Peterlee, County Durham

PUBLISHED: 15:47 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:28 20 February 2013

Upperchare in Peterlee shopping centre. Courtesy of Durham County Council

Upperchare in Peterlee shopping centre. Courtesy of Durham County Council

Barbara Mason examines the distinctive look of Peterlee and ponders on Picasso's influence

Known for its flat roofs, architecturally much of Peterlee is a challenge. Situated just off the A19 between Sunderland and Hartlepool, Peterlee was designated as a New Town in March 1948 as the country looked to rebuild after World War Two. Consisting almost entirely of post war buildings, Peterlee is a place that people tend to either love or hate.

Like it or loathe it, the distinctive look of much of Peterlee gives the town its own identity in a region book-ended by surviving rows of Victorian terraces and 20th century housing estates.

Planned by Berthold Lubetkin, the architecture of Peterlee was even the subject of a Radio Four documentary broadcast last May.

Nothing sums up the monstrosity or masterpiece quandary of the town more than the controversial Apollo Pavilion, now restored thanks to a 336,000 grant after being allowed to deteriorate to the point where demolition was an option.

Begun in 1969 and completed the following year, the Apollo Pavilion takes its name from the Apollo space programme that in July, 1969, duly delivered Neil Armstrong as the first man on the moon.

This is one small step began Armstrong famously, but the Pavilion that took the Apollo moniker was a step too far for some people not enamoured with concrete-based Sixties buildings. The brainchild of artist Victor Passmore, who had been influenced by the Cubist Pablo Picasso, the Apollo Pavilion is iconic of Peterlee New Town.

I was part of a steering group to get it cleaned up, says Peterlee resident Dominic Wade, who accepts it is a brutalist architecture which is not everybodys cup of tea and is something of an acquired taste.

Before the restoration it looked derelict but I think its quite rare for a town to have a sculpture by a distinctive artist. especially in the middle of housing with the same sort of design.

Someone who has acquired the taste is Stuart Johnston, a native of Birmingham who, in recent years, has lived in Peterlee. Before it was restored it was an eyesore but now I do quite like it because I can see it has a character that is rare in a housing estate.

Whatever your view of the view Peterlee affords, look beneath the surface appearance of the place that looks a bit different to the place where you live and Peterlee has the kind of qualities you expect to find throughout the North East. People are friendly, doughty and down to earth, irrespective of the lunar look of some of their surroundings.

At what point does a New Town cease to be new? Pinpointing a time when a town is new can only ever be a snapshot in history. Now, in 2010, Peterlee has a history all of its own. The Apollo Pavilions restoration was, after all, thanks to a grant from the Lottery Heritage fund. Of course, measuring Peterlees lifetime from the new towns beginnings in 1948 is like thinking there was nothing in Durham before the Cathedral was built.

Just a short walk from Peterlees football ground there is the site of a deserted mediaeval village of Yoden, on land which 1,000 years ago was owned by St Cuthbert.

Twinned with Nordenham in Germany, modern day Peterlee has a functional town centre featuring many recognisable High Street shops, while nearby there are the delights of Castle Eden Dene, a National Nature Reserve.

Picasso might have had an unwitting influence on Peterlee in shaping the thinking of the Apollo Pavilions creator, and it is a question of taste as to whether you are impressed by the town. Like Picassos paintings, it depends entirely upon what you make of it.

So who was Peter Lee?

Most people know that Peterlee is named after a man of that name but not so many know much about him, so who was the man who the town is named after?

Peter Lee was a Durham miners leader and a Christian. Born in nearby Trimdon Grange in July 1874, he died in 1935 and is buried in Wheatley Hill cemetery.

A pitman, Peter Lee was working underground for ten hours a day by the age of ten. Nowadays the admirable 10-10 campaign is concerned with climate change. Lees concern was social change: 10 hours a day down the pit was no good for anyone, let alone a ten-year-old. Apparently inspired by his mothers love of reading, young Peter took it upon himself to be educated.

In 1886 at the age of 22 he took himself off to America, where for two years he worked in the mines of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. Ten years later - after eight spent back in the North East of England - Peter set off for South Africa for two years.

Back home he worked through a succession of chairmanships: the local Co-op, then the Water Board and Durham County Council, before becoming General Secretary of the Durham Miners Association.

The Durham Miners Gala, of course, remains an integral part of North East culture and on the second Saturday in July ,when the bands and banners parade through Durham City, Peter Lee is a familiar face on banners, having featured on those of South Hetton, Elemore and Wheatley Hill.

Peter Lee died 13 years before the New Town of Peterlee began to come into being but thanks to Easington District Rural Council surveyor CW Clarke, who made the case for the new town and argued it should be named after Peter Lee, his name lives on.

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