Sue Duncan visits new private housing at St Mary's Walk, Bletchingley
St Mary's Walk, Bletchingley, is a small housing development in a fiercely conservationist area. Sensitive design and judicious choice of materials helped to win over initial opposition and to win the scheme a Civic Trust Award commendation.
'Alfheah, Alwin and Alnoth held it from King Edward (the Confessor) ....Then there were three manors, now it is one...' The Surrey parish of Bletchingley has historical associations in spades, viz its Domesday Book listing, and boasts of Anne of Cleves among others as famous former residents.
The village lies south of the North Downs, at its core a picturesque and well preserved collection of buildings ranging from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. These are either grouped around St Mary's Church or front onto the former market square, now the widest section of the High Street. Though the market stagnated as a commercial centre after the mid fifteen hundreds, the jettied upper storeys of many existing buildings indicate that they were once shops. Many still are. There is an attractive mixture of facades. Tudor, Jacobean, and Georgian brickwork and Regency stucco are represented and timber framing is still visible on some buildings, betraying their earlier, sometimes medieval, origin.
In this context and within a conservation area, a speculative housing development was unlikely to get a hearty welcome and St Mary's Walk, the scheme by Chatsworth Homes for an 11-unit development at the entrance to the village, met predictable opposition. There was a four year gap between the initial concept and the eventual granting of planning permission on appeal in 1995. Once that hurdle had been surmounted, harmonius co- operation with Tandridge District Council and Surrey County Council's Conservation Department was ensured.
The developer, the third generation of a family building firm in Bletchingley, was keenly aware of local sensibilities, and of his target market. The homes are geared and priced to appeal to young career professionals and the retired. A sensitive design respecting the village vernacular and a high quality approach throughout was essential.
The inspiration, both for the layout and style of the development, is Church Walk. This is a narrow footway bordered by some of the village's oldest houses, one as early as 1300, others, of mid sixteenth century origin, displaying jettied frontages and a rich brickwork tradition.
The focus of St Mary's Walk is a wide central path, incorporating and widening an existing public footpath, with short terraces of two and three bedroom cottages built either side of the path and stepped back from it. Front gardens are open and landscaped, in an organisation which the developer describes as 'encouraging a community atmosphere' and which consciously echoes that of Church Walk. It's a refreshing change from the isolationist trend of gated developments.
The path, giving access to groups of garages at each end, slopes up from its High Street entrance, westwards towards Church Lane, where a lychgate feature in oak and clay tiles has been positioned to prevent a tunnelling effect when viewed from the east.
Mellow brickwork, rich detail
The articulated frontages, brick fabric, clay roof tiles, broken roofline, oriel bay windows, tile hanging and tile creaser corbels, establish a period style which relates the development to the rest of the village. So does the brickwork detailing. Protruding brick banding, dentilation at eaves, brick chimneys and window arches all quote from Church Walk and other village vernacular.
The housing looks remarkably mellow, despite the fact that only new materials were used. For this effect the choice of facing brick was critical, the developer looking for softness of colour and texture to produce the effect of weathered, long established fabric.
A light-red multi, simulated-handmade facing was chosen and laid with care to avoid the risk of efflorescence. This was an important issue, as release of funding for later phases was dependent upon selling at least one of the first houses to be built. Nothing could be allowed to prejudice early sales in the then quiet market. The brickwork quality is excellent, with bucket-handle joints in a natural mortar which includes a local Albury sand to complement the warm brickwork tones.
The fired clay tradition is present in the landscaping too. Front gardens onto the common path are turfed and landscaped, while clay pavers are used for paths and steps leading to individual houses. The treatment, as well as the materials, mirrors the Church Walk precedent, albeit on a more open and spacious scale.
Retaining and free-standing walls
An important unifying feature of St Mary's Walk is the role of the walls along its boundaries. In addition to their practical function they help frame and unify the site, using the same brick as in the dwellings. Not the cheapest option, but a very successful one.
An essential for optimising development on the small area available was a 1.8m high retaining wall along the site's northern boundary. This has been built as a 40m long, 400mm thick structure of concrete blocks, in- situ reinforced concrete and facing brickwork in stretcher bond.
Whereas Church Walk, once the main thoroughfare through Bletchingley, is now a quiet backwater, the same could not be said about its new main thoroughfare, the permanently busy A25. A screening wall for the houses along this boundary was needed to give privacy and reduce noise from passing traffic.
Free-standing walls of solid brick masonry are comparatively rare in speculative housing but Chatsworth stipulated one brick thick brickwork for the screening wall's full 60m length. From the western end of the site the wall begins in a tight arc of header bond, switching to Flemish bond as it runs parallel to the road, before curving gently back around the first house on the site. Coursing and coping follow the incline, to create a continuous line rather than a stepped profile. Dictated by practical considerations it may have been, but the integrity and strength of the screening wall announce, very plainly, a commitment to enduring materials and quality construction designed to last for centuries.
A commendation in the 1999 Civic Trust Awards and the commercial success of the venture has since vindicated Chatworth's design decision.
Chatsworth Homes Limited
George E A Huyton
Peter Rogers Associates
Scott White and Hogkins
Top: original buildings in medieval Church Walk inspired the design detail in other figures