I previously wrote about Flint and its 1960s tower blocks in a piece called Towers of Flint back in October 2013. The piece created quite a lot of interest and I was pleased to hear from Nada Shehab, an architecture student in Glasgow, who was writing about the Flint tower blocks. I agreed to put together for her a few notes of my childhood memories about the flats. The piece below is based on that set of notes, which I decided I’d like to share with a larger readership.
Flint, in North Wales, is a small town with a population of about 12,000. In the 1960s the local council decided that the best way to meet the town’s pressing housing needs would be to build a cluster of tower blocks replacing an area of sub-standard terraced housing and waste land to the rear of the High Street. Bolingbroke Heights and Richard Heights were completed in 1966 and a further block, Castle Heights, a couple of years later.
Flint is an ancient borough with a castle built during the reign of Edward I. The castle features in William Shakespeare’s play Richard II. In the 1960s the town had a solidly working-class character with most local men, and many of the women, working in one or other of the three Courtauld mills that operated in the town.
I was a child during the 1960s and was brought up just a few miles from Flint. My father’s best friend, Eddie, was a charge-hand at one of Flint’s mills. He and his wife, Rona, lived in a country cottage just outside Mold. It was a very basic stone-built cottage with no central heating and an outside loo. I remember it as quite a dark and musty house, but I enjoyed playing in the overgrown, tangled garden.
Britain was becoming prosperous in the 1960s and people were keen to put the prolonged period of post-war austerity behind them. In particular, they were keen to improve the quality of the homes they lived in. This was the era of ‘slum clearance’ and massive local-authority house building programmes; housing which often took the form of tower blocks.
Eddie and Rona had no particular connection with Flint. But I guess it was his job at the local Courtauld plant which led to them being offered a flat in Bolingbroke Heights, one of the town’s new tower blocks. They moved in, I seem to recall, in about 1966. I forget which floor they were on, but it was one of the upper ones, with stunning views over the town and towards the Welsh hills. The other side of the block, I imagine, would have looked out over the Dee estuary and towards the Wirral and Merseyside.
I visited Eddie and Rona with my parents quite often during the 1960s and always enjoyed the experience. To me, as a child, Bolingbroke Heights seemed incredibly modern and glamorous. My parents didn’t have a car, so we generally went to Flint by bus. I always felt excited as we drove into the town and caught first sight of the huge white towers dominating the town’s skyline and dwarfing the small grey buildings around them.
The notion of the ‘modern’ was very much part of the zeitgeist of this time and, as a child of the 1960s, I fully embraced this idea and quickly developed a fascination with tower blocks, which I have to this day. The special thing about Flint’s towers though was that I was able to go inside, and not just gaze at them from the outside.
I can’t remember exactly how we accessed the building, but I assume we had to ‘buzz’ up to Eddie and Rona’s flat on some kind of intercom system. But I do recall that the foyer of Bolingbroke Heights was very clean and well-lit and the lift was also spotlessly clean and graffiti-free. As a child I found the lift particularly impressive. In fact, it was quite a novelty for me, as a small-town boy with a love of technology.
I suppose what I liked most about the flat was the fact it was situated so high up and the views were so expansive. I found standing on the small balcony both exhilarating and slightly scary. Rona would often stand with me and point out different things in the view. The flat overlooked the local football ground and I recall at least one occasion when I watched Flint Town United from the balcony as they played another team in a cup-tie.
I loved spending time with Rona; she never spoke down to me as some adults did when addressing a child. She was also a voracious reader, which I thought was great as we had very few books in our house. I trace my love of photography back to this time too – Rona and Eddie gave me my first camera for my tenth birthday.
From memory I recall the flat had a living-room, kitchen, bathroom and a couple of bedrooms. It was all newly decorated and, to my young eyes, seemed very sophisticated. Though, on reflection, perhaps Eddie and Rona’s slightly shabby furniture from their cottage seemed a little incongruous in that setting. It seems odd now, but the label ‘old-fashioned’ was quite a pejorative term in the 1960s.
I think Eddie and Rona loved their new home; it was so clean, light and modern. They loved having a proper bathroom and indoor loo as well as central heating. During this period at least, I don’t recall there being any of the problems later associated with tower blocks: such as condensation from poor insulation and extortionate heating bills.
It didn’t occur to me at the time, but I’m sure some perfectly good houses were demolished to make way for the flats. But Flint Council, like so many others, made the decision that it was more economic to erect new concrete blocks than to upgrade older terraced housing. This was a time when both the government and the public mood supported large-scale investment in public housing.
Eddie and Rona were relatively young and active at this time and both were pretty out-going, so I don’t think isolation was ever a problem for them. Nor was I aware of any issues with crime, vandalism or anti-social behaviour in or around the towers. Let’s not forget that, initially at least, the residents of such blocks shared the idealism of the Le Corbusier-influenced town planners of that time. This was the future, and it was good. Eddie and Rona certainly held that view.
As I moved on to secondary school and university and developed my own social network, I saw less and less of Rona and Eddie, but my parents still kept in touch with them. I believe the pair of them lived in the flats for many years. Sadly, Eddie is no longer with us, and the last I heard of Rona she was living in sheltered accommodation.
I rarely visit Flint these days. But when I do, I like to gaze up at the tower blocks and remember those times with fondness. Sixties concrete architecture gets a bad press these days, but I think the Flint towers have a certain austere beauty. They serve also as a reminder of a more optimistic, egalitarian time.
O that I were a mockery king of snow
Standing before the sun of Bolingbroke
To melt myself away in water drops!
William Shakespeare, Richard II