The Bus stops at Binham Lane

A lost classic of ‘thirties dormitory suburbia ?

When a comparatively recent book becomes hard to find one is tempted to wonder exactly why. If it isn’t a private press production in a limited edition, or wasn’t the victim of a fire that devoured most copies in a publisher’s warehouse, or wasn’t withdrawn from publication due to a law suit, or bought up by the author who didn’t want readers to buy it, then one is entitled to ask why it is so scarce . There is only one copy ( at some point there were two, but one was sold) of The Bus Stops at Binham Lane by Stacey W(illiam) Hyde, published by Jonathan Cape in 1936, on abebooks. This particular copy is in only fair condition and lacks its dust jacket, but the vendor wants a cool £29 for it. Does he know something about the book that we don’t ?

Perhaps he read a review of it by L. A. Pavey in the Winter 1936 issue of Now and Then in which the reviewer praises the author for a remarkably shrewd eye for the idiosyncrasies of a couple newly displaced from one established piece of suburbia into a brand new estate development built on fields and country lanes on the edge of a town. Hyde’s general theme is the effect on those who began their post-war life in the heart of the country but who ended up ‘ in a Calvary of estate development and jerry-building’ to a place with (to quote Hyde himself)

‘homes strung out interminably along the white skewers of their concrete roads; there were no churches among them, no schools, no parks, shops only in isolated pairs, no pubs, no halls, no libraries, no cinemas—nothing to indicate that a people…had come to live among the immemorial quietudes of Binham fields’.

 If we put aside the town-planning issues temporarily and focus on the sociological ones, it’s possible to imagine why The Bus Stops at Binham Lane is regarded as an important record of how the displaced inhabitants of new housing estates were obliged to make the best of their ‘ bleak sort of wilderness ‘. If we return to the town-planning issues and perhaps view them with a sociological eye , the book could be read alongside such classics as William Clough-Ellis’s Britain and the Beast , C.E.M. Joad’s The Untutored Townsman’s Invasion of the Country (1946), or for that matter, the Shell Guides of the ‘thirties and their temporary replacements of the forties , the Murray’s Architectural Guides, which cast a baleful eye on the ribbon development and the new arterial roads that disfigured so many of  the outer suburbs of London. Needless to say, many of these issues were also addressed by John Betjeman in his early poems as well as in his excellent First and Last Loves. At a slightly later date, the late great Ian Nairn highlighted them in his pioneering Outrage and Counter Attack.  

In his book-length diatribe Joad discusses the rise of what he calls ‘ dormitory England’ and here he uses the same objections in 1949 as Hyde had used in 1936.

This ‘England of the factory and the spreading dormitory suburb’, Joad complains,

…is a lonely England and lacks almost all those places of meeting in which human beings have traditionally gathered, known their neighbours and felt the stirrings of civic consciousness. There are no assembly halls, no theatres, few churches, no civic centres; in many garden cities there are no pubs or very few. There are only those awful isolating cinemas where the inmates sit hand in hand, absorbing emotion like sponges in the dark…These spreading suburbs have no heart and no head…’   

Joad goes on to argue, like Hyde, that 

‘  by building itself round the fringes of the towns, it causes the towns to spread and the country to recede…Owing to the fact that it is unplanned, it spreads over a disproportionate amount of land which it eats up at the expense of the country…’

Joad’s solution to the problem, which he admits will prove very unpopular, is for people to live in flats. Otherwise ‘ until the population gets smaller it will, assisted by the car, spread all over the country…’

Another alternative, Joad proposes, are satellite towns in the form of Garden Cities. Hyde would have known only two of these—Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1920) and there is no evidence that he was in favour of either. Both he and Joad wanted to protect the erosion of the countryside, and as Joad reminds his readers, these recent developments in mass housing ‘ eat up too much land’. It is interesting too that Betjeman disliked the Garden City model, or at least he disliked Letchworth enough to satirise the wholesome image of the place in ‘Group Life: Letchworth’. Ian Nairn doesn’t have much to say on Garden Cities either, though it is likely that he would have had fewer objections to Letchworth, the original centre of which has changed very little over the decades, than he possible would have had to Welwyn Garden City, with its hideously out of scale Howard Centre.  

Incidentally, we don’t know why Hyde chose the name Binham to represent such estate development. The only place with that name in Britain is a small village in ultra-trendy north Norfolk with flint and brick cottages, an ancient abbey and with no huge housing estates anywhere near it. 

R. M. Healey.

One thought on “The Bus stops at Binham Lane

  1. Edwin J
    Kensal House is a housing estate of two curved blocks of 68 housing association flats at the northern end of Ladbroke Grove, London, completed in 1937 and designed by the architect Maxwell Fry. It was the first modernist block in the UK designed to be occupied by the working class and on completion in 1937, was widely thought to be a prototype for modern living.
    It was commissioned and financed by the Gas Light and Coke Company (GLCC) to provide 68 “working-class flats”, housing 380 people.[1][2] It was the first modernist block in the UK designed for this purpose.[1] The project included a community centre, communal laundry, canteen and a nursery school.[3] The development was unusual in that there was no electricity provided, rather gas fires, coke fires, gas cookers, gas water heaters, and gas-powered irons.[4]

    The project was designed by Maxwell Fry,[4] but was developed by a committee of five architects and the social reformer Elizabeth Denby, who had worked with Fry at the Peckham Pioneer Health Centre.[4] The GLCC wanted to show that a modern building could be run cheaply and powered safely by gas.[1] Fry wanted to create what he called an urban village, and he and Denby wanted to offer working people “healthier, happier, safer, and more fulfilling lives”.[1] According to the Open University, “Kensal House marks the point in the story of British Modernist architecture when the social/political ideals of the early modernists come to the fore.”[1] On completion in 1937 it was widely thought to be a prototype for modern living.[1]


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