Chalfonts, Tadcaster Road
Shepherds Design Group, 1969

One of the Finest Examples of Speculative Housing in York (….But Who Is the Bear?)

Courtyard with bush in centre lined by lawns
Fig. 1: Chalfonts. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Chalfonts is without any doubt one of the finest examples of speculative housing in York. It provokes a real fondness – and, for me, envy – as I am not fortunate enough to live there. In 1970, York-based Shepherds Design Group won an ‘Award for Good Design’ for what they achieved at Chalfonts. The assessors stated that there is nothing “unusual, ingenious or exceptional in the separate elements of this scheme.”1 Specifically, it was the “manner in which these undistinguished elements were assembled” that so impressed them.2 They felt that the sense of place achieved was reminiscent of the English village tradition. 

More than half a century later, this familiar and comforting impression endures, and likely just as successfully as it did then. One of the great things about Chalfonts is that the houses look onto one another, across a flag-stoned square and well-kept lawns, as though the togetherness of life is the most important thing. No fence, iron gate or hedge impinges on this feeling. Possessive markers of this sort have never felt necessary, here. Such an addition would entirely spoil the wholeness of the place.

Pathway across lawn past fence and tree
Fig. 2: footpath to 1969 development at Chalfonts. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.

Set back off Tadcaster Road, the cul-de-sac of ten houses is accessed by passing between two rows of flat-roofed garages, and then turning left before stooping beneath the branches of an old willow tree. The garage units are simple, but decent enough and in seemingly fine condition, now 50-something years after their completion. As well as being saved from its own cars, Chalfonts has also very intentionally been spared the burden of passing traffic. The quietness of this little community is scarcely troubled by the constant commuting that is taking place on either side of it. Barely a sound can be heard from Tadcaster Road to the east or the railway lines to the west.

When you are talking about buildings and realise that the architecture itself is secondary to what it does to its environment, it is invariably (though certainly not always) due to its great success. But anything that can be said of the architecture here could only equal the strong sense of place that it establishes, and which is so warmly felt. Like the accompanying photographs, these words written so far suggest that this development is evocative of Eric Lyons’ SPAN.3 Just like Lyons’ model of living, the architecture of Chalfonts is only a component piece of its full achievement.

But of the architecture, something must be said. Pitched roofs and tile-hanging bricks have been employed above large, flat, dual-aspect windows which, fitted the full height of the ground floor, allow as much light as possible to pour into the living rooms at one side and the dining rooms at the other. On the first floor, most houses have one bathroom and four bedrooms. A WC by the front door is a handy convenience and seen as a sensible design choice in the late 1960s. Concerning later alterations, of which there have admittedly been plenty, none has been to the detriment of Chalfonts. The buildings remain straightforward, happy and as much as you would ever want for a home and community of housing.

There is a lonely sculpture of a bear that sits at the centre of the cul-de-sac and watches over the plaque that was awarded to Shepherds. This endearing, bronze-filled, fibreglass sculpture was supplied by Midland Art Services, but the identity of its maker(s) and the reason why this charming bear occupies this particular spot remain unexplained.

Bear sculpture in in courtyard
Fig. 3: bear sculpture by Midland Art Services at Chalfonts. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.
Weathered plaque featuring Vitruvian Man
Fig. 4: Ministry of Housing and Local Government award plaque, 1969. Photo: © Richard Burrows, 2022.