Matthew Parris Matthew Parris

Three cheers for the renaissance of the provincial towns and cities of England

Three cheers for the renaissance of the provincial towns and cities of England

Bradford is to demolish huge swaths of its own centre. Acres of hateful Sixties concrete are to be pulverised in the year ahead, according to a tiny article in the Guardian this week. Much of Broadway, Cheapside and Petergate are to be bulldozed as part of the city’s programme of ‘reinventing’ its core. An architect, Will Alsop, has made plans for surrounding the Victorian city hall with a lake; a buried stream is to be uncovered; and great blocks of brutalist mid-20th-century building will be coming down, storey by storey.

Three cheers for this news, almost unnoticed in London. A cheer for a dawning 21st century which has the guts and self-confidence to own up to the mistakes we made in the last and start again. A cheer for the provincial towns and cities of England, among many of which a quiet renaissance is under way. And a cheer for the lightening of spirit which has (I believe) accompanied the death of heavy industry, of mining, and of the cradle-to-grave socialist ideal whose physical embodiment in art and architecture lent a brutal edge to so much that we built after the second world war. Grace and humour are returning to the symbols we make for our age.

I took a Virgin Voyager train from Southampton to Chesterfield last Thursday. Winchester, Basingstoke, Reading, Oxford, Birmingham, Derby and then, after Chesterfield, the service continued to Sheffield, York and finally Newcastle. I like cross-country trains. I can work on them, tapping my laptop as urban and rural England sways by.

And I love these new Voyager trains. The carriages are quiet, and warmly and brightly upholstered; there is an electrical socket by every seat for laptops; and (perhaps because secondary railway lines are not built straight and fast but the timetables are tight) the train has a feeling of bustle about it, scurrying busily across the countryside in a cheerful hurry.

But what I like most about cross-country trains is their subversive hint that England does not consist of one big bull’s-eye, London, radiating a series of straight lines like spokes into the outer darkness.

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