Sunday, 27 August 2017

The three identities of Ipswich

I arrived in Ipswich on a Saturday lunchtime, alongside several football supporters. The Ipswich FC ground is right in the middle of town, and you walked past it on the way to the centre.  The stadium was quite impressive – it looked fairly recent, and the floodlights had been designed as part of the stands. You could probably hear each time a goal is scored, and in fact in the cafe we were told the score – the locals were losing. Few towns in Britain have such a close identity between the club and the town.

Ipswich itself appears to be at least three towns. Looking past the often quite lively locals out doing their shopping on a summer Saturday, at times in the centre of Ipswich you notice traces of the first town: half-timbered houses, and, as Pevsner points out, very few of them covered up with a Georgian front. It’s more hidden than Norwich, but there are one or two streets that have a medieval appearance, with football supporters sitting incongruously outside drinking their beer. Down an alley was the magnificent Unitarian Chapel, of 1699, quite unchanged from when it was first built, as far as could be seen. We were the only visitors, but the elderly couple who had opened the chapel to visitors pointed out that a couple of Fulham supporters had visited the church earlier in the day.

The most magnificent early building was the Ancient House. For once, you could see the lavish treatment on the outside, but also the rich decoration and construction inside, since the whole building is open as a shop – Lakeland, in fact, selling kitchen equipment. I suppose this makes sense, given that the original owner was a merchant.

The Ancient House was exuberant and confident, sharing its cheerfulness with the shoppers (the building is in the middle of one of the busiest shopping streets).

Ipswich did not have a great deal of 18th-century buildings, and they are dwarfed (literally and metaphorically) but the 19th-century ostentation around the main square. There is a town hall, a Post Office, and a bank, all of them vying for prominence and happy to grab the attention of passers-by using any means – garish colours, sculptures, a bit of gold, towers here and there, you name it. I thought it all wonderful. The exuberance of it all! The overwhelming confidence! On the stairs was one of those wonderful Victorian narrative paintings, of Lucrezia Borgia pouring a glass of no doubt poison wine.  

The 19th century also included some excellent attempts at rebuilding medieval architecture. The most ostentatious church in the centre (there are around 12, so plenty to compete with) is largely a 19th-century reconstruction, but it has a magnificent impression, with wonderful flush work and an attention-seeking tower that enjoys being admired in all its glory.

Then you have the 20th-century developments, and Ipswich has been hit quite hard by them. Right in the middle is Foster’s Willis Faber Building, an iconic development, but perhaps only saved from the mediocrity of the other 20th-century buildings in that it is only about three storeys tall, and because its black glass cladding means that it reflects surrounding buildings rather than imposing itself on them.  For the most part, the 20th-century buildings dwarf the medieval city, and leave the poor church towers forlorn and lost.  And apart from Foster, the 20th-century buildings are pretty dire.

Finally, there is the remarkable dock area – nothing like it in Norwich. After a city centre that has been in visible decline for much of the 20th century (“can’t get the big shops to open here”, commented one local) the docks are a shock. You expect a very run-down neighbourhood, since the docks don’t appear to have been used commercially for many years. Instead, there is a lively collection of cafes, bars, apartments and even dance studios, facing some enormous yachts, right alongside the remaining derelict harbour buildings. In a few years’ time, this part of Ipswich will be the best-known of all.

So, Ipswich, three towns in one. It looked a bit down on its luck – the day we were there, the football team lost 0-1, and in fact they haven’t been successful for years – but Ipswich still retains such amazing evidence of its earlier lives, and such an opportunity in the docks, to become neither a tourist museum attraction nor a deal industrial town but something new, reinvented out of both early identities. 

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