It is a truism that retail in the post-covid world will be less about a trip to the shops and more about seeing and buying on-line. Shops are likely to become viewing centres and therefore must function on a different financial model to the present. The result will be that city and town centres will have fewer traditional shops. Town and city centres may be allowed to die in the way that Brixton, once the apogee of 1930’s retail, became a neglected and forgotten centre until its revival around the millennium.
So, what does Kingston do? Does it allow the centre to die slowly in the way its once famous markets have dwindled, or does it find a new focus?
Fortunately, Kingston is the centre of a rich cultural heritage. Unfortunately, its heritage has been treated as a garnish for its retail presence. Now is the time to do something about Kingston’s heritage before we become Anywhere-on-Thames.
Kingston has a fine library and museum, built through philanthropy at the very beginning of the 20th century. Kingston plans to replace the Kingfisher Leisure Centre on that same municipal site. What an opportunity. Build the leisure centre but complement it with a King Athelstan Visitor Centre, a local history centre, and a covered public space joining the new centres in a museum, library and leisure complex with shared facilities like toilets and cafes.
Just as the King Richard III Centre in Leicester celebrates a local king and provides a focus for a renewed emphasis on heritage to regenerate Leicester, so a new King Athelstan Visitor Centre would celebrate the unique Saxon heritage of Kingston, highlighting King Athelstan, in particular, and the part he played in shaping our country at a time when there was disunity, civil strife, and invasion. There is no other Saxon centre. It could chart the history and provide experiences utilising new forms of historical experience pioneered in Leicester and York amongst other places. For example, we might experience being immersed in a defensive Saxon shieldwall with Vikings trying to break through.
The History Centre provides an amazingly rich archive of documents, books, reports, pictures, photos, local newspapers, street directories and cultural records of numerous groups, shops (including Bentalls), organisations, clubs, and societies. Many of the records have been digitised at the expense of the ‘Friends of Kingston Museum and Heritage Service’. A lot of the archives are kept (at great expense) in an environmentally safe storage outside Kingston because the current site (the old magistrates court in the Guildhall) cannot accommodate the rich diversity. With the possible sale of the Guildhall, this invaluable resource will desperately need a home where it can continue its widely used work. Building a Local History Centre onto the Museum makes sense if it can incorporate the archives, research space and meeting rooms.
The Museum is already too small. It is a world leading site for Muybridge artefacts and the Marsh collection of ceramics, as well as an art gallery with pictures of historic import (e.g. the Brill collection which gives a prize each year for three paintings recording an area of Kingston likely to change or disappear). Important areas of Kingston’s history cannot be found space (e.g. history of the Hawker Hunter built in Kingston). The museum is working hard with the limited facilities it has to link with schools, local families and organisations (e.g. school visits, artist in residence, fun days, self-curated exhibitions from the local community, the Young People’s Collective). The incorporation of a History Centre with meeting rooms would allow for an expansion of exhibits and activities.
Currently the museum faces out onto what is now a dual carriageway ring road around the town centre and the library faces an unnecessary roadway and a facilities poor Fairfield. By turning the entrances around and using the vacant space for a King Athelstan Visitor Centre and History Centre with a portico, running from the Cattle Market to the Fairfield, linking it to the new leisure centre and library, suddenly there is a people centred space. Blocking off the end of Fairfield Road as a pedestrian area suddenly opens all sorts of opportunities for community activity. And how wonderful to move the Saxon coronation stone under the shelter of this public space!
This development creates a heritage hub in Kingston. By seeing Kingston as a centre from which people can access so much of our cultural past – Dorich House, Hampton Court, Kew Gardens, Marble Hill and Syon Houses, London’s plethora of museums, galleries such as G.F. Watts Gallery or Dulwich Gallery, and plenty more – Kingston becomes a honey-trap for heritage tourism.
To make this vision come alive, it needs the full support of the Council in submitting a bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund and linking it in with the development of the new leisure centre. It will also need all stakeholders – political parties, Friends of the Museum, Kingston Society, Kingston University and many others – to show their commitment. And the reward is a heritage hub that attracts visitors to Kingston, its hotels and places to stay, its restaurants, its shops, and its theatre. With the global interest in this era demonstrated through Netflix’s ‘The Last Kingdom’ and Amazon Prime’s ‘Vikings’ we know the demand is there to discover more about the Anglo-Saxons and King Athelstan in particular as the first King of England.
This is an opportunity to revitalise Kingston, its culture, and its economy. It is too good to miss!