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From a vision, to the start of a reality

20 March 2017
Ben Pentreath
30 Comments

It’s Monday evening and I’ve just come back from two brief, glorious days in Scotland. Charlie stayed in Dorset with Henry and Mavis, to which end, time and again, I kept on thinking why hadn’t we make slightly better plans, but next time…

I have been visiting for the first time in 18 months.  If you are a very well-informed blog reader, you may remember a post that I wrote back in the early autumn of 2015, which you can read here (you have to scroll down to the second part of the blog, past the Italy bit, to find what I am talking about…) all about the founding of the new town of Tornagrain in the Scottish Highlands.

I’ve been working on this wonderful project for 11 or 12 years now. The town is the vision of our client, the Earl of Moray. Almost two decades ago, enlightened planners and politicians in The Highland Council began to realise that the capital city of the Highlands, fair Inverness, could not continue to grow in a chaotic, unplanned, suburban explosion without choking to a slow death from cars, sprawl and arterial ring roads. The city had expanded hugely in the preceding thirty years, a growth that was predicted to continue unabated.  So they put the call out to local landowners and estates to consider plans for a number of settlements, where all these houses and businesses could be planned together into new towns in a much more coherent and logical way – instead of becoming a parasite on the edge of an already struggling and overloaded system.

Years went by as the Estate slowly developed plans – masterminded by the brilliant American planner Andres Duany. In the early days, when I was a lot younger, long before the shop or this blog existed (in fact before I had a single employee in the office) I helped to put together some of the many architectural images that gave texture and life to the emerging plans for the town.  About six or seven years ago, now, I guess, as the outline permissions began to come through, and a host of huge technical challenges were met, my appointment began to take shape more seriously. And we started to design houses.

Eighteen months ago, ground was broken and this moment was commemorated with a town founding ceremony on a hot windy day, a moment that felt extremely moving as John’s son played the bagpipes with his school friend from a nearby woodland.

Roads and services were laid. Foundations went in. Houses started to be built. No-one knew quite what the reaction would be. There are very, very few settlements in Scotland being planned along traditional architectural lines, or with a huge mix of house types and cafes, shops, houses and commercial space throughout the scheme – in the way established by the trailblazing development of Poundbury, planned by the Prince of Wales and Leon Krier, now nearly thirty years ago. It was with a lot of trepidation that development actually began on the ground – after all the years of planning.  The reaction has been incredible – sales moving much faster than expected.

Rob, one of my right hand people in the office, has been making many trips up, and with the help of digital cameras and dropbox, no detail of the construction missed our attention. The Moray Estates have also supervised everything brilliantly. A long time went by when for a million small reasons I didn’t quite get to head up north myself.

So you can imagine I was quite excited to be met at the airport by John Moray and his wife Cathy yesterday morning – and to make my first trip to the first street, that has just been unveiled.  So much work has gone into this moment that it’s one of those times when you stand back and think – just for a second “OKAY…. this has gone okay” (before doing brief mental cartwheels to the end of the road and back).

Here is the first street of houses.  The houses are actually paired villas.  The door on the main street leads to the slightly larger house on the right hand side.  Around the corner, on the side elevation, is the door to the smaller house on the left.   They were a new plan type that we developed for this very spot. They are absolutely wonderful inside, light and airy. Yet the plans are actually quite small three bedroom homes. 

Looking the other way, the street leads up to a taller apartment building that faces on one of the little squares that is under construction at the moment.

The estate railings will be painted gloss white and have a beech hedge planted behind them – a highly characteristic part of the urban and village landscape here. 

Behind this first street is a tiny cluster of cottages around a sloping green, ‘Malvina Green’, named for John’s mother, Lady Moray, who is a formidable and brilliant person.

A view back to the apartments:

A wide low gable with a tiny casement window:

Black and white windows with bold splashes of colour on the doors.

A view through the woods.

We’ll return to Tornagrain later but for those readers who need a bit of not-just-architecture to drool over during their morning coffee, here is a blustery, beautiful Moray Firth looking way across to the Black Isle. 

We went for lunch in Nairn and pottered around the little harbour.  I couldn’t help but agree with the way these two yachts had been berthed in the harbour. 

John and I adored this little tug boat but I need to send the photo to the Captain Pentreath to find out anything more about what it would have been used for. Looking back across the beach to Nairn. This is a dream part of the world. Why has it been so long since we’ve been up (because we’ve been busy, I suppose, but that’s really no excuse).

