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Route Book

personal work

Middle England is a photography project in response to Ian Nairn's 'Outrage' issue of the Architectural Review, 1955

Featured on Radio Four's Archive on Four episode 'Return to Subtopia', 2016. Listen to the broadcast here


In June 1955, a 24-year old writer called Ian Nairn sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning scene when he edited the Outrage edition of the Architectural Review. Nairn’s angry prophecy of doom, subsequently published as a book, claimed that our built environment was changing for the worse, a process of slow decay in which places were being drained of their identity and new developments lacked individuality.

Most famously, he coined the term 'SUBTOPIA', in which ‘the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton’.

Outrage propelled Nairn to fame and attracted a huge amount of national attention. It was debated in parliament and the Duke of Edinburgh referred to Subtopia in a speech. By raising awareness of creeping suburbanisation in England, it also helped to prompt the creation of the Civic Trust.

Ian Nairn was born in a suburb of Bedford in 1930, studied mathematics at Birmingham University and served in the RAF. It was his flights above Britain, looking down upon the networks of roads, towns and cities, that led to his obsession with the built environment. After Outrage, and its follow-up Counter-Attack, Nairn enjoyed a prominent career as a writer for the architectural press, national newspapers and books, as well as success as a broadcaster. However, in later years he became consumed with a sense of failure, sought refuge in beer, largely stopped writing and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1983.

In recent years, Nairn’s work has enjoyed a significant revival, through the attention of writers such as Owen Hatherley, Iain Sinclair and Jonathan Meades.

Nairn’s Route Book

The centrepiece of Outrage is a 45-page 'Route Book', in which Nairn wrote about his travels from Southampton northwards to the Scottish border, testing his theory. This book-within-a-book is filled with Nairn’s own photographs, accompanied by maps and illustrations by Gordon Cullen. Nairn described the Route Book as 'the first example of a travel agent’s trip in reverse – picking out the bad, not the good – that has been carried through from one end of the country to the other and has not just picked on selected black spots'. He felt that his chosen route provided a 'fair cross-section' that roughly followed a straight line.

Maps depicting Nairn’s route run along the top of the pages, roughly 30 miles to a page. Text is kept separate, printed on narrow blue and yellow paper inserts.

He travelled the route by car, photographing obsessively along the way. Many of the objects and features he captured may seem trivial, he suggested – such as lamp-posts, municipal flower beds, benches, advertising hoardings and fences. 'To mention them may seem to be shouting about objects that can be taken for granted and assimilated by the eyes,' he wrote. His intention was to encourage us to stop taking them for granted. 'Before long you find yourself becoming incredibly angry; and when sufficient people become sufficiently angry, that will be the end of Subtopia.'

Gareth Gardner: Route Book project

I have a long-standing interest in Britain’s built environment, and over the years became aware of to architectural critic Ian Nairn through the work of leading 'townscape' writers such as Owen Hatherley and Adrian Jones. In 2013, I purchased a well-worn hardback copy of Outrage, and was immediately struck by the energy and passion of Nairn’s writing, working in harmony with the dynamic page layouts and Gordon Cullen’s illustrations. The Route Book section in particular caught my attention, inspiring me to recreate his journey.

Nairn’s route from Southampton to Carlisle (and briefly over the border to Gretna Green) encompasses many places that resonate with me. His trip began in Southampton, where I went to university, and passes through my home town of Warwick. Other calling points hold political interest, include Chipping Norton – with its associations with the Cameron government – and Wigan (which prompted me to re-read George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier).

I was born in Leamington Spa, and raised in neighbouring Warwick – literally Middle England. While these historic towns have beautiful centres, they are surrounded by vast tracts of suburban sprawl constructed largely on former agricultural land. Growing up, I experienced Subtopia at first hand. In 1980 we moved into a new-build home on a cul-de-sac at the very edge of Warwick. The three-bedroomed 'Langham 3' featured Cotswold stone-effect brickwork and an avocado bathroom suite, kitchen and downstairs loo. Like many developments from this period, there were no nearby shops, no public transport, just suburban streets, the promise of nearby countryside and distant views of the town centre.

Nairn himself visited Warwick before the construction of these estates, out-of-town retail sheds and business parks. He was more concerned with the chunky concrete street lighting along the High Street and badly-located flower beds. However, I am certain he would have been horrified by what Warwick has become over the intervening 50 years.

In carrying out the project, I visited some sections of Nairn’s Route Book on a piecemeal basis over a period of several years. But to truly capture his spirit, in 2015 I drove the entire length in a week, accompanied by my friend Kate Fereday, who tragically passed away in 2019.

A major task was to plot Nairn’s route onto modern road maps, taking into account bypasses and motorways that post-date the publication of Outrage. Although the route was followed as closely as possible, I decided not to replicate his photographs. Instead, I wanted to be inspired by what I saw on the journey, the endless suburbs, the out-of-town retail parks, the degradation of the civic space and the unstoppable growth of consumerism.