Architecture: One medieval market town: going, going, almost gone?: Bury St Edmunds may have to bid farewell to its old auction rings, writes Vicky Cruickshank

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The Independent Culture
BURY ST EDMUNDS is a Suffolk market town of extraordinary quality, its medieval street pattern largely intact and still organised around two large and informal open spaces, Angel Hill and Buttermarket.

Once a week, Buttermarket is transformed into a thriving open-air market, drawing farmers with their livestock and produce from the surrounding countryside - visible still as you look down the town's main streets - as if the working rhythms of pre-war rural England were still with us. It is one of the few towns where the agricultural community that feeds it is still drawn to its centre; in most British towns today, the countryside and its messy ways might as well not exist.

The views from the porticoed Georgian Corn Exchange past the ruined abbey and beyond to the countryside give the impression of a town that, although far from being pickled in aspic - it has yet to be taken over by the heritage business - is nevertheless a bastion of an England that has since been swamped by cars, executive cul-de-sacs, one-way systems and retail developments.

On Wednesdays cows, pigs, sheep and a variety of other animals are auctioned off here in their thousands. The action takes place inside three 19th-century auction rings built in the form of small Classical amphitheatres.

With their peeling cream and brown paint, steep steps strewn with straw, crowds of bidding farmers, the spiel of auctioneers and the noise and smell of the animals, it is hard to believe that Bury St Edmunds is in the heart of the Suffolk commuter belt.

Naturally, this is all too good to last, and development plans are threatening to mangle the heart of the town. The district council is deciding whether to go ahead with a scheme to replace the cattle market and old shops with a large shopping centre.

Over the past 20 years, the citizens of Bury have fought off a number of absurd plans to ruin the town. In the early Seventies, they beat down a scheme that would have replaced medieval houses and shops with a shopping mall. Soon after, an attempt was made to pull down the Corn Exchange, a 1770s design by Robert Adam. The plan was defeated by the Bury Society, formed for the purpose.

The latest threat is particularly disturbing. Chartwell Land, the developer selected by the council through a competition, wants to smother the 12 acres of the cattle market with shops, department stores, offices and parking, all designed in heritage-style, pseudo-Suffolk vernacular by the architects Fitch Benoy.

The original brief made clear that the cattle market must stay, on the insistence of the auctioneers Simpson & Sons and Lacy Scott. But, says Peter Plumridge, chairman of the Bury Society, 'almost immediately Chartwell Land persuaded the auctioneers to change their minds and agree to moving the cattle market out of town. This was odd, because one of the other competition finalists had been disqualified for proposing the very same thing.'

He adds: 'The design is, as you would expect, tacked-on, two-dimensional developers' vernacular. The Bury Society is not against all development, but this particular scheme is too much, too soon; it will swamp the town.'

Nigel Aitkens, leader of the council, says: 'The existing town centre lacks department stores and the livestock market is in need of refurbishment - although I believe it should stay where it is.'

If one good thing can be said for the scheme, it is that it might fill Bury's coffers; but, given the recession, this is unlikely for years to come. Hugh Godfrey, an accountant and local councillor, says: 'An unusual financial arrangement is involved in the proposals in that the borough will receive a proportion of the profit when the development is sold on, but market conditions are so poor that the project stands to make a loss.'

It would also radically upset existing patterns of local trading. Chartwell Land is part of the Kingfisher group, which owns Woolworths, Superdrug, B & Q and Comet. All these stores would move into the new development. If others followed, this would play havoc with the old town centre. There are at least 50 empty shops in Bury already, and closures are continuing. .

Alan Johnson, chief planning officer at the council, refuses to comment publicly on the scheme, although he has the power to influence the laymen who make up the local planning committee with his professional view of the development plans.

David Gregory, new scheme director of Chartwell Land, says: 'There is no architectural criticism of this scheme; in fact, English Heritage and the Royal Fine Art Commission both think that it fits in well. The new development follows the medieval street plan and is a natural extension of the existing town.

'As far as moving the market is concerned, if livestock markets are to survive, they will have to move out of town into purpose- built sites.

'I think this scheme is the biggest effort anyone has yet made to integrate the new with the old, and I am sure people will flow happily between the two.'

The scheme is being considered at a time when financial arguments on its side carry little, if any, weight; this could be fortunate for Bury, since if the scheme does go ahead, it seems certain that the town's historic core would suffer from lack of use, and buildings would probably be left empty and decaying. That would be a sad fate for one of England's finest working market towns.

(Photograph omitted)