THE EVOLUTION OF THE TOWN OF ALSTON
How Building Styles Developed
A few buildings in the town make reference to the years 1611 or 1621, but these dates refer to the grant and implementation of the 1000-year lease of Alston Moor for very much larger agricultural tenements, or land holdings, that were later subdivided into small parts for building plots.
Nevertheless, a town was definitely in existence by the 17th century. Date stones of 1681 and 1687 are probably actual construction dates, ‘The Great Rebuilding in Stone’ that began in London had reached the north by then. Deeds of 1697 gave permission from the lord of the manor, Thomas Hilton, to build ‘shops’ on land between the Market Square and St. Augustine’s, in doing so the church was obscured from view. The oldest surviving evidence of building styles in Alston is typical of the late 17th century, the houses had stone flagged roofs, doors with jambstones, small single windows or double windows with stone surrounds and central stone mullions, occasional ‘fire windows’, and diamond panes with leaded glazing beads.
Into the 18th century, the ‘modern’ era of lead mining began and prospered – especially after general mine leases granted by the Greenwich Hospital in 1736. This led to an increase in population and a demand for housing. Archery practice had not been compulsory for many years and so the flat ground in the Butts was built over, as shown by dates of 1721, 1739, 1750 and 1752. The houses in the Butts often had accommodation on the ground floor with a one-and- a-half storey house over that was entered via an external stone stair and a first floor door. The town expanded in the opposite direction, uphill from the Market Place, at the same time. In 1729, according to a replica datestone, a building was constructed on the site of Barclays Chambers and slightly further uphill the Quaker Meeting House was built in 1732. A map of the town dated 1775 shows many external staircases to first floor entries, many more alleyways crammed with housing, and main streets so narrow that they would cause severe congestion in today’s world.
The ability to cast larger panes of glass and the facility to transport it safely meant the disappearance of the stone mullioned windows and their replacement by larger windows that admitted more light without mullions. This development might have come about with the first phase of turnpike road construction on Alston Moor in the 1790’s and certainly with the second phase of turnpike roads during the 1820’s, followed by the arrival of the railway in 1852. The opening up of Alston Moor to the outside world allowed the introduction of new influences in styles, techniques (such as improved stone cutting), and ‘alien’ materials, such as blue slate that became more popular than stone for cladding new roofs. It is probable that a period of local prosperity in the early 1820’s led to the ribbon housing development up Nenthead Road and Chapel Terrace and a phase of conspicuous wealth in the form of the rebuilding of house fronts, with the loss of older rubble-coursed stone and the introduction of even courses of regular cut stone. Not much later, further improvements in the production of glass and the ability to transport larger panes safely by road and rail led to the introduction of large shop windows to replace whatever had been there before. Traditional vernacular architecture was at an end.
Later in the 19th century the lead mining industry, on which Alston Moor was almost wholly dependent, collapsed, leading to a sharp decline in population. There was no need for new housing; the existing housing stock was more than sufficient. In 1901 the medical officer of Alston-with-Garrigill Rural District Council, the local G.P., was given the authority to condemn houses, which he did. It was proposed that ground floor accommodation should be incorporated with the first floor dwellings overhead. Soon afterwards many staircases were removed and first floor entries were blocked up as new staircases were made inside. From this period up to the First World War postcards and photographs of street scenes became popular, so providing us with almost the only visual records as to the appearance of Alston in the old days, days which are not actually very old at all.
Alston-with-Garrigill Rural District Council house building began in the 1920’s, with the construction of several houses on Nenthead Road and Hill House Lane, to be followed by Cumbria County Council housing in the 1940’s and 1950’s. This led to ‘slum’ clearance in areas such as Kate’s Lane, and the clearance of commercial and residential buildings in the area that is now the ‘Co-op’ car park and the widening of the main streets. Preservation and conservation was not the order of the day.
For the known 330 years of the history of the town, the story of Alston, in common with most other towns, has been one of continual change and evolution. Alston has moved with the times, accepting and embracing new styles, new methods and new materials. This situation leads to several questions; 1) What is meant by ‘town heritage’? 2) Who has the right to judge what is best? 3) When was the golden age of architecture that conservationists seek to preserve and at what point do they wish to stop the clock? 4) Who has the right to stop the evolution of the town?