though had its predecessor been still in situ today such a Victorian redevelopment would quite possibly have been vehemently opposed and not have been approved.
Of particular fascination was when Faith took us through the conservation issues that arose from the now successful take-over of The Swan by JD Wetherspoon and its resurrection as The Green Dragon.
The company clearly valued and benefited from her experience and expertise in their commitment to create a modern pub while preserving and restoring the integrity of this seventeenth century coaching inn.
In this and many others cases, Faith showed how the art of compromise lies at the heart of conservation when the economic interests of owners, investors and politics for councils and planning authorities are weighed in the balance with matters of heritage.
What of the past must be saved for the future? There are processes and procedures that take the architect's ideas, the client's needs, the concerns of conservation based upon archaeology and documentation. These, in turn, progress through draft proposals, revisions and, eventually, to agreed development.
Many other buildings were visited and commented upon including the current impressive development for retail and residential use on the corner of Sheep Market and The Market Place: 15-16 that had once been Whittles & Son and later Trafford's, the butchers. The top floor windows had been previously bricked up, apparently to evade the Window Tax. However, the idea of wasting the space of a whole floor simply to 'preserve' evidence of unpopular light-stealing past legislation indicates where the conservation and planning officers look to the greatest good for people today.
The need to safeguard and provide for employment, homes, traffic flow or educational facilities appropriate to 21st century needs and expectations will probably win the day unless such august bodies as English Heritage and Victorian and Georgian Societies tip the balance towards protection. Even then there may be ways and means to accommodate most interests as has been attempted in the case of some unique features of the Carr Gymnasium and the need to enable further and higher education to stay and flourish in the town.
In truth, there is not enough space here to report all that Faith had to share. However, she did hand out the latest and revised mandatory update of Leek's conservation areas.
She also invited members and any one else interested to contact her if they wished to know more and maybe to take an active part in constructing SMDC's Local List of 'buildings that deserve a greater degree of protection than the system currently affords them'. To do this or just to make suggestions you can contact Faith by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or ring 01538 382755.
Faith is an outstanding presenter who did much to explain the intricacies of the decision-making process for those at the sharp-end of ensuring future generations can enjoy and understand the intriguing story of our built and still being constructed environment.
The Swythamley Historical Society return to tell us their history of the village school. That will be in the Dove Room, Moorlands House, Stockwell Street, at 7.45pm on Monday, March 10. All the indicators from the past show that the best chairs go first and that history matters!