The Lady wife and I spent a lovely weekend in Bournemouth, last chance for a bit of peace and quiet before child #2, courtesy of my kind in-laws. Not having been there before, and not really knowing much about the town, it was just somewhere different for a quick weekend break.
It’s a strange town, with a confused layout, though the lie of the land is probably like many other seaside towns. As you come in to the town on the A35, there are a couple of tall office buildings, which announce Bournemouth as an Important Place, but just past that there’s a lovely Victorian church which looks uncomfortable next to these giants and the busy A-road.
There seem to be dozens of large hotels, which were probably Grand in the 70’s and 80’s when they were first built, but now look shabby and distract from the smaller B&Bs and splendid Art Deco styling in smaller buildings. Many parts of the town centre are neglected, with features like the canopy in Westover Road that would be cherised in towns like Leamington Spa.
On the seafront is the Imax cinema pictured above, which I remember seeing Kevin McCloud’s Demolition programme about buildings that should be demolished. I can completely understand why it’s such a white elephant as it’s just in the wrong place, and a look in the local paper shows that it’s only able to screen short documentary films, in comparison to the South Bank BFI Imax that shows feature films. Even the Imax in Bradford in the 1980’s showed mainstream movies in 70mm. It now looks set for demolition, but what will it be replaced by?
The town seems to lack a focus, with traffic in the middle of the town breaking up the flow, and pedestrianised areas not really working either. It feels like new buildings have been allowed to be placed anywhere, and business use for landmark buildings that doesn’t unify the micro-local area. Take this view for example, just off the main shopping area, wonderfully styled buildings that in any other town would be the centrepieces of a regeneration area, with sought-after apartments and offices above restaurants, not shabby flats above nightclubs.
It was during our weekend that David Cameron made his comments about Multiculturalism and his government also announced plans to move May Day to October in celebration of Britishness. To my mind, cultural identity and urban planning are connected.
Incoming cultures are perceived as a threat because British people (more the English really) have a crisis of their own identity. We aren’t defined by a single religion, or costume, or ethnicity, we’re a mix of different histories, that have are preserved by local traditions. The experience of Britishness for someone from Bradford is different to someone from Hastings. They have different histories, trades and customs which make them distinct from other towns, but there will be some shared traits with other towns in their region, or across the country.
Culture takes place in a physical space, and when that is not used appropriately, with unrestrained developments and neglect of important sites, culture is weakened. Town planners surely have an overview of the flow of people and businesses in a town, and should control that appropriately to make sure the story of the town is retained but kept vital.
Slightly disappointed by the town centre, we headed out to Castle Point, which the radio announced as a “unique shopping experience”. This is just a large car park, with two supermarkets at opposite corners and a string of high street shops between them. A few paper lanterns were strung up to mark Chinese New Year, as they were in the Pavilion Gardens, but this is a sanitised place, with no sense of history or culture or coming together of communities. Whereas you could have a small parade and Lion dancers in the gardens, which would serve to bring closer the Chinese and British communities, this would be ridiculous at Castle Point.
So my conclusion is this: British culture is something that isn’t easily defined, but exists in our own experiences and places. If we continue to allow town centres to lose their relevance, and be damaged by bad planning, we will still have this crisis of national identity and integration of other cultures will remain a struggle.
I stated above that the Imax cinema only showed crappy documentaries, however because I had been browsing the listings on my mobile whilst in Bournemouth I failed to notice that those showings were in 2005, at which time the cinema closed. Point still stands that they were showing the wrong kinds of film.