13 Jan 2012
Fort William, the Highland gateway to Ben Nevis, has long been criticised by some for failing to live up to its natural splendour. In dire need of some TLC and strangled by an ill advised dual carriageway it has certainly seen better days. But is it a Carbuncle? Town planning consultant Drew Mackie investigates.Arriving by train is not the most promising welcome to Fort William. The station is stranded on the other side of a dual carriageway from the town centre which is accessed through a narrow underpass. Despite a street musician’s cheery blues, this is a depressing gateway to the town.
Skirting a bar and outdoor clothing shop (one of many) leads you to an elegant open space in front of the Alexandra Hotel. Unfortunately the other side of the space is occupied by some fairly tragic 60s buildings joined by a canopy that has seen better days. In fact many of the buildings in the town are in need of external renovation - a sign of hard times in the tourist industry reinforced by the number of High Street premises that are for sale or to let.
Of course mid-November in a year where winter is yet to arrive is not the best time to gauge the fortunes of a town that is so dependent on the ski trade at this time of the year. But the main street is showing signs of economic distress, evidenced by the plethora of garish signs advertising clearance sales.
Fort William was the subject of a hard landscaping scheme in the mid-90s. This was undertaken with high quality materials - granite cubes and paving slabs together with cast iron street furniture. I have to own up to having a hand in the design of this - establishing the “language” of materials. The fan shaped block patterns are not just decorative. They bind the blocks under vehicular pressure. Generally this scheme has held up well but in places is in sore need of maintenance.
The whole town has a neglected appearance. OK it’s the end of season and the ski trade hasn’t started yet, but many of the buildings look run down and in need of renovation. Architects have not been kind to Fort William’s centre but a hike up the hill reveals some of its former Victorian elegance.
As you move away from the town centre going Northwards you come on the industrial heritage of the town - from stone warehouses to the site of British Alcan’s factory, to the modern rash of bus party hotels.
Fort William is a sad town at this time of year, but it has not quite lost its feeling of being a key cultural and tourist centre. There are however ominous signs of commercial decline and the neglect of building fabric that goes with that. The elegance of the High Street that I remember as a child has been marred by many unfortunate architectural interventions, so that it must be difficult to hold the planning pass against any shoddy new development that might promise a contribution to the local economy.
Fort William might well be on the road to becoming a Carbuncle, but it is not (quite) there yet