On our way home we stopped at another piece of heaven. John and Cathy wanted me to meet their friend, the brilliant botanical artist Ruth Forbes.  Her house is amazing – long and low, built around a beautiful garden courtyard. 

Next door is her incredible walled garden, waiting to be turned back into a vegetable garden one day.

The peacocks were just heading up to their tree to roost. 

I asked Ruth if I may take a photo, not for publication. “Oh I am happy whatever you do!” she replied, happily, so I am afraid I took her at her word. Is this not the most comfortable and relaxing and beautiful sitting room you have seen in a long while? Do you see what I mean about dream house? There is something about houses in Scotland that have a peaceful and restful and timeless feeling like no others.

Ruth’s glazed courtyard rooms are filled with a huge collection of geraniums. 

We tore ourselves away as the light was fading.  On the way back we stopped at the beautiful tiny Moray estate village of Whitemire, with its extraordinary single storey cottages with huge porches made of great ‘knobbly spruce’ columns.  We have designed the same to happen in the new development. 

A lovely evening with John and Cathy, and then we were back at the job site all day today, answering questions and running through details and then considering, as a team, which parcel of land to move the development to next.  A lot of walking, one minute in glorious sunshine…

one minute in sleeting rain (or both at the same time…):Here is a huge pair of sandstone pier caps being lifted on to their gate piers:

It was brilliant to meet Jonny, on the right here, who with his wife and family is the first resident of Tornagrain – moving in later this week or next.  As it happens, he’s actually helped to build the houses. On the left is Lord Moray. A moment. Smiles all round.It’s quite a strange thought being the first person to move into a new town that will one day have five thousand homes.

Our knobbly spruce columns on the little bus stop:

The new part of the street being built and houses going up, looking back to a key house which is  rotated through 90 degrees to face down this long, curving vista:
Looking back. One day all this will be built.
Tonight, I’m going to go to sleep dreaming of the Edinburgh New Town. All fields, once upon a time.  And I dare to think that, in those rare moments in life when everything aligns, it is still possible to create places of beauty and meaning and endurance from the earth.

30 comments on this post

Raedmundsays:

It is wonderful seeing the photos of Kinsteary – my home growing up. Very nostalgic! Almost nothing has changed! It looks like the moat in the courtyard may have been filled in and the walled garden are better tended than I recall (we contained wild boar there to weed the place). I love that my grandfather’s geraniums are still there and delighted that the rose garden on the back lawn overlooking the pond is gone. I’m so happy that the foxes haven’t eaten all of Freddy the peacock’s, descendants (what a racket they make!). I have a scar on my head from a fall from the bough upon which that peacock is sitting. My tree…

Perhaps my measurements are still imprinted on the kitchen door.

Evelynsays:

I followed the development online and last summer we went to see Tornagrain offline. My instant reaction was tears in my eyes. I totally loved the feel of the place. I don’t think I will return unless I find a pot of gold…

southern galsays:

will they take applications from an american ready to flee?

Diane Keanesays:

Kudos, Ben! And to all. How wonderful that thought and planning are being done instead of just sprawling. I love the houses. Why can’t they build like that here in the U.S.? For decades we’ve been plagued with “McMansions,” hideous huge places that gobble up the terrain and waste space and materials. It must be very gratifying to see your years of labor come to fruition.

Hugs,

Diane

Wilmasays:

Ben we met for the first time at Tornagrain show house, it’s lovely to put a face to a name , as you will know by now we have had some residents “move in” all are experiencing the joys of a new home and are quite giddy with enthusiasm…and quite rightly.
The houses and apts are really quite stunning standing proudly with the lovely evening sunlight bouncing off them ..you must be delighted to see your plans and thoughts come to fruition…..so do come and visit again soon …..watch us grow
TORNAGRAIN

Whitsays:

What a pleasant surprise that a planned town CAN be lovely and not kitsch and bland. Build more!

whatmrsfitzgeraldsawsays:

Oh that’s my street above!
Really looking forward to seeing your new work, I love what you’ve done down at Knockroon, the houses are superb, both beautiful and liveable – William Morris would be well chuffed!

Nicolasays:

It’s very interesting to see the development of a new town. Are the owners obliged to keep to the colour scheme, and how long will the white remain white in the local climate? It’s also nice to see houses with chimneys; they just look unsatisfactory otherwise. I’m hoping the Duke of Marlborough, who has alllocated land for housing on his estate near Woodstock, Oxon, is taking note. Bravo! Best, Nicola

Mary-Annesays:

Brilliant work Ben & team – may we get some interior shots of the new dwellings please, next time?

