Caversham Park – Blue Sky Thinking

cavershamparksouth

Last year it was announced that the BBC would vacate the 1850-built Caversham Park house, where its foreign media monitoring service is based, and sell off the estate.  This week it emerged that the council and the BBC are in dispute over a “Tree preservation order” covering the site.  The council has dug in meaning the BBC cannot start clearing the site in an attempt to maximise the appeal to any developer.

Last week, the Financial Times reported that the BBC and central government were also at loggerheads, this time over who will pocket the proceeds of the estate’s sale.  My fear is that the grounds may be classified as “brownfield”, and therefore constitute a prime candidate for a lucrative sprawl of suburban semis.  The grade II listed house, with a rich history, will survive, but an apartment conversion is the depressingly likely option.  Whoever wins the ownership battle is likely to trouser significantly more than the £10 million mooted by the FT.

With the prison site also to be flogged to the highest bidder to swell government coffers, I’m getting a bit tired of Reading’s own interests being of no consequence, especially whilst our cash-strapped council closes facilities and cuts services.  I’d like to see the people of Reading and Caversham share in the benefits, if not financially then through new facilities and use of retained parkland on the site.

The former stately home and grounds would make a natural addition to the National Trust portfolio.  I could easily see their recipe of tea shops, tasteful playgrounds, woodland walks, house tours and summer concerts being a huge hit here and a treasured local asset.  I tweeted the National Trust but they responded that they only purchase property that is “in danger”.  Caversham Park does not qualify.

The estate has already shrunk once, with a swathe sold off for the development of the Caversham Park Village housing development in the late 1960’s.  If we accept the inevitability that the buyer will be allowed significant development on the site, then let’s at least provide them with a few suggestions.  I’ve taken the liberty of superimposing the 160m indoor ski slope at Hemel Hempstead onto an aerial view of the similarly-inclined Caversham Park site.  It takes up a mere fraction of the plot, so I’ve added the Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium to boot.  I’ve kept the south lawn and many acres of parkland stretching down to the cemetery, including woodland and the lake.  Some housing, in a vague nod towards realism, could be provided around the perimeter of the estate, whilst I retain the cricket pitch for a village green feel.  The main house could become a hotel, conference centre and spa, supplemented by further building to the east shielded by trees.

I know readers might clamour for South Hill Park to provide further inspiration, but I’m clinging to the hope that the prison might provide that kind of arts facility in the town centre.  I think it would be fantastic to have a range of uses here on the Caversham site – parks, gardens, sports, education, leisure, in addition to a sensible number of homes.  But how would the area cope with traffic generated by all those extra people coming to live, work and play at this new hive of activity?  Well, I’ve got a plan for that too…

cavershampark
A future use of Caversham Park.  New footpaths in white.  Cable car line in blue.

There’s something of a public transport craze taking off, literally, around the world.  The urban cable car is very much the mode à la mode.  There has been a torrent of recent proposals, particularly on the continent and in the US, including Austin (Texas), Toulouse, Brest and suburban Paris, not to mention the numerous more mountainous south american cities that use this form as the mainstay of their public transport networks.  But it’s those more recent proposals for comparatively flat urban areas that are particularly interesting.

The main benefit over buses is frequency.  I’m always amused by the horror on people’s faces if they arrive at a tube platform to see something like “7 mins” appear on departures screen:
“Seven minutes?!  How could I possibly have been so unfortunate?  Today is going to be a bad day – Seven minutes?! “, as they flail their arms in despair.  “What on earth am I to do?  I’ve got no phone signal.  Seven minutes – is that even right?”
I remember the old vidi-printer on Grandstand – if a team scored seven goals then they’d write 7 (seven)” to show it wasn’t a typo.  Maybe this would be useful reassurance to our spoilt Londoners?  Back in the sticks, most of our bus routes run every 20 or 30 minutes.  You can’t just turn up – if you’re a regular commuter then you have “your bus”.

