As a good social historian I try really hard not sanctify the past. Yet in the course of the research the interpretation of Crowe Street Cottages in Stowmarket, it’s hard not to feel a longing for a gentler age.
Nos. 18 and 20 Crowe Street in Stowmarket are a pair of late 18th century estate cottages. Largely unchanged in 200 years they were the home of Mr and Mrs Wilding, formerly the cowman and cook of Abbot’s Hall. Mrs Wilding left her home in 1970 and to go into sheltered accommodation, she donated all her furntiture and some personal effects to the museum. Once the restoration is complete, the museum will put her house back in order.
During the 1950s and 60s Mrs Wilding ran a very small dairy from the back of the cottages. She made butter and cream using the milk from the cows on the estate. Until the early 1980s the cottages backed onto the old Stowmarket Cattle Market. Within its collection or oral histories the museum has memories of locals and farmers buying milk from a very cheerful Mrs Wilding.
The Cattle Market closed in the 1980s as stock farming in East Anglia declined. The land was sold to ASDA who built a supermarket on the adjacent Cricket ground and turned the market site into a shopping precinct, Wilkes Way (named after a former Stowmarket Town Clerk). ASDA was formed in 1949 in Leeds as Associated Dairies and Farm Stores ltd, it’s now wholly owned by the giant American Walmart corporation. Today Wilkes Way contains two charity shops, two travel agents, two empty shops, a learning centre and a Costa Coffee. Mrs Wilding’s defunct little dairy now backs onto ASDA’s staff car park.
No amount of costumed butter making activities in the cottages will give a sense the old townscape or how attached the market town was to working life in the nearby countryside. Market towns, more than any other kind of settlement relied on the connectivity of rural and urban. Whilst the hinterland was both exploited and stewarded the town remained a hub for rural social and economic life.
In the space of 30 years the context of the townscape has changed utterly. From being a meeting place for people engaged in the rural economy, the growing town in now shaped by its road and rail links towards London and the Midlands. Stowmarket, like many settlements within 2 hours of London could become a Clone Town, a place to stay rather than a place to live. A place where buying and selling no longer has a social or human dimension is but is reduced to a transaction between individuals and corporations.