Clay McCleerysays:

Wow! Now I really need to win the lottery!
I think this community ticks all of the boxes for me, more so than Poundbury (and I like that village a lot, as well, but I have more Scottish roots, than English)!
Love the duplex idea. Anxiously awaiting continued updates! Clay

Nicola Lawrencesays:

This is so good, Ben. I wish town planners and people too such care and interest here. I love the Charlie Destiny boat mooring photo – pure joy. xx

glendasays:

be still my beating heart on yer’ “knobbly spruce painted white” columns and ruth forbes courtyard room (sigh) and sitting room, magically perfectly tasteful and timeless. fascinating to see housing construction with scaffolding and not just cranes holding up built some place else walls. impressive to see your architectural work(s), dear ben, and easy to see the without peer’ influences of the wondrous adventures you invite us on weekly.

a prosperous week to you dear ben and your charlie and mavis.

glenda

Francessays:

So exciting to see! It all looks splendid! Congratulations.

dana jenkinssays:

I’ve never seen anything like those “knobbly spruce pillars”- crazy about them and crazy about the fact that you’re using them as a thread to tie the old with the new. wonderful

Junesays:

I’m so thankful for your photographs, Ben. How else would we get to enjoy fine, well loved private spaces like these? The stone walled gallery with the warm wood floors and leather settees has really got something.

Your town project is beautiful. Soulful and inviting. From these photographs it’s clear how successful an outcome you’ve all achieved after painstaking planning and careful construction. Hooray for you and everyone involved!

Pierre B.says:

This is what we can call an impressive post. Congratulations and keep the good work!

Annasays:

Oh Ben, how wonderful to see a new development of houses where they AREN’T “all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same” (which is sadly what seems to happening at the moment in and around Bath where I am lucky enough to live) Fortunate people who are going to live in your houses and well done and good wishes for the completion of your project.

Jagnansays:

Stunning! Wonderful! Brilliant! May I have a cottage on the green, please?!!

Sarahsays:

Wow, such a lovely project and how wonderful to have that as part of your legacy of work, it all looks so beautiful. Congratulations to everyone involved.

Brandon Gehrkesays:

We must meet up soon! Surely, we rubbed shoulders in Edinburgh; I was enjoying the beauty of New Town over the weekend as well, albeit only for a short jaunt from Northumberland. Well done with getting Tornagrain off to such as promising start. Looks fab.

Lucy Hsays:

Such a wonderful project. Congratulations.

Andrew Bsays:

Fascinating… Thank you and lets hope eventually somewhere in the new town there is a square called Pentreath Place

Stephanie Berrusays:

Lovely arrangement of houses. Will we get to see some interior views of them?

David Sanderssays:

I couldn’t agree more about the worthiness of traditional Scottish house architecture; well I would say that, as I live in a faithful replica of one, circa 2003. Designed by an old Christchurch NZ architect; I think he was approx 90 at the time.
It’s wonderful to see developments like this go ahead Ben – to see something that actually enhances a landscape rather than being a blot on it.

Debrasays:

Congratulations Ben on a magnificent new development the houses look like proper houses where real people will enjoy living in. It must be incredible to see your designs manifest into reality absolutely amazing. The houses reflect personality bold solid functional homely and welcoming and so much care and attention will your name appear on one of the street names hope so fascinating Ben blog hope we will have more to come thank you.

columnistsays:

A second Scottish Enlightenment? It seems to be in such a beautiful setting, below a backdrop of pines. Your pictures of Edinburgh include Ann Street, no? A lovely part; we lived in Eglinton Crescent, right in the centre of the double crescent (with Glencairn), overlooking the gardens.

Mikesays:

Kudos on your collaboration with the Earl- a win win for all involved. And Ruth’s drawing room is splendid,I might never tear myself away.

Gillsays:

My favourite street in Edinburgh. Ann st.
Stockbridge in the new town is where I hope to live one day, after my time here in Australia.
Cheese shops, fish shops, brilliant charity shops, lively pubs, and great food, not to mention the lovely Sunday market! My heart is there. Alas, I’m not. Yet!
Really love reading your blog.
I can’t wait to return to your side of the world later this year. Finished 9 years of work in Oz now it’s time for home.
Cheers you’ve kept me going.

connie kennedysays:

Wow!

Annie Dsays:

How wonderful to be part of the effort to create something so important and lovely. I wish all new developments were made with the same care, creativity, and view to the future. Congratulations!

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