Having a specific bus to aim for is such a bind.  You get to know your morning routine to the minute.  You lie in bed staring at the clock contemplating whether you could find a way to shave a minute off your shower, or your shave for that matter, and enjoy 60 more seconds under the duvet.  You’re eating your breakfast then suddenly, panic – it’s 07:38! Oh no, wait, that’s the microwave clock and you know it’s two minutes fast.  If it was the oven saying 07:38 then you’re in big trouble – you’d need to get out now – maybe even break into a slight jog to the bus stop else risk the depressing trudge back home to wait for the next one.  It’s all such a provincial bind.  And even if you catch the bus you’ve then got 17 stops ensure.

parisgondola

Now consider the cable car.  Maybe a 5 minute walk to the departure point, but then it’s pure joy.  Every 30 seconds a pod is there to whisk you silently into the blue sky, sailing serenely above the hustle and bustle, taking in beautiful views of parkland, the Thames, and Reading’s emerging skyline.  Five stops, 15 minutes, and you gently step off right into the centre of town and the station.

caversham-cable-car

The French have now even developed glass that can be scheduled to frost up for part of the journey if it passes near homes, then clear again.  In our case, this could be deployed, if deemed appropriate, over the cemetery and Micklands School field.

The suburban Paris proposal is similar to mine in terms of length and terrain, and is budgeted at £100 million.  Whilst this is clearly a vast sum, we should remember that junction 11 of the M4 cost £65 million, and Reading station and the M4 hard shoulder conversion are around £900 million each.  Reading has recently won £35 million to fund the MRT bus lanes to Thames Valley Park and Green Park.  Unlike my multi billion-pound tram proposal, we are vaguely in the realms of financial feasibility here.  And the cost may be cheaper than suburban Paris with only a handful of properties needing to be purchased.

Further benefits could be provided by the cable car scheme.  A park and ride for several hundred cars would be sited off Henley Road (behind Ruskin), also providing access to the Amersham Road area, which itself would benefit from the significant social advantage of improved connectivity.  A further park and ride in an underground car park beneath a redeveloped Budgens parade in Emmer Green would also help people from South Oxfordshire leave their cars behind well before clogging up the centre of Caversham and the bridges.  A residential redevelopment of Paddock Road industrial estate could also be enabled by the fast link into town.

Would my fellow locals support this plan?  Maybe not, after all Caversham has descended into civil war about building a primary school.  I can only imagine the response if my ski centre concept were to be pursued – a march on Westminster might be just the start of it.  But I can’t help but champion the “wow factor” that I think we need for a thriving town.

London is creating remarkable places everywhere.  Amazon is leaving its longtime home in Slough for buzzy Shoreditch.  Facebook is setting up a new larger London base in the vibrant heart of the West End.  Google is building a new campus at Kings Cross, beside Granary Square with its fantastic blend of old and new, and dancing fountains that can’t fail to make you smile.  Finally, Apple is to open a new HQ inside Battersea Power Station, for no conceivable reason other than that it’d be cool.  We still have Microsoft and Oracle from a previous wave of American tech arrivals, but I think it’s doubtful they’d make the same decision today, and complacent to assume they’ll stay.

Imagine stepping out of your office at Station Hill at lunchtime, buying your sandwich and riding the cable car 12 minutes up to Caversham Park to sit and eat under a tree by a stately home with leafy views over the valley.  Then after work you’re in the thick of the action in town with its restaurants and bars.

But it’s more that just being funky, I think the cable car would genuinely get extensive use – commuters and shoppers from Emmer Green and Caversham heading into town, park and ride users from South Oxfordshire, and visitors to the new facilities at Caversham Park.  People could also take it to get to Tesco to do their shopping.

I know this vision isn’t wholly realistic: there’s no way people in Emmer Green shop at Tesco.  Seriously though, look at those London schemes – they’re all about combining new development with historic buildings and established locations.  I think we need to take our historic assets, whether that be the prison or Caversham Park, shine a light on them (literally) and bring the action there.

We’ve got a lot going for us in Reading – improving transport links, a centre that’s smartening up nicely, and the River Thames.  But we must seize opportunities when they come along, particularly when they relate to our heritage buildings.  There’s no timescale yet for a sale of Caversham Park.  The council is probably doing all it can for now by tying up a few trees in red tape.  The next step is for the BBC to relocate its staff from the site.  Where are they going?  You’ve guessed it – to central London.

What do you think should happen at Caversham Park?  Comments welcome and can be left without registration (but aren’t shown if you’re reading this via Facebook, grrr!)

