A Place Called Nowhere

Until I read the below passage in a 1945 edition of the Taunton Courier it had never occurred to me that the place where I grew up had once been nameless.

Regarding Eastover housing scheme, it was reported that the Minister of Health agreed in principle to the proposal to acquire 75 acres of land between Bath-road and Weston Zoyland-road. The District Valuer was instructed to negotiate for acquisition of the land, and it was decided that the site should in future be referred to as the Sydenham Estate. [1]

Not a place, then, but a void between places, and that’s certainly how it looks on historic maps of Bridgwater:

A map of field patterns.
SOURCE: Know Your Place West.

But maps, and especially this type of administrative map, do tend to reduce anything but the densely urban to an off-white nothing. The abstract above – that snow drift and irregular fishnet – actually represents a pattern of fields stretching out behind Bower Farm. (The buildings of Bower Farm were demolished years ago, swallowed up by another estate – private, this time – and on its site are now a shopping arcade with a Tesco Metro and a Chinese restaurant.) Thought not named on the map I’d bet anything those fields were known as Bower Fields, even if the mapmakers didn’t know it.

Bower Estate would have been a good a name for the council development that grew there in the 1940s and 1950s but instead it took its name from the Manor of Sydenham, on the other side of the main Bath Road.

1947 aerial photo in black and white.
Bower Farm (rear) and the first houses on the new Sydenham Estate, 1947. SOURCE: Britain from Above.

The present Sydenham House was built c.1500 for the Percival family. It was marched past by the Duke of Monmouth on his way to the fateful Battle of Sedgemoor in 1685, and was later the site of a noted incident of nocturnal levitation, but otherwise sat quiet and alone in the flat landscape. Then, in the 1930s, Bridgwater burst its boundaries and the British Cellophane factory was built on land adjoining Sydenham House. Trapped in a no-mans-land between this huge new development and the railway line the house became inaccessible and invisible, and was largely forgotten. The name lingered, though, having been given to Sydenham Terrace, a row of red-brick workers cottages built in 1865, and to the grander Sydenham Villa.

Oh, yes – brick. Bridgwater was a brick-making town, and the West Country a brick-making region, and the fact that the houses at this new place, the Sydenham Estate, were to be built in concrete caused some controversy. BRIDGWATER WANTS BRICK HOUSES read one 1948 headline [2] and the town council were repeatedly criticised for failing to take advantage of a supposed 10 million local bricks ready for use. Not Bridgwater bricks, though, replied the council, and anyway, where are the bricklayers to turn them into homes? [3] The town wanted to build 2,000 houses, public and private, as quickly as possible and there was no room for sentiment. [4]

Drawing of a council house.

Perhaps this was a mistake. A place being created from nothing, in the middle of nowhere, literally on the wrong side of the tracks, could have used something to tie it to the town of which it was supposed to belong. As it was those Laing Easiform and Cornish Unit concrete houses not only seemed alien but were also the same as thousands of others up and down the country, which meant the Sydenham Estate could have been anywhere. Shown photographs with only the name for a caption, wouldn’t most people guess that it is in south London? Later on, in the late 1950s, when permission was given for a brewery to build a pub on the estate, magistrates quietly objected to the suggested name, The Lorna Doone. It was changed, accordingly, to The Withy Cutter in reference to the Somerset levels willow industry. [5] Too little, too late.

Drawing of a council house.

When Sydenham really became a place, it was defined by negatives. It was referred to on the news as ‘the troubled Sydenham Estate’, and my peers called it The ‘Nam. This was a self-deprecating joke – it was hardly South Central Los Angeles – but also reflected a low-key ghetto mentality. We’re stuck out here together, us versus them, and it’s a combat situation. Who ‘they’ were depended on context. Within the estate, Sydenham Road and Longstone Avenue had a wary rivalry, each convinced the other was a no-go area; and the Sydenham Estate as a whole was set against the Hamp Estate on the other side of town, where we kids were warned never to go. (Of course when I did go, I found a twin – approximately the same kinds of houses, an exact clone of the shopping arcade, and a secondary school which looked like an off-kilter version of mine.)

But Sydenham, barely baked, seems to be fading away. Sydenham Villa, on the other side of Bath Road from the estate, was demolished as long ago as the 1950s. In around 1991 my secondary school ditched the doubly toxic Sydenham Comprehensive label in favour of ‘East Bridgwater Community School’. Then, in 2011, Sydenham ceased to exist as a council ward, replaced by Fairfax and Dunwear, two new wards that split the estate through the middle and effectively deny its existence. Estate agents marketing houses in the area tend to refer to them as being “on the east side of town” or, even more vaguely, “a popular residential location”. I wonder if this place, conjured into existence in 1945, will make its hundred years.

1. 6 October 1945, p.5.
2. Taunton Courier, 4 December 1948, p.3.
3. Taunton Courier, 5 January 1946, p.6.
4. Taunton Courier, 6 October 1945, p.5.
5. Taunton Courier, 29 March 1958, p.8.

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