Gibberd’s plan for the principal shopping complex incorporated not only a variety of sizes and types of retail outlets but also office accommodation, the bus terminal, a large office block (Terminus
House) with integral parking garage, the police station and magistrate’s court, library, a church and the Playhouse Theatre. He located The High on top of Dad’s Wood hill between two river valleys: the Stort to the north and Todd Brook to the south, and at the intersection of Second and Third Avenues and the green wedges through which they ran.
The High was centred on the first pedestrianized shopping precinct in the UK. It is difficult nowadays to realize how radical a concept this was in 1952. The original concept was that two parallel malls would join the market square on the north with the Town Hall and Civic Centre on the south. The composition was closed by the Water Gardens that looked out over the green wedge containing Second and Third Avenues so they would link the dense, highly ‘urban’ town centre with the surrounding landscape.
Car parking was provided by lots on the north, east and west of the central core. Against Gibberd’s advice, a parking lot was built south of the Water Gardens in 1966. Increasing population and affluence have led to much higher levels of car ownership than were anticipated in the 1950s. The English landscape been seriously degraded by the need to accommodate more cars and the ubiquitous ‘wheelie bin’ and the despoliation of the original view from the Water Gardens southwards toward Rye Hill and Epping is one example.
Major stores were located in Broadwalk, the major north-south corridor and smaller shops in Little Walk. Currently (2017) under renovation, it had recently begun to reflect the changing ethnic composition of Harlow.
Gibberd intended the Market Place to be the principal space at the north end of the Town Centre because of his love for what he called ‘the oldest form of English shopping’. The first market was held in Stone Cross on 19th May 1956. Originally planned as a Tuesday and Saturday market it quickly became so popular that a Friday market was added in 1964 and a Thursday market in 1976. It continues to operate today although the type of merchandise offered by the traders has changed over the years.
The Harvey Centre, begun in 1979, represented another significant innovation. Enclosed, air-conditioned shopping malls were common in North America by this time, but were still a rarity in England. It took Gibberd some time to convince the local authorities that this would be a successful addition to The High. But he hated the flat ceilings that were typical of enclosed malls. So he designed the central court of the Harvey Centre with a high, tent-like ceiling modelled on the design of his own living room. The Centre is named after Ben Hyde Harvey who was General Manager of the Harlow Development Corporation and Chairman of the Memorial University Harlow Campus Trust from 1977 to 1999.
The Town Hall overlooking the Water Gardens was supposed to be 14 storeys high but when built in 1958 it only had nine so it was a less impressive focal point than Gibberd had intended. In any case it was demolished in 2006 and the site incorporated into a whole new shopping area that incorporates some large chain stores, including ASDA (part of the Walmart empire), T.k. Maxx and Matalan.
Plans to demolish the Water Gardens were thwarted but they are now surrounded by commercial development that was never envisaged in Gibberd’s original plan. The upper layer of the Water Gardens has 7 small fountains in a 250 yard long canal. The water flows out seven stylized lion’s heads into a second, lower canal and then flows into three lily ponds on the lowest level where Gibberd also placed small parterre gardens enclosed by yew hedges. The complex is considered a masterpiece of 20th century garden design and is listed Grade II on the English Heritage Statutory List and Grade II* on the Register of Parks and Gardens. This is a fitting tribute to Gibberd who was a life-long proponent of the value of gardens and sculpture in public spaces. Two features of Harlow, the Water Gardens and the Gibberd Garden on the site of his former home in Marsh Lane, are local examples of his dedication to the art of landscape gardening.
The High has struggled to adapt to the competition from an explosion of Big Box stores along Edinburgh Way and in other towns. The original anchor tenants in The High were Woolworth’s, Boots, Sainsbury, W.H. Smith and the London Cooperative Store. The LCS first traded in Broadwalk, and then built a Superstore in the Harvey Centre. After that closed, the site was subsequently occupied by British Home Stores. That store was one of the 164 BHS stores that closed in June 2016 when the chain went into receivership, and the space remains vacant at the time of writing (March 2017). The original Coop store in Broadwalk became, and remains, Fish Bros. pawnbrokers. Marks and Spencer opened a store in Broadwalk in 1966 but it was a casualty of the M and S chain’s falling profits and closed in 2015. The company applied for permission to convert the store to a Simply Food operation, but Harlow Council rejected the application. The site is currently being renovated into smaller shops. Sainsbury the grocery chain originally traded in Broadwalk, then moved into a much larger space in the Harvey Centre before abandoning The High in the mid-1990s when moving to a new superstore built on the former Gilbey’s site, just north of The High. Wilkinson’s now trades out of the former Sainsbury space.