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Caversham Park – Blue Sky Thinking

32 thoughts on “Caversham Park – Blue Sky Thinking

  1. Mike read says:

    Caversham Park is an important heritage site. six monarchs have visited, Capability Brown gardens. Horace Jones building (he of tower bridge and Leadenhall Market fame) Charles I stayed here, as did Cromwell and the history goes back further than the Norman Conquest. I have geophysics result showing the lost Elizabethan Manor House and many of the trees date back centuries. Heritage and culture lasts longer and is more important than a temporary pocketful of trinkets and baubles.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Reading General says:

    I’ve always thought the House and adjacent car park area would make a good site for a decent sports centre in the north of the town. While a large public park would be great on the southern half of the site especially as there is a great view across the town centre. Squeeze in a few more homes and i dont see why a 8-10 minute frequency bus service (or perhaps something better in the future) from Caversham park/Emmer green down the Peppard road couldn’t be justified. It’s exactly what the corporation planned to do with the trolleybuses many years ago if they had managed to cross the bridge.

    Cheers

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sound reasoning as always RG. The bus routes into town do all get clogged up in bridge traffic though. Post 3rd bridge might be quicker to divert over that and new bus lane along Napier Rd – if you really don’t want my cable car!

      Like

    2. Reading General says:

      I was kind of hoping for inbound bus lanes over one of our current two bridges if a third bridge were to arrive, so as many people as possible north of the thames would benefit from a higher frequency route.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anonymous says:

    ” An apartment conversion is the depressingly likely option.” – I don’t really see why that is so depressing as long as the EXTERIOR of the house becomes more visible. SOME of the park should be retained to make this possible

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fair point. My argument is that local access is currently non-existent, and an apartment conversion, which would likely entail private access to its immediate grounds, might not improve things.
      I’d favour a future use of the site that retains the historic building AND brings people in to see, enjoy and learn about it.

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      1. I grew up in the shadow of Caversham Park House, going to school at Micklands. The lack of public access to such a magnificent house and park was criminal, though kind of understandable given the it wasn’t only the BBC in there — Monitoring has close links to the secret services.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds exciting! I don’t know much about these things, but light pollution an issue??
      I suggested a planetarium (doubling as science-based public lecture theatre) as, like you, I feel it could be kind of appropriate. The house has been used for education in the past, and the satellite dish that occupied the site feels similarly themed.

      Like

  4. Given your mention of Apple moving to Battersea Power Station for cool factor, I’d say a large tech company relocating their HQ to the house with the following preconditions to sale:

    1) house remains unaltered externally and minimal alterations internally in-keeping with original style

    2) gardens remain in current form, with public access and regualr upkeep.

    Some form of tax break or other incentive for conforming to this. Reading buses to lay on extra buses for the pink route to accommodate workers without huge traffic increase (and no need to sacrifice landscaped gardens for additional car park)

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nick Hill says:

    Nice idea for the cablecar, but I was (peripherally) involved with the Emirates Air Line that goes from The O2 to ExCeL, and it’s generally thought of as a massive waste of money – £60m for a mere handful of passengers since it opened in 2012. The idea was first mooted in about 2007 (along a different route – connecting Canary Wharf with The O2), but it took several years to find anyone willing to cough up the cash it cost in exchange for the exposure provided by the sponsorship. And to me at least, it’s a bit of an eyesore. The 300ft pylons don’t help much either, although you do get a nice view.

    I think Reading would do better with its own Tube network… 😛

    Liked by 1 person

      1. nickhill127826355 says:

        Yes, I’d agree that the route is crucial! I can’t think of many reasons why you’d need to get from the O2 to ExCeL that quickly, anyway. It’s not exactly a tourist route, or a business/commuter one.
        I’m not against cablecars, but they *are* pretty expensive – and if the route’s wrong, you’re stuck with it.

        I live near Caversham Park and it would be good to open it up to the community. There’s so much space there, you could build plenty of houses and cultural attractions on the land and still have room for other things.

