The best of Dorset in words and pictures

‘The sooner they get on with it, the better’

Dorchester will be transformed by the new Brewery Square development. John Newth has been finding out more about it.

An Artist's impression of Brewery Square
An artist’s impression of Dray Horse Yard, which will front Weymouth Avenue on the southern edge of the site

The decline of Eldridge Pope was one of the saddest Dorset business stories of the latter years of the last century. What had been for 150 years one of Dorchester’s leading companies, run by the town’s most prominent family, went from prosperity to extinction with astonishing rapidity. Its demise posed a problem for the county town: what to do with the site on which Eldridge Pope’s famous beers had been brewed, an 11½-acre wedge of land running west-east from Weymouth Avenue to Culliford Road?
As Eldridge Pope’s star fell, so the fortunes were rising of a London-based property developer, Waterhouse. Founded in 1980, they were involved in a number of prestigious conversions and modernisations in the capital, especially in Docklands, and Glasgow. In 2000, one of the partners in Waterhouse, Andrew Wadsworth, moved to Dorset with a view to taking things a little easier. Instead, the old brewery site called to him like a trumpet to a war-horse, and he found himself plunged into Waterhouse’s biggest-ever project!
There were many hoops to be jumped through, given the sensitivity of the site. Although contracts were exchanged in December 2002, outline planning permission was not given until December 2005, with detailed planning consent following in November 2007. You would have thought that all concerned would fall on the necks of a developer with a good reputation and ready to take on such an important project, but the wheels of local government planners grind extremely small and extremely slow. Also involved were English Heritage, whose attitude to the proposed changes to the listed buildings on the site was not always a shining example of consistency.
Archaeological investigation was naturally a priority, but little of interest was found. However, the digger drivers, having gone through several feet of chalk, hit a layer of topsoil, which puzzled them somewhat. The explanation is that when the London to Weymouth railway was being built along the southern edge of the site, the excavated chalk was simply thrown off to one side onto the existing topsoil.
The main historical interest lies in the four buildings closest to Weymouth Avenue, designed by G R Crickmay, which formed the core of the brewery opened in 1881. The former offices, now known as the Eldridge Pope Building, has been the first to be converted into flats. The most striking feature is the original staircase, which has been retained although moved from one end of the building to the other. Also fronting on to Weymouth Avenue is the Bonded Store, which includes the Thomas Hardy Hall. The latter will be retained, but with a more impressive entrance at the northern end, and the rest converted to flats.
Although badly damaged by fire in 1922, the Brewhouse remains, in Andrew Wadsworth’s words, ‘the grandest building in Dorchester, bar its churches’. It will be turned into a hotel, in which a number of hospitality companies have already expressed strong interest.
An artist’s impression of Dray Horse Yard, which will front Weymouth Avenue on the southern edge of the site.

On the far side of what will be Brewery Square itself is the striking Brewhouse and, to its right, the Maltings
On the far side of what will be Brewery Square itself is the striking Brewhouse and, to its right, the Maltings

Perhaps the most interesting development is the Maltings, which Waterhouse are giving to the town for use as an arts centre. It will include a 440-seat theatre and a 120-seat studio. An impressive committee has already been set up to plan its conversion and management; it will certainly be a much larger-scale operation than the present woefully inadequate provision in the Grove, and will have to be managed with proportionate professionalism.
The development includes a re-build for Dorchester South railway station, which will become the first solar-powered station in the country. There will be a cinema and two large squares: Brewery Square, which gives the whole development its name, and Dray Horse Yard, where a bronze statue of an Eldridge Pope dray horse will be the centrepiece. As well as flats, there will be some houses at the eastern end of the site, some housing association and shared equity units, a building for those who need care and assistance, and a home for 31 student nurses from the Dorset County Hospital. A new health centre next to the Eldridge Pope Building on Weymouth Avenue, the building of which is actually under the control of the NHS, is almost complete.
Waterhouse made their name by not compromising on very high standards of quality. The interiors at Brewery Square have been designed by Conran Associates and features like fitted wardrobes in walnut, bathrooms designed by Ben de Lisi and ten-foot ceilings in some of the flats suggest that Waterhouse are keeping up their record. This extends to the outside, where the street furniture has been designed to a high specification and the main streets will have wide pavements of York stone.
Andrew Wadsworth says that Waterhouse have tried to use ‘sympathetic, interesting, contemporary materials’. The façade of the Eldridge Pope Building, for example, mixes render, copper sheeting, green-glazed bricks and conventional bricks; opinions will vary on whether it is sympathetic, but it is certainly interesting and contemporary.

The striking mixture of materials in the façade of the Eldridge Pope building.
The striking mixture of materials in the façade of the Eldridge Pope building. In the foreground are two rescued gate-pillars.

An integral part of the development is the 45 retail units and eight restaurants and cafés, which could radically alter the shopping map of Dorchester. A lot of thought has been given to mixing retail and residential and all the shops will have restrictive covenants forbidding any noise outside. Similarly, the restaurants and cafés will have to be empty by 11.30 each evening. Most of the cost of on-site security will be paid by the shops, although there will be an annual service charge on each apartment to pay for security and, in some of the buildings, concierge service.
One public service that will not have to be connected is water, because the development will make use of the artesian well sunk by Eldridge Pope. In fact, it is estimated that the whole site will use only a little over half the consumption of the brewery in its heyday. A spa is one of the features planned, and the idea of ‘taking the waters of Dorchester’ may prove to be not so far-fetched!
A lot of more modern buildings on the site have been knocked down and it clearly makes no sense to throw away all that rubble and import lorry-loads of hardcore and aggregate a few months later. Piled up on the site at the moment are 50,000 tons of crushed concrete which will be reduced to aggregate size and used to make new concrete. On a slightly smaller scale, the old wooden brewing vats have been re-cycled into 27 planters! Some re-cycling is happening for reasons of historical interest: for example, the cobbles on which Weymouth Avenue is laid and which extended into the site, or the gate-pillars of the villas that the Popes built at the same time as the brewery, bearing the house names in carved Victorian lettering.

The living area of one of the apartments in phase 1
The living area of one of the apartments in phase 1

The work is being divided into three phases. Phase 1, the Eldridge Pope Building, is complete. Phase 2 will be the most significant, comprising most of the commercial area as well as more flats. The target date for that is the first half of 2010 – ‘We hope to see concrete coming out of the ground early next year,’ says Andrew Wadsworth. No time-scale has been set yet for phase 3, which will mainly comprise residential accommodation towards the eastern end of the site.
Despite their less than rapid planning process, West Dorset District Council declare themselves delighted with the project. The Town Council has reservations about the heights of some of the buildings, the Chamber of Commerce is aware of the challenge presented by the new shopping area, and the Civic Society has minor concerns about access at the eastern end of the site, but all three bodies are hugely supportive of what they see as a major regeneration of the county town. ‘The sooner they get on with it, the better’ is how Alistair Chisholm, Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, sums it up.
Brewery Square will increase the population of Dorchester – one of the smallest county towns in England – by perhaps 2000 people. Whether it will shift the town centre, as has been suggested, will depend very much on whether the present traders see it as an opportunity or a threat. What is certain is that Dorchester will never be quite the same again.

Dorset Directory