It’s not often you get the opportunity to map a completely new town from the ground up, so mappa-mercia volunteers (all four of us) descended on Houlton, next door to Rugby Warwickshire to do just that on a wet Saturday 1st December. Houlton is the name for a new town of 6,200 homes that is growing on the site of the decommissioned Rugby Radio Station, whose large antenna masts were long a major landmark on the journey north and south along the M1 motorway. Houlton had been marked as a construction site for some time in OpenStreetMap, but a trawl of local news sites suggested it was fast being developed with residents already moving in – so time for some mapping action!
Its name mirrors the name of Houlton Maine USA , originally the other end of the transatlantic radio telephony and telegraphy circuit which received the very first transatlantic voice broadcast from Rugby Radio Station in 1927.
First opened by the General Post Office in 1926, at its height in the 1950s it was the largest radio transmitting station in the world, with a total of 57 radio transmitters, a network of 820ft masts, 27 miles of copper cable in the suspended antennae covering an area of 1600 acres.
It used so many water cooled valves that two reservoirs each with a capacity of about quarter of a million gallons of water were necessary to feed a heat exchange system.
Rugby set vast numbers of radio-controlled clocks in Britain with the National Physical Laboratory’s time signal -but its strategic significance was the use of VLF transmissions to communicate with Britain’s submarine fleet
Technology marches on however and its functions were transferred elsewhere in the early years of the 21st Century and the station’s physical infrastructure dismantled. All that remains is ‘C’ building which is a protected heritage building and will form the nucleus of a new commercial town centre.
So big is the development that it will take almost 20 years to complete and is involving multiple development and finance partners. We spotted at least three development groups constructing houses on the site. There’s already a new primary school on site, together with a community centre, visitor centre and an excellent restaurant – the Tuning Fork – named after an essential frequency tool.
In fact to walk round the completed section of the town recording street names is to walk through a historical gallery of names famous in the development of radio: Marconi Close (naturally), Maxwell Road (naturally), Walmsley Road(senior Post Office engineer), Hughes Drive (inventor of the microphone and the printing telegraph), Angwin Avenue (senior Post Office Engineer and first Chairman of Cable &Wireless), Faulkner Road (senior Post Office engineer), Shaughnessey Way (senior Post Office engineer)
We decided to survey in a team rather than individually – it was less efficient but more sociable. We discussed and agreed as we went round that it was better to tag Houlton as a separate town rather than a suburb of Rugby (no objective criteria- it just felt right) and it enabled Rob to explain the structure of the electricity distribution network. It also enabled us to establish the restaurant as excellent as we had to retreat there mid-morning to escape the cold drizzle and sample their coffee and cake!
The site is well-provisioned with cycle paths and what will become a network of footpaths along linear parks. What we didn’t see were any bus stops so it’s either going to be a car-centric development or there are just not enough occupied homes yet to make it worthwhile to run any bus services. It was tempting to walk past the open barriers on what was a slack working day to explore more of the road network that is under construction, but we thought it would be prudent to observe the safety warnings- maybe at a later date we can gain permission to survey beyond completed sections.
There’s another large infrastructure project underway, adjacent to Houlton, across the A5 trunk road with a massive expansion of the Daventry International Rail Freight Terminal.
Judging by the number of nearly finished homes, the site will be changing rapidly so we’ll be revisiting at regular intervals to map the progress of the new town. in the meantime anyone who’s passing and can map will save us work and further demonstrate the power of crowd-sourced mapping to keep a map up-to-date.