Monday, November 18, 2013

Seventies Things That People Thought Were Normal

Chatham Street (on a good day)
My drive into work takes me through the concrete abyss that is Reading's Inner Distribution Road, a well-intentioned attempt at town centre management that turned out to be quite the ugliest scar on the landscape ever deposited on Planet Earth.

The fact that they ran out of money in the early 1970s and left it half-built for the best part of fifteen years just made it worse, the road ending abruptly with an unfinished flyover looming over the bus depot that became laughingly known to the people of Reading as the ski jump.

A huge crane looming over the deepest part of the roadway betrays the fact that time is catching up on it, and the hideous grey-slabbed buildings that the council saw fit to build along its length. Disappeared at last is the Chatham Street car park and shop complex, an awul example of architecture that went beyond "brutalist" and into the rolling vistas of "smacking you around the face with a cricket bat with a breeze block nailed to it".

It must have seemed a great idea at the time, but within months of its opening, the complex stunk of tramps' piss and everybody hated it. It is now an enormous block of executive flats, which everybody will hate within a year, if not already.

By the Chatham Street complex, already a dreadful seventies idea in itself, house something that could only - by anybody's standards - be classed as really quite bizarre. The Renault Weldale restaurant.

It was - in short - a gourmet restaurant in a Renault car showroom in Reading. A gourmet restaurant underneath a large multi-storey car park that eventually had to be demolished because the stench of tramps' piss became ingrained into the concrete. People would genuinely dress up, and go to a car showroom filled will decidedly average French cars (and I should know, because our family were their best customer) and have prawn cocktail and rump steak in a large room that smelled of car, and nobody thought it was unusual in the slightest.

The colour theme was 1970s orange, you sat in booths that looked like vintage cars, and that tells you everything you need to know.

Claims that the 1970s were the years that taste forgot is now more or less passed on the nod, and for pretty good reason. My childhood memories may be getting fuzzy around the edges, but they certainly remember that this is about the time when towns decided to give up on the traditional shopping street, demolish whole swathes of their town centres and building monstrous shopping centres in their place.

Reading built one, and called it the Butts. Realising that "butt" is a slang term for "arse", there was a frantic re-branding. The whole area is St Mary's Butts, and the Butts it remains to anyone but puzzled incomers who have no idea what you're sniggering about.

See that red column thing? I've been sick on that.
Of course, the operators of the Butts knew they couldn't have a proper shopping centre experience without the de rigeur luxurious addition: The Shopping Centre fountain. Every shopping centre had to have a fountain, and the Butts had three, which fired water about forty feet in the air up the mall's central hall.

I'm not entirely sure what happened to it. One day it was there, the next the basement pub was taken over by bikers, then closed, and the fountain got concreted over. These days, it's where they put Santa's grotto, so bear that in mind when you're unwrapping your pound shop colouring book set.

We once went to a shopping centre somewhere off the King's Road in London, and their water feature appeared to be based on the Trevi Fountain in Rome, only without the class, the wow factor or loved-up couples trying to recreate famous movie scenes. But it did have a Sainsbury's and multi-coloured underwater lamps, so up yours, Italy. No restaurant in a car showroom though, so up yours too, London.

Now I come to cast my mind back, there were two 1970s town centre shopping centres in Reading. The second - where I worked for a time collecting trolleys for a dreadful discount supermarket - is now used as a zombie shoot-out venue, where you blast at the undead and bewildered former Presto customers with paintball guns to your heart's content. A fitting end, but then it didn't have a fountain.


TRT said...

Reading: Dante's Inferno.

Rob Z Tobor said...

I went to Reading once by mistake when I got lost. It may have been in the seventies.

Rowan said...

Correction - you shoot the zombies with blank firers and ball bearing (bb) guns in the disused Friar's Walk Shopping Centre. Paint just makes them angry!


Jussuon Cornetto said...

Reading Reading at Reading (University)

Chas C said...

Happy memories! We used to live in the Reading area (Winnersh) but I had no idea you did.

I guess the other shopping mall you're referring to is the one where C&A used to be up on Friar Street. Died years ago as I remember. Isn't it a hotel now?

The thing about the Chatham Street car park is that it was so far out of town that there was no point in it being there really. And the 'Broad Street Mall' aka the Butts Centre has been effectively killed stone dead by the Oracle.

The strange naming of things seems to be endemic. We now live in Bury St Edmunds where they have built a new shopping centre - a sort of mini Oracle but without the charm - on the Old Cattle Market site. So what did the call it? 'The Old Cattle Market Shopping Centre' perhaps? No. It's called the Arc. All the locals call it the Cattle Market which has the same effect on our non-locals as the Butts has on yours!

Is the London Street Brasserie still there? Used to love it and discovered that our other favourite eaterie - the Crooked Billet at Stoke Row - was owned by the same people.

And then of course there are fond memories of Smelly Alley.

Thanks for reminding us!!