So Sharp when it came to planning

So Sharp when it came to planning

PROMINENT LANDMARK: Millburngate Bridge, shortly before its opening in 1967. The Claypath underpass can be seen on the far right of the picture, where the spectators are.

TIME FOR CHANGE: The demolition of Claypath in the Sixties in line with Thomas Sharp’s plan

DEMOLITION PROPOSALS: The Old Shire Hall, which Thomas Sharp detested

First published in Durham The Northern Echo: Static HTML image by

Echo Memories looks at the life of planner Thomas Sharp, the man who made his mark on a city

THOMAS SHARP (1901-1978) was a man with a plan. His lifelong career was dedicated to town planning and his influence on the development of Durham City as it is today was perhaps greater than any other man.

Born and bred in Bishop Auckland, he attended the local Grammar School and later worked for the borough surveyor. He moved later to work in Lancashire as a regional planning assistant but resigned after credit for his vast report was given to an honorary surveyor.

He turned his attention to writing on the subject of town planning and his publications would have a lasting impact on thinking in Britain and abroad.

In this country he played a direct role in the development of towns such as Salisbury, Chichester, Taunton and notably Exeter, a town that had suffered bomb damage during the Second World War.

Durham had been lucky.

There were no bombings, but in July 1944, writing in his publication "Cathedral City - a Plan for Durham" Sharp suggested the opportunity in Durham was greater than that which existed in the bombed cities. "This is indeed the most critical period in the city's history, " he said.

Development and change was well under way before the city council commissioned Sharp to submit plans for Durham's future. In the years before the war, significant slum clearances had been undertaken and the issue of traffic was being addressed.

Narrow central streets such as Silver Street and Saddler Street were the focus of heavy traffic in the city and desperately needed to be bypassed. As far back as 1931, Durham County Council formulated a plan to bypass these streets. Its plan was approved by the Ministry of Transport and scheduled to begin in 1939, but war stopped the development.

The council plan involved a proposed road branching off from the southern end of Elvet Bridge, crossing the river towards Leazes Bowl to join Claypath before crossing the river again, eventually joining North Road near the viaduct.

After the war, Durham City council decided a carefully focused plan for Durham's future was needed and Sharp was entrusted with the task. He objected to the county council "through road" partly on the grounds that the proposed junctions with existing roads were inadequate for handling the traffic flow. In place, he suggested roundabouts at Millburngate and Leazes Bowl.

Roundabouts were, of course, ultimately built in the Sixties and Seventies when a modified version of Sharp's plan was finally implemented.

Sharp's other major objection to the county's plan was the elevation of the road. Here the problem centred on Claypath.

Situated on a high ridge at the neck of the river peninsula, it was proposed that bridges crossing the river to the north and south would reach Claypath in the middle, creating another potentially hazardous road junction, and here there was no space for a roundabout.

Sharp objected to these 25ft high roads that would have been inappropriate for Durham's skyline. His solution was to link the two new bridges by cutting through Claypath and this was, of course, the solution eventually adopted.

It was Sharp who suggested building Leazes Road, linking the city centre with Gilesgate Moor to the east and it was also he who suggested building the adjoining Gilesgate roundabout. These suggestions were adopted but many of Sharp's ideas and suggestions came to nothing.

Interestingly, and perhaps unrealistically to modern eyes, Sharp saw roundabouts as focal points of culture and development. Today, roundabouts are seen as utilitarian, rather sterile areas with nothing but traffic and flowerbeds. Sharp saw them in idealistic terms.

He believed the new roundabout proposed for Millburngate could be one such focal point. Buildings would surround the roundabout on all sides with a gateway through one of the buildings allowing buses to enter their bus station.

Together the roundabout and bus station would form a figure of eight.

On the roundabout's southern side overlooking the river, he proposed a public hall and town hall on the site now occupied by the Gates shopping centre. On the north side of the roundabout, he proposed a technical college where the National Savings office now stands.

Just as ambitious was his vision for the new roundabout at Leazes Bowl. Here, he wanted to see the development of a massive shire hall (a county hall) with a semi-circular frontage right alongside the roundabout.

This building would have two adjoining wings. One would stretch along the new road towards the Claypath cut while another would stretch along the riverbank between the roundabout and Old Elvet Bridge overlooking Brown's boathouse.

Sharp detested the existing shire hall in Old Elvet (now part of Durham University). He wanted to see it demolished and replaced with flats but was strongly opposed to the proposed relocation of the hall at Aykley Heads, where County Hall is based today. He felt such a location would deprive the city centre of an important building.

Sharp's proposals would of course necessitate demolitions of houses and businesses to make way for roads and roundabouts and this was what eventually happened.

His plan for Durham demonstrated his passion for the city, particularly in his objection to a proposed power station at Kepier complete with 250ft-high cooling towers that would intrude on the city's skyline, but some of his ideas seem distasteful or unnecessary today. He wanted, for example, to demolish all the houses in Lower Gilesgate, from Leazes Place to Gilesgate roundabout, and create an open countryside area that separated the city from its eastern suburb.

This never happened and nor did his proposal for a cultural quarter on Elvet waterside where he proposed a library, museum, youth centre and theatre be built alongside the existing swimming baths.

Today, of course, the cultural quarter in the shape of a library and theatre are located at Claypath, overlooking the very road that cuts through the Claypath ridge down below the very road that links the bridges and roundabouts that are, whether you love them or loathe them, Sharp's undoubted legacy.


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