Making a stand

The oldest surviving grandstand is under threat, writes Duncan Young. But having been derelict for some time, would it really be missed?

A structure reckoned to be the oldest surviving wooden grandstand in the country is under threat from the redevelopment of a historic site in Milton Keynes. The London & Birmingham Railway Company founded the town of Wolverton in 1838 around its new station and carriage works exactly halfway between the line’s endpoints. Wolverton Park was established by the company as a recreation ground in 1885 behind the engine shed that housed the royal train and in 1899 the local athletics club added a 100-seat grandstand, used by spectators both at their meetings and also at matches hosted by the company’s football team. 

“The Park” originally witnessed Southern League football, but soon the club became Wolverton Town and played in various south midlands leagues. Aston Villa played a friendly once, in a transfer deal. The club eventually settled in the United Counties League, until a switch to the Isthmian in the Eighties heralded three name changes in three seasons and ultimately the club’s early-Nineties demise.

The most recent tenants at Wolverton were Milton Keynes City, formerly the Mercedes Benz works team. They reached the FA Vase fourth round in 2001-02 before bowing out to Whitley Bay, then folded in 2003 as sponsorship dried up in advance of the arrival of Wimbledon FC. “We even offered Wimbledon to sell our name, Milton Keynes City, to them and we would revert to Wolverton Town,” recalls former chairman Bob Flight, “but they decided they weren’t going to do that. They wanted to still call themselves Wimbledon.”

The abandoned ground became overgrown and the grandstand suffered as water from the broken guttering of the long-derelict train shed above poured on to its roof, exacerbating the damage wrought by vandalism. Meanwhile, the Park and the huge shed were becoming key features of a redevelopment planned after Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott earmarked Milton Keynes as a “target growth area”.

National agency English Partnerships and regeneration specialists Places for People became involved and planning permission has been applied for. The shed would become flats and businesses and the park would be spruced up, but the fate of the historic grandstand was uncertain. Initially renovation was discussed, but then the stand seemed to disappear from some plans altogether before being put firmly back on the agenda last year by Wolverton Society for Arts and Heritage (WSAH) in a campaign highlighted by the local media.

The matter is the subject of a public meeting at 7pm on February 16 at the town’s Wyvern School. Denise Ilett, the society’s spokesperson, asks local residents and interested parties to make their voices heard either in person or at “We’d like [the stand] to be refurbished pretty much on site and remain where it is, where it makes sense and where it’s always been,” says Ilett explaining the society’s support for option two on the agenda. Option three grants renovation but mandates permanent removal to a museum or similar institution, while option one endorses the complete scrapping of the stand that Ilett argues is integral to the site. “The royal train shed revetment was actually cut to shape so that the grandstand could be fitted into it.” The wood itself may well have been cut yards away at the train company’s sawmill. Ilett feels the structure would make little sense displayed freestanding elsewhere.

The group of Dutch groundhoppers who came to this country specifically to see the stand would agree, as would many who make the pilgrimage to the peacefully nostalgic scene. Ilett fears the consequences of conveniently warehousing local history: “You end up not having any landmarks.”

From WSC 229 March 2006. What was happening this month