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      2. Agree – some kind of non-car route through from around the Milestone Centre to the Harveys site could be useful. And yes, something other than just housing. Why not some sort of leisure destination that we don’t yet have…

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Anything that improves Reading would be wonderful and I think the cable car might be just the thing to put us on the map. Reading could be such an interesting town with its history but the Planners of the past have always chosen easy options and we’re left with a boring patchwork town. Someone should persuade Microsoft to move from Thames Valley Park to the “Big House” in the BBC park. Then they could fund some of your brilliant ideas with the governing bodies.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. Yes, I do worry that the easy option prevails too frequently. I’m all for scrutiny on how public money is spent, but sometimes I wonder whether that just leads to unimaginative and ‘safe’ decisions. Remember there was quite a bit of noise about the footbridge over the Thames, but now that it’s built everyone loves it. Hopefully the council can bear that in mind and face down some inevitable criticism to deliver these big projects, whether that be bus lanes, theatres, ice rinks, or even cable cars!

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  7. Lower Caversham resident; I LOVE your ideas! Let’s build all of them! Snow slope, cable car, all of it. And yes, we need some ‘wow’ to compete with London (and Birmingham, for that matter), though I’m surprised companies are still choosing London when others are leaving.

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  8. Barney Rubble says:

    Brilliant as this idea is, I fear the current obsession with housing targets will scupper such a positive idea. Building over Capability Brown gardens is typical of a disinterested council and local MP. Any green space in Reading seems ok to build on. Can’t help thinking that the housing obsession, driven by EU open borders, will be a sad period in our history when opportunities like this and the prison, were missed so some boxes could be ticked.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Barney Rubble says:

    Yes, I think this period will be looked back on like the 1960s where we lost sight of what was important and just stuck tower blocks everywhere. Then when they were found to be poor quality, and having built on the land where proper streets used to be, we had a crisis that we are still suffering.

    Tony Page is on record saying the current office conversions are the slums of the future.

    Like

    1. As I understand it, these office conversions in town don’t even require planning permission?
      An apartment conversion at Caversham Park probably wouldn’t become a slum of the future, but would certainly be a missed opportunity.

      Like

  10. Anonymous says:

    As an out-and-out supporter of the need for a Third Thames Bridge you must surely recognise that, if that project is completed, the site here at Caversham Park will be entirely blighted by the masses of new traffic charging up from Sonning Eye, through Caversham Park Village and on to disturb the South Oxfordshire countryside en route to Oxford and the M40 North? In fact, that roundabout at the corner of Budgens is likely to be a key pinch point in the onward distribution of that bridge traffic, only made worse by any “good” development of the site which will invariably add extra traffic of its own.

    Like

    1. I do support the Third Bridge. But from what I have read, they are intending to deliver a wider scheme to avoid the picture you paint. Nobody wants to create a new route from the M4 to the M40 – we just want to bypass Sonning and central Reading for existing traffic that starts or ends its journey in Caversham / South Oxon.
      Now, in fairness, I don’t know how they’ll achieve that, but to speculate, a toll on the bridge, a bypass around the east side of caversham, one-way time-of-day operation… I’m guessing really. But I don’t think it will be built unless they can prove it won’t cause more than a modest increase in traffic on Caversham Park Rd, Lowfield Rd and Henley Rd. So I’m optimistic for a bridge and avoiding having the setting of Caversham Park blighted in the way you describe.

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  11. Pogle Stowell says:

    Hello Reading-on-Thames, do you want to join forces with ‘Don’t trash the Thames’ group to thwart the building of a crazy bus route from TV business park to Reading railway station. I think a cable car system would be a great solution and a start for your long term plan that Reading can wholeheartedly adopt?

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    1. Hi Pogle. Thanks for taking the time to comment. I would love to see cable cars whizzing about, and I don’t think it’s as bonkers as it sounds. But it’s certainly not an idea that’s anywhere close to getting off the ground. The bus route scheme however, does have funding – largely from central government. I believe we do need to find ways to move significant numbers of people into town to shop and work. You only have to look at the threat from Bracknell’s new shopping centre with its cheap parking to realise that Reading does need to find transport solutions or risk seeing the town centre losing its vitality. So I’m afraid I’m on the other side of the argument to you, and I’ve written a piece a few weeks back to that effect – http://readingonthames.com/2017/07/10/the-kennet-mouth-bridge-calming-troubled-waters/
      I will say that I really wish they could find a little extra money for a more aesthetic bridge design.
      Thanks again for your thoughts.

      Like

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