Heritage Dragons - Working on the Black Lion Hill Project

Mathew Wright shares his experience as note-taker

Peter Aiers, leader of the Black Lion Hill bid, said that Heritage Dragons was “an excellent way to receive concentrated advice, which one would usually receive by drip-feed over a number of years.” I was note taker for this team, and, as an intern at The Prince’s Regeneration Trust with an interest in heritage-led regeneration, property development and urbanism in general, I found Heritage Dragons to be a tremendously educative experience.

Black Lion Hill is located in the western part of Northampton. It incorporates St Peter’s, one of the country’s finest surviving Norman churches, Northampton Castle, an important medieval stronghold mostly invisible at the moment, and the handsome, Grade II listed Old Black Lion pub. The area immediately surrounding the site is rather depressed, and a victim of overzealous post-war planning. The Black Lion Hill project aims to revivify the area’s heritage and ensure its sustainability, draw new people into a neglected part of Northampton, and contribute to wider initiatives to regenerate the area.   

In the first workshop session, the experts around the table questioned the projects scope and whether it would meet its aims. Little by little, the group deconstructed the project and one of the project representatives wryly congratulated the experts on their “ability to pick out potential barriers.”The interrogation was as incisive as it was uncomfortable, and the suggestions that emerged from it were very constructive. In the second session, the shreds of the original proposal were re-integrated into a larger, more ambitious and more convincing scheme. The possibility of including existing, council-owned green space at the southern end of the site and an office building at its north-western end changed the scheme’s complexion considerably. Its emphasis changed from being one focussed mainly on two particular buildings, the Old Black Lion pub and St Peter’s Church, to being a master-planning exercise incorporating these buildings and other elements to create an attractive and expansive destination. In this new form the scheme seemed better able to meet its original aims.

As someone with a particular interest in how buildings interact with their surrounding environment, I noted that the first thing that the experts did when the workshops began was to reach for a map of the site and surrounding area. Although the heritage buildings at the heart of this scheme are fascinating and real treasures in themselves, they were not the prime focus of the workshop sessions. Rather, more emphasis was given to how the scheme would fit into the social, spatial and economic realities of this part of Northampton – and the most useful new ideas arose from this exercise.  

When it came to pitching our project to the Dragons, Peter Aiers did a fine job of conveying the viability, importance and potential of the scheme. Although Black Lion Hill was perhaps the least developed of the four projects put before the Dragons, it was also the most complicated and most exciting from a place-making point of view. I hope that with the momentum that it gained at Heritage Dragons it will continue to move forward rapidly, and look forward to one day visiting it.