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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 August 2006, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Britain's unsung landmarks
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Chemical works at Runcorn
A coincidental beauty?

We're lost without famous landmarks like Edinburgh Castle and the London Eye, a survey has found. But away from the sites that tourists love so much, what are Britain's unsung landmarks?

It is like a sea of lights, shining in the dark beneath you, spiralled towers and squat domes half-illuminated, like a glittering city by the roadside.

But it's not Rome by night. It's not even London viewed from Waterloo Bridge. It's the chemical works at Runcorn in Cheshire.

One of the most striking sights in the British Isles is an entirely utilitarian affair. The lights are not there to pick out a great monument for the benefit of passing motorists on their way to Liverpool. They are for safety and function. Any aesthetic effect is, in the words of one of the operators, "mere coincidence".

For some, Britain's most notable landmarks are the likes of Edinburgh Castle or St Paul's Cathedral. But beautiful and impressive as they are, these are Britain's picture postcard landmarks, and there are plenty more that might be worthy of the status of landmark.

Middlesbrough transporter bridge - picture: Dave Robinson

They are buildings that might only dream of featuring in a Visit Britain commercial, and yet they are every bit as distinctive as our castles and cathedrals.

The OED gives the definition of a landmark as "an object in the landscape, which, by its conspicuousness, serves as a guide in the direction of one's course (orig. and esp. as a guide to sailors in navigation); hence, any conspicuous object which characterises a neighbourhood or district".

There can be few buildings that fit the bill as well as Northampton's Express Lift tower. Miles inland, the 139yd-high (127m) former lift testing facility was once christened Northampton Lighthouse by Terry Wogan. The tower, opened in 1982, is a symbol of the decline of manufacturing industry in a town that is finding new prosperity elsewhere.

Bygone technology

"It is elegant, a complete one-off, and part of the history of the town which shouldn't be lost. I used to navigate by it," says Catherine Croft, director of the Twentieth Century Society, which works to protect modern buildings.

Another symbol of bygone technology is the gasometer at London's Oval. A testament to pre-North Sea gas Britain, it has watched over countless England cricket victories and defeats, as fans harboured idle fantasies that a lofted six might land on the top. And yet as distinctive as it is, it recently faced the threat of demolition as obsolete technology. However, its current owners say there are "no immediate plans to do anything to it". It is safe, for now.

The Oval gasometer
Chemical works, Runcorn
Express Lift Tower, Northampton
Transporter Bridge, Middlesbrough
Oval Gasometer, London
Dudley Zoo
Rotunda, Birmingham
Park Hill estate, Sheffield
Victoria Tower, Huddersfield
Trinity Centre Car Park, Gateshead
Westgate House, Newcastle

Hundreds of miles to the north, there is Middlesbrough's transporter bridge, one of only three left in the country. It is said to be the most photographed site in Middlesbrough, but then Ironopolis, as the town is sometimes known, is not an A-list spot on the tourist trail. However, what the bridge lacks in internationally appreciated elan it more than makes up for in local love.

When the BBC used it as the backdrop for a series of Auf Wiedersehen Pet, with the plot seeing it dismantled and taken to America, it had to put a disclaimer on the programme, reminding viewers that it was fiction.

Middlesbrough is said to have been the inspiration for the spectacular but dystopian industrial backdrop of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Maybe Runcorn could aspire to be the basis for the sequel.

Runcornians are perhaps not united in their affection for the stunning night time vista of the chemical works, with some residents concerned about pollution. Photographer John Davies used a panoramic view of the works as an art installation. He has photographed many industrial sites in the UK for his book, The British Landscape.

Loathed building

Asked to nominate a landmark, Davies chooses Westgate House in Newcastle upon Tyne. It's a distinctive former office block, built on "stilts", close to the central station. But whereas Middlesbrough's bridge is loved, and the view at Runcorn is easily remembered, Geordies are cheering as Westgate House succumbs to the wrecker's ball.

"Horrid," says a spokeswoman for Newcastle City Council. The building has swept the board in local searches for the city's most unpopular building. When the application came to demolish it, the council says it did not receive a single objection.
Northampton Express Lift tower
Northampton's tower is easy to spot

In Sheffield, there is slightly more ambivalence towards the Park Hill estate. Again a finalist on Demolition it has been described by one writer as an "icon of unpopularity", although that has not stopped it gaining listed status. Now it is set to get the luxury flat treatment, much to the incredulity of some in Sheffield.

Tony Belshaw, a reporter on the Sheffield Star, says opinion is split on the modernist estate, with its hated "streets in the sky".

"It is very prominent. The architecture is very brutalist. It has become very run down. Yet they are talking about one bedroom flats for 130,000 after the redevelopment. You are talking about one of the most notorious places... regarded as the Alamo."

One building that braved a period of unpopularity to become a truly iconic landmark is Birmingham's Rotunda.

"It may not be the prettiest building in the world, but we love it," a Birmingham Post editorial said.

It survived the bloody depredations of the IRA in the 1970s, and in the 1980s there were those who wanted to demolish it. But now it's a symbol of a booming city. It too is about to get be turned into luxury apartments.

Westgate House, Newcastle (Picture: John Davies)
Westgate House is the subject of hatred (Picture: John Davies)

Alexa Woodward, of Glenn Howells Architects, is one of those working on the project.

"Everyone knows someone who at some time has worked there. It is a people's building. A lot of the landmarks in the UK are historic, like Edinburgh Castle, maybe not settings that people associate with everyday life."

And there are plenty more buildings that, whether old, like Victoria Tower in Huddersfield, or more recent, like the Trinity Centre "Get Carter" car park in Gateshead, or obscure, like Dudley Zoo, might deserve the title of landmark.

They are often buildings that are loved in a quiet way, not by councillors and tourist bosses, or with immortalisation on T-shirts for tourists, but by ordinary people. They might even miss them if they went.

For every London Eye, Stonehenge, Blackpool Tower or Edinburgh castle, there are scores of less touristy, but equally loved, "unsung", landmarks. The Magazine is compiling a list of readers' favourites.

Using the form below, tell us, in 100 words or less, about your favourite unsung landmark and we'll publish a list of the best at the end of the week. Try to stick within the OED's definition of landmark: "a conspicuous object which characterises a neighbourhood or district". To send us a picture, see instructions below.

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your 'unsung' landmark and why you love in (100 words or less)

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.

How to send pictures of your favourite "unsung" landmark.

The best way to send pictures is to e-mail them to us. Send them to the.magazine@bbc.co.uk. with the subject line LANDMARK.

Don't forget to include your name.

If you want to send your picture from your mobile phone, dial 07725 100 100. You can send them from any network or phone. Please send the large full size images (usually 640x480 pixels) taken by the mobiles otherwise they are too small to publish.

If you submit an image, you do so in accordance with the BBC's Terms and Conditions.

In contributing to BBC News you agree to grant us a royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to publish and otherwise use the material in any way that we want, and in any media worldwide. (See the Terms and Conditions for the full terms of our rights.)

It's important to note, however, that you still own the copyright to everything you contribute to BBC News. This means you are perfectly free to take what you have produced and re-publish it somewhere else. Please note that if your image is accepted, we will publish your name alongside it on the BBC News website. The BBC cannot guarantee that all pictures will be published and we reserve the right to edit your comments.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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