The Daily Express has written a feature about the changes we’ve made at Royal William Yard over the past 10 years; an article that comes following HRH The Prince Of Wales’ visit to the scheme.
Read the full story below or on the Express website…
It could have been risky inviting Prince Charles to inspect a redevelopment site not only bearing the royal name but one that he might also fondly remember from visits during his Navy days. The Prince is after all well known for his readiness to pronounce on architecture.
The truth is, though, in taking on the daunting challenge 10 years ago of restoring Royal William Yard on Plymouth’s sea-lapped southern fringe, developer Urban Splash had already taken a big plunge. The original architect who also laid the foundations, Sir John Rennie, was commissioned in 1824 to construct a naval victualling yard “capable of embracing every requisite function”.
By the mid-1830s a mill, bakery, brewery, slaughterhouse and officers’ residences had been built on the 16-acre site to a scale that allowed today’s planners licence to think big. Indeed, the grandeur of these buildings was in part their downfall as such archaic places (some had become redundant soon after they were created) were expensive to maintain and deemed unsuitable to use for mere storage.
The Ministry of Defence, which owned the site, closed it in 1985. Michael Heseltine was the presiding axeman. The site lay unused despite ambitious efforts, a redundant monument to a proud naval heritage.
Indeed the buildings were considered just that, ancient monuments that were therefore untouchable.
“The buildings were scheduled as actual monuments originally, so we had to downgrade them to Grade One listed buildings to develop them at all, which took a time,” said Tom Bloxham, founder and chairman of Urban Splash, who escorted the Prince on the tour on Tuesday.
“I think the sheer scale of the problem frightened some. For us, they are just fantastic buildings; we fell in love with them immediately.” Care has been shown in making good the collection of forgotten and stately, if slightly austere, buildings.
This was not about new glass and steel affairs or monstrous new carbuncles but sensitive restoration and it was a fair bet the Prince would find much to like in what he surveyed. So it proved.
“I have been to the yard before and it was really fascinating to see it come back into use and see so many people enjoying it,” he said after his visit. “It’s wonderful to see so many recycled materials being used.”
Mr Bloxham added: “It was fantastic to show Prince Charles the yard. He has known the buildings for longer than I have because he knew them when he was in the Navy. “I think he has a genuine passion for the built environment and has been consistent with his love of finding uses for historic buildings.
“We don’t agree on everything but he’s been to see our Collegiate building in Liverpool and the Smithfield in Manchester, so now he’s been to the Royal William Yard.
“I think he was genuinely enthused by what he saw and these are the sort of projects he’s very keen on.”
When it took on the Plymouth site a decade ago, Urban Splash set out to turn somewhere old and tired into a modern, versatile space, the hallmark of the company.
Hundreds of jobs, 216 homes and almost 90,000 sq ft of workspace have been created, while businesses and institutions including universities, design agencies, architects and recruiters have been brought to the area.
Now a gastronomical hub for Plymouth, Urban Splash has lured some great brands to the development including Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage.
Art galleries, an artisan bakery and a relaxed nightlife, far from the bawdy charms of Plymouth’s nearby Union Street, all make up part of the revitalised quarter, which has scooped awards for design, commercial use, benefit to tourism and sustainability.
“It’s interesting to be able to step back, 10 years on, and look at what’s been achieved. Like many big projects, if you take it as a single job it would scare you off, so we just took it job by job,” said Mr Bloxham.
This is what he and his Urban Splash co-founder Jonathan Falkingham have been doing ever since embarking on their first redevelopment in 1993 and the formula still seems to be working for them.
“It’s like having a giant Lego set to be able to take on these fantastic, if challenging, buildings and bring them back into use, whether it’s the Royal William Yard in Plymouth, Fort Dunlop in Birmingham, Lister Mills in Bradford or Ropewalks in Liverpool,” said Mr Bloxham.
“Most people, certainly in the property industry, would say there’s no future in these buildings. I think we’ve shown that with a bit of imagination, working with the right architects, you can bring them back.”
So watch out, they could be coming to an abandoned cinema near you soon, or factory site, former school, warehouse, mill or block of flats. “We’re always looking for opportunities,” added Mr Bloxham.
“One day someone rang me up out of the blue and asked if I wanted to look at Royal William Yard, and it was the same with Fort Dunlop. Sometimes we say ‘no’, others we say ‘yes, we can make something happen here’. And then we make something happen.”