Cedar Chase at 50

By planning each project on its own merits, by creating a coherent architectural and natural pattern that retains fine old trees and acknowledges the need for stretches of grass, that provides the requirements of modern living – the garages and parking areas – without allowing them to intrude, we ensure that estates look mature from the outset and retain an informal dignity that will be pleasant still in fifty years from now


The Sunday Times Colour Section launched in February 1962. It called its lifestyle strand ‘Design For Living’ after a caption in this Span prospectus. The 22 August 1962 Colour Section was a special ‘Design For Living’ edition about modern housebuilding. Span featured, its influence and reputation already out of all proportion to its small market share.

Span was represented in the article by its two best-known protagonists, who had by then been working together 10 years: Leslie Bilsby, joint MD, son of a Lincolnshire builder; and Eric Lyons, consulting architect, an OBE since 1959 who preferred to be known by his original calling of ‘designer’. They challenged conservatism everywhere: restrictive building practices; risk-averse building societies (‘the centre of the problem’); risk-averse developers who assumed all buyers were as conservative as they; outdated planning rules; amateurish Local Authorities (‘men with large black spectacles and small brains’); general ignorance of ‘good design’ (‘regarded as airy-fairy, added on if you can afford it’); and the absence of a ‘positive national planning and land policy’. Bilsby and Lyons especially disliked the new ‘preservationism’ of which the HTS (established 1959) was the very archetype. ‘It is harder to create than to preserve.’

Span made a virtue of the necessity of higher-density housing – but avoided building upwards, which isolates, or in pocket plots which waste land, look untidy, cost more to maintain, and also isolate. Lyons explored ‘the potential in suburban life’, nudging neighbours into consenting community. Span always intended this only for those with a ‘cultivated background’. Some Span ideas jar today: its preference for 99-year leases over atomised freeholds to allow ‘future renewal on a comprehensive level’. Or that ‘the same house for all one’s life is out of date’. Others proved more durable. On bossy residents’ associations Lyons noted ‘I’m not afraid of discipline: people seem to like it and accept it’. From his train window, Lyons noticed 25 percent of gardens were tended reasonably. ‘We enjoy gardens more than gardening. Give people bigger gardens than they get with a house, tend those gardens and remove the drudgery and you provide pride of ownership’. On privacy ‘I wanted to give people the option of privacy, instead of enforced privacy.’

In February 1964 Span submitted its application for ’24 terrace houses in six blocks’ on Taplow’s ‘Bible College site’. This fell outside the County Development Plan, so Eton RDC referred it to Bucks County Council to make a recommendation to the Ministry of Housing. County remarked the proposal ‘would lead to pleasant development of the site’ and in May recommended approval subject to improving highway sightlines and adding a 200-foot layby along Rectory Road. Span took particular exception to interference with its roads and paths, Lyons preferring where possible to keep roads private to avoid bye-laws of dimensions and materials.

While the Ministry cogitated, the remaining 30 students of the Bible College departed for Ware, and the Diocese applied to build 10 houses on the site of the (old) Rectory, for which County’s stipulations ran to over a page instead of the two paragraphs for the favoured Span. In August, the Ministry approved Span’s Gerrards Cross project on appeal, and in September, it approved Taplow subject to Span agreeing highways with Eton.

This took 11 months, Span finding Eton ‘obstructionist, unenlightened and unreasonable’. Taplow Parish Council meanwhile proposed naming the new estate ‘Serocold’. Span countered with a shortlist of Cedar Hill, Cedar Chase or Cedar Grove.

Local objection started on sight of the first elevations in early 1966. Planning law required applicants to publish basic plans, but not details. Span would anyway take its time over these, Eric Lyons determining everything from trees to television aerials. ‘I’m all for control of where new buildings should be built, but I’m absolutely against anyone except the architect deciding what the houses should look like’.

Cedar Chase was the first time Span used its own building subsidiary Building Span Ltd. This paid its labour ‘guaranteed weeks’ whether it worked or not, giving rise to Span’s innovation of temporary roofing to allow work in all weathers. The Maidenhead Advertiser published a photograph of this on 11 March 1966, reporting the show house (number 9) open, its décor including a pub mirror, a Malay railway coat of arms and a brass bedstead with a red phone on one side and an old oil lamp the other.

Anger at the ‘eggboxes’ culminated at the 21 October 1966 HTS AGM at the WI, by when the insults included ‘futuristic crematoria’ (Victor Williams) and ‘public lavatories’ (Eileen Law). Mark Pick of Berry Hill predicted ‘Taplow will develop into a slum’. Span’s Leslie Bilsby declined an invitation: ‘We have no wish to persuade your members to like our work and we see little point in attending a meeting where minds are closed. Until our whole development is complete and the landscape work begins to mature, the unpractised eye, and uninformed mind, will not comprehend the integrity of our work. It is better to have a clearly expressed design of architecture quality than the dreary neo-Georgian and Builders’ Contemporary which has been foisted on the village during the past decade.’

In September 1967 Cedar Chase was among 14 winners from 358 entrants in the annual competition for Good Design In Housing inaugurated in 1961 by the Ministry of Housing and RIBA. The criteria comprised design, appearance and grouping, building standards, and satisfaction of occupants. Cedar Chase was never going to be Eric Lyons’ last word. After the planning frustrations here and at Gerrards Cross, Span gave up on small estates. In my opinion it is however an outstanding expression of Eric Lyons’ will and Span’s ingenious means.

Adam Smith