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FOREVER AMBRIDGE - 1991

CELEBRATING RURAL, PRE-WAR ENGLAND

AND THE ARCHERS RADIO SOAP OPERA 

 

When the Henry Moore Trust withdrew its financial support for creating a National Sculpture Gardens on 79 acres along the Grand Union Canal, the new town of Milton Keynes, one hour north of London on the M1, was left having invested considerable sums building infrastructure with no project.  The solution was to launch an international competition to find a replacement.  The Doultons won the competition with its FOREVER AMBRIDGE project.

 

As a new town, Milton Keynes had earned the reputation for being cold and sterile where real people would not like to inhabit.  Milton Keynes was anxious to disprove this impression which is why they worked so hard to attract the sculpture gardens.  Being aware of these sensitive issues, the Doultons approached BBC Enterprises to acquire the non-broadcast rights of one of Auntie Beeb’s treasured intellectual properties, The Archers, the longest running and most sacrosanct radio soap opera in history.  On the air since the advent of radio, the entire nation grew up following the deeds and misdeeds of the Archer family and their neighbors living in the made-up village of Ambridge.  Ambridge was the quintessential essence of rural life in England and held close to the hearts of all British citizens.  That an American couple had the temerity and gall to contemplate becoming its three dimensional custodians caused intense public wariness.  Nevertheless, based upon their treatment of the subject matter and after many long discussions with BBC Enterprises’ Managing Director, the producer of The Archer’s program, head of BBC Radio and the show’s cast members, the Doultons were accorded the license to create FOREVER AMBRIDGE.

 

Recognizing the fallibility of England’s weather, FOREVER AMBRIDGE was designed to exist beneath the world largest ‘umbrella’ (high tension membrane structure) designed by Buro Happold of Bath, England.  The paid gate portion was a nostalgic look at West Country Village Life prior to the Second World War.  FOREVER AMBRIDGE made no attempt to be a mini ‘Disney’ or to be high tech in any way.  In fact to the contrary, the idea was to create an environment where one’s own imagination could go far in creating the ‘fun’.  The pub, bakery, smithy and the townsfolk  who would have made up a rural West Country Village of a half century past all played roles as enablers of the experience. 

 

The entry area contained 50,000 square feet of ‘free entry’ themed, mixed-use retail and restaurants anchored by a farmers’ market selling fruits and vegetables raised on nearby farms.  The underlying idea was that this area could serve the local community on a regular basis, while serving the touristic public on an ad hoc basis.

 

As the English countryside becomes less rural, indigenous wildlife is quickly disappearing.  Those who once flourished in hedge rows have lost their homestead with the elimination of the ubiquitous hedgerow.  Where all manner of trees once provided shelter for a wider variety of fauna, cows now graze.  Even the lowly squirrel has no nuts to gather, and no place to hide them if he found them.

 

Therefore, the Doultons created an attraction called Nature Zoom.  This was an eight-acre bermed area where no man was allowed to tread and where the English woodland life of fifty years ago would be encouraged to prosper in a rural animal preserve for creatures living out their life as close to nature’s calling as possible.  Hidden from view of the animals was a series of ‘hides’ where children.  Their teachers and parents could enter and experience life and death as it unfold in a natural setting.  Through the aid of hidden tilt-zoom video cameras and ultra sensitive listening devices strategically positioned, all could be seen and heard close-up without physical intrusion.  Black light devices provide a look into the animal world that few are even aware exists.  BBC Television’s (Bristol) Nature unit was selected to create the dramaturgy.

 

Twenty acres of the 79 were set aside to create a series of Pre-War Village Cottages with working fireplaces and scenic trails along the canal.  AMBRIDGE, of course, would have a canal boat landing, where trips down the Grand Union on new-for-old, narrow-boats could be taken.  

 

Milton Keynes awarded the Doultons the right to purchase the entire 79 acres for 2.6 million Pounds Sterling on very attractive terms, provided they could prove project finance.  To provide project credibility the Doultons joined forces with the project management arm of one of the UK’s most powerful contractors, Tarmac PLC.  England’s most successful theme park operators (Blackpool Pleasure Park) were chosen to operate the project.  One of the City of London’s most successful merchant bankers, Samuel Montague (Midland Bank) assumed the role of providing funds to build the project.  They made arrangements with a major Japanese trading company to fund the project.  Pressures on the Yen at that time forced the withdrawal of all foreign real estate related investments not actually under construction, ending the trading company’s commitment to FOREVER AMBRIDGE.  The site remains available for development.

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