Rowanfield Road

25 10 2008

Photos taken around June 2008

Rowanfield, or Rowenfield, as it was previously spelt, was once one of three large open fields in the Alstone tithing. If you go back to 1606 it was called Rewenfield, which according to Place Names of Gloucestershire means “aftermath field”. So its name may not have much to do with rowan trees.

Arguably the grandest feature of Rowanfield Road is a house called Westfield, a commanding and melodramatic villa set on the junction with Alstone Lane, now numbered 66 Alstone Lane. As idyllic as its location looks in the photo, taken from Rowanfield Road, it has the unfortunate distinction of being right slap bang next to the Bristol to Birmingham railway line on the other side, with a level crossing just in front of the garden where cars queue up night and day and the irritating bleeping of the crossing barriers must drive the occupants nuts. It has nice unspoiled gardens though with large old apple trees at the back. It sits rather strangely in its pointy Victorian splendour opposite a very ordinary cluster of identikit modern brick houses, which occupy the former site of a church school.

The level crossing here is known locally as the Paddy Gates. Nobody seems to know why.

Rowanfield Road was described as “newly-formed” in 1869 and referred to simply as “the road between the Libertus estate and Westfield”, getting its present name around 1872. There are still some older houses in the street apart from Westfield, such as the old mill house (above) and a few 19th century cottages and short terraces. Kelly’s map of 1927 shows a sparsely developed street with the houses well spaced out and mostly occupied by market gardens, backing onto open fields. But since WW2 the gaps have been densely filled in with modern housing. In recent years there has been an unfortunate rash of property speculators cramming extra houses into any available slice of spare land or garden, which has given the street a more crowded feel.

Lined up for the same treatment is the former heart of the community, the quirky St Mark’s Parish Hall (above and below, and at the top of the page). This charming edifice of wood and corrugated iron was built in 1911, but sadly by 2008 it was abandoned, vandalised, and up for sale as a “residential development opportunity”. I wonder how many cruddy brick boxes they can cram onto the site?

These days the name Rowanfield is mainly associated with the large housing estate which extends over the former open fields and market gardens to the west of Rowanfield Road. Development began in the immediate post-war period, with the first houses built around 1949, and the streets were all named after southern English counties. It’s not one of Cheltenham’s most salubrious areas, to say the least, but all part of the town’s rich tapestry of contrasts.

There is also an industrial site in Rowanfield Road (below), one of Cheltenham’s older surviving factory buildings, still in use as business premises. These buildings are a relic of the celebrated¬†Sunningend complex which was the lynchpin of Cheltenham’s (tiny) industrial base. Operated by the prestigious local firm H.H. Martyn & Co. between 1906 and 1971, the Sunningend works was involved in a huge range of skilled engineering and craft trades. It was a specialist in monuments and architechtural features in stone, wood and metal, and the Speaker’s chair and Despatch Boxes in the House of Commons were made here, as were many fittings on the Titanic. The company also at various times branched out into building Wolseley cars and assembling aeroplanes, having taken over a neighbouring foundry and an engine works. This area has been an industrial estate since the 19th century because of its proximity to the railway, starting with the Vulcan Iron Works in 1872. On the 1927 map (below) it’s marked as “Aircraft Works”, while the Ordnance Survey of 1921 labels it “Engineering and Ship Decoration”.

Although there’s no visible trace of it, a buried stream flows underneath the road and into the entrance to Parkbury Close. I wonder if that explains the weird forces at work on the surface?

Here’s a map of the area in 1927, when it was still relatively undeveloped. The two streams shown running across the fields are still there today, but culverted. They eventually join up with and flow into the River Chelt.