Report by Sue Houseago
As the keeper of the key, unusually, for the Old Town Hall, it felt quite exciting to unlock the old door ready for the last of the Civic Society’s winter talks. How wonderful that this 16th century building – court, prison, school and finally town hall – is still a vibrant centre for Stroud town events.
Very soon helpers arrived and chairs, a projector, and a table laden with glasses and wine were set out. This was the evening of the Society’s Annual General Meeting, which would be followed by wine before our speaker – entertainer, urbanist and cartoonist – Rob Cowan, would begin his slide talk, entitled Plandemonium..
Our Chair Juliet Shipman waited until yet more new members had been enrolled, together with the re-enrolling members before welcoming us and introducing Committee member Hugh Barton to give us an update on Cheapside. His thrilling talk here a month ago, had evoked action; we learnt, from members of the council who had been part of the discussion. These energies had then spread to the town council where they had then erupted into setting up Cheapside and Stroud Town Centre Group with Hugh and others advising them.
This, with the added enthusiasm of Stroud’s Chief Executive, meant things were happening. For example, Hugh noted that a prospective developer was helpful, and plans were being produced. The only bugbear, here he halted dramatically, being that no-one – not the district council nor the Canal Trust – wanted to undertake the necessary first step of reinforcing of the embankment below Hill Paul. However, he continued, he was sure that the united will of Stroud people would bring positive change. Hugh sat down to a loud burst of applause.
Juliet’s review of the year’s events followed. Her visits moved from Ampney Court and Church, to a tour led by Lady Bathurst of her house with open fire and tea, to a visit to Highclere Castle (filming location for Downton Abbey) to a stimulating guided walk by Tim Mars – this year of Cardiff.
Treasurer David Austin continued to lead applause in praise of Juliet’s skill in organising, pricing and leading these trips, which in a time of rising prices, had resulted, at the year’s end, in his perfectly balanced books. Membership Secretary Guy Williams rose to show us a steadily rising membership chart, which seemingly shows the people of Stroud increasingly wanting to become part of networks rapidly linking up to bring about change.
A break then followed while wine wove webs of talk and laughter, before speaker Rob Cowan’s Illustrated talk ‘Plandemonium’ or ‘Why do Architects wear Bow Ties?’ began.
He started with a series of slides of his own cartoons, to much laughter, but he brought the house down with a photograph of a new housing estate in Chester where a humped tar pavement, the width of a single track railway line ran alongside a row of new houses. Next a young woman was seen struggling to tip her pushchair – complete with child – sideways to pass between a lamppost and a house. We watched in growing disbelief as Rob enthused over a lovely broad ‘boulevard’ of a road, only to reveal that it led – into a wall! We were now all laughing, surely Rob would turn it all back to cartoons? But no, slide after slide showed similarly bizarre, but starkly real planning bloomers when, he conjectured, a line on a drawing was misinterpreted further down the chain of control. What was clear was that the men, women and children who would have to walk and live within these crazy lines had not been consulted.
As the clapping subsided and the last people left, it seemed likely that all the members, new and old, of the Civic Society, were resolved to make sure that Cheapside and other Stroud town projects will not be built along ridiculous lines such as those uncovered by Rob. He, like Oscar Wilde, perhaps knew: ‘If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh.’