Selling York

May 2007

Ad for The Forum, Heworth Green

This photo is of the advertising hoardings around one of this city’s many building sites – the development called The Forum, on Heworth Green. I nearly walked into a lamp-post when I saw it, I was so distracted by the images of eternal housing bliss offered by Persimmon.

In the background of this ad – which appears to show that buying a new flat here provokes something approaching sexual ecstacy – is the housing that’s the source of so much joy – plus some pseudo-historical montage thingy. All topped by the large proclamation “Investment & reward”. More on that story later . . .

It’s a good job it’s a big site, as the hoardings are crammed with adjectives. “Exciting & inspirational” . . . “Cool & contemporary” . . . “Classic & timeless” . . . “Timeless & inviting” (I think they’ve run out of adjectives there).

I was looking for the panel that said “Expensive & unaffordable”, or the one that broke with the snappy two adjectives and an ampersand rule, and said “Could be rented out at great profit”.

I’ve done my research, and looked at the brochures for this development, and the Bellway one across the road. It’s a strange experience, seeing York as described in the promotional material. For a native old Yorkie, it’s perhaps like when a favourite book is turned into a film, and they miss out all the important bits, and instead stick in some cheesy speeches, with an orchestra playing.

History – kind of

The developers are of course selling some dream of York, or some dream of something. Perhaps history, perhaps modernity, perhaps everything all mixed together. Perhaps “a lively city with a continental feel created by its café, bar and restaurant culture” (Bellway), perhaps “the perfect balance between old and new. . . vibrant bars, restaurants and shops sitting comfortably amid a rich heritage” (Persimmon).

On the Persimmon site: “History visibly manifests itself in magnificent structures such as the glorious Minster and the Bar Wall, the towering medieval walls that encircle the city.”

What’s this “bar wall”? It’s either the bar walls (note the plural), to locals, or the city wall. But the property developers’ information is obviously not aimed at locals. The spin on the city might amuse many: “Central to the country, roads were built to radiate to all the other Roman fortresses and so an efficient travel network was born.”

That’s a while back though, isn’t it, let’s be honest. These days we don’t tend to move around by marching in large armies, and nowadays the roads are clogged up with our “chariots”. People sitting in traffic in Gillygate aren’t generally heard saying “what an efficient travel network”.

The Forum, advertising hoardings, Heworth Green

The Forum seems to be based vaguely on some kind of Roman theme – reflecting (cashing in on) the city’s ancient origins. Blocks here are called Roma House, Torino House, Venezia House and Verona House. (The bathrooms have tiles – I guess that’s ever so vaguely Roman.) The website says: “Inspired by York’s ancient Roman origins, The Forum presents a stunning new development complex of 5 contemporary apartment blocks, complete with secure underground parking.”

The underground parking came about as a result of the excavation they had to do to remove contaminated soil from the Ye Olde Roman gas works that used to stand here.

By the gas works wall

This site was formerly part of the gas works, from the Victorian period until the 20th century. Town gas works provided an essential public service until we switched to North Sea Gas.

On gas works sites, in this town and others, coal was heated in retorts to produce the gas, leaving as a residue the material known as coke. Gas processing also apparently included something called a scrubber, which was a tower, packed with coke, down which water was trickled, to remove ammonia. Making town gas was a messy business, and in recent years, before this site was redeveloped, the ground had to be cleaned of various toxic substances, such as cyanide, left behind by the gas processing industry.

Personally I’m bored with the glossy view of York and think it would be far more interesting if the blocks on this development more accurately reflected its industrial gas-making history. Maybe Cyanide House, Coal House, Scrubber House, and Coke House?

Prettified history

The brochure for the Bellway development, also on Heworth Green, has a picture of Clifford’s Tower (aka York Castle) at the very top of its front page – the first image you see. What it’s got to do with Bellway’s development “The Croft” I don’t know. If their own buildings are that good, maybe they should be illustrated more prominently? York Castle isn’t exactly next door, so perhaps a picture of Castle Howard would do just as well.

Clifford’s Tower isn’t just an attractive heap of old stones, it’s the site of a massacre that the BBC website calls “York’s blackest day“.

But any old image will do, anything “historic” will do, when selling York – as long as it’s just a vague gloss of history – pretty buildings and vague ideas of Roman nobility.

Etc/further information

Any rude emails from developers mentioned should be sent to Any emails from people who think I “don’t like change” should be sent to

Earlier pages on this area, now in the 2004 archive site:

Changes – Layerthorpe and Heworth Green (May 2007)

York Walks /3: Layerthorpe to Heworth Green (August 2004)

Gas industry

The National Gas Museum, Leicester

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