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…
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.
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.
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.Follow @readingonthames
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!)