Building The Windsock – With thanks to Des Moffatt and John Beegan.
In late October 1969 John Beegan was having trouble getting to sleep at night. By this point in his life all should have been well in Johns world. As young men he and his lifelong friend and business partner Joe Curran had travelled to England from their native Ireland to work. By 1969 and aged 33 years old he and Joe had established and were running their own successful building firm, Beegan and Curran. They had a trusted and skilled group of largely Irish tradesmen working under them and the firm had a good reputation. John and Joe had no issue with taking on ambitious or large scale projects as their building record was a testament to. So what was playing on Johns mind and causing this usually calm man to worry?
In nearby Dunstable The Rifle Volunteer was no more. Almost as soon as the dust had settled complex foundation work had begun on its successor and by the time John was suffering from insomnia in late October anyone passing by The Riflemans former site would have seen a series of thick concrete columns beginning to rise from the ground. The Windsocks birth had begun. Roy Wilson Smiths fanciful ideas were starting to become hard reality and the building firm charged with carrying out this difficult task was none other than Beegan and Curran.
It’s not possible to understand the challenges faced by John and Joe or understand the magnificent engineering of The Windsock without first explaining a little bit about construction in general. I need to disclose at this point that I am certainly not an expert in this field and I only have a broad understanding of building techniques. As a result the following paragraphs are not exceptionally detailed and should be understandable to the average reader of this piece who I assume to be a lay person in this field, a description in which I very much include myself.
Large buildings often consist of a steel girder skeleton which is bolted into place before the floors and walls are added afterwards. These walls and floors can be made from a variety of materials such as metals or wood, composites of plastics and also concrete. Regardless of the material prefabricated pieces are constructed en masse in a factory and then brought to the site and bolted onto the steel skeleton. In the case of concrete the pieces are constructed using moulds into which the concrete is poured. This technique enables multiple segments to be cast from the same series of moulds and is a very cost effective way of building. To put it in extremely simple terms it is similar to building a giant and very complicated model kit. That’s not to give the impression that this is easy or unskilled work because it certainly is not. It’s just the case that these prefabricating techniques speed up and to some extent simplify what is always a complex process.
However due to The Windsocks shape and design this technique of building could not be employed. There was no centre or skeleton in the design to bolt everything onto. Instead the building would be interlinked by a series of columns (pictured above) which would need to be constructed to their full height of around 30ft in the air, the height of the second bar floor before the main building would then begin to be built around them, joining the columns together in the process. This required a concrete building technique called shuttering. This involves building bespoke moulds on the actual building site from wooden shutters. Steel poles are then cut on site by specialist tradesmen and shaped into a cage which is fitted inside the shuttered mould. Concrete is then poured inside, left for around 20 days to set and then the wooden shuttering is removed leaving either a finished column or floor section. In the case of The Windsock the floors of the main public bar and restaurants featured a design which required them to extend out of the main body of the building and impressively hang in the air unsupported from the ground. This would be achieved by a clever design which involved supporting these sections from the roof so until this was added towards the end of the build the floors would need to be supported by scaffold to prevent them from collapsing under their own weight. It was partly due to their skill and experience in this type of constructing that Beegan and Curran had won the contract to build The Windsock but despite their experience in the field Wilson Smiths design and specifications meant that the construction would not be a normal job by any stretch of the imagination.
Before any of the more visually impressive features could be realised though the columns upon which their existence would depend needed to be constructed and it was these concrete columns, rising out of the ground like the green shoots that appear in spring which were the cause of Johns worry. Because the building was to be constructed around these columns it was vital that they were positioned in exactly the correct places. This would have been challenging enough had the columns only had to rise a short distance but each needed to reach 30ft into the air without any deviation from the planned angle of ascent. There was another factor which further complicated this task. Not all the columns were to rise vertically. Because of the shape of the building some were required to rise at very specific angles which needed to be painstakingly checked for accuracy during the shuttering process. If the columns did not rise to exactly the right place the rest of the building would not safely fit together. Unfortunately nobody would know if the position of the columns had been successful until the construction of the main building reached this 30ft height. John and Joe knew that if any errors had been made during the column phase nothing could be done to fix it. Concrete columns can’t be bent a little or sanded down. The only solution would be total demolition and starting again and not just demolition of the column because by that point the building would have been built around it. This would require demolition of the entire building and starting again. The cost implications of this would be catastrophic for the project not to mention the ruinous effect on the reputation and financies of Beegan and Curran. Even if the columns were constructed without any mishaps main body of the building was equally problematic, comprising of even more unusual angles and curved surfaces at every imaginable turn. These also required careful mathematic planning to make sure the shuttered moulds were built correctly. It was because of these specific design features that none of the concrete sections could be preformed prior to being delivered to the site. Its also worth remembering that in 1969 there was no computer assisted design or even hand held calculators to assist John and Joe or their workforce. The angle and shape of every column, floor and wall needed to be figured out and then construction implemented by human brain and hand only.
Throughout late 1969 and into 1970 the painstaking construction progressed. By the time the height of the second floor bar was reached it finally became apparent that the concrete columns had indeed been constructed to the correct specifications and John and Joe could finally breathe a sigh of relief. I imagine they also bought their men a few drinks that week too. The most difficult part of the build was nearly over and they had proven that they were truly experts in this field of construction. All that remained was for the roof to be added which was a steel clad construction. The main floors of the building would be then attached to it and the scaffolding which had been supporting the building could be removed. Not that these were easy tasks but compared to what had gone before it the worries on John and Joes minds were significantly reduced. Roy Wilson Smith had originally specified that the roof be clad in copper. The thought process behind this was that in time it would oxidise giving it a green appearance which would compliment the nearby Downs. Sadly this feature did not come to pass, I imagine due to cost and the roof was instead clad with grey sections of asphalt. This isn’t the end of the story of The Windsocks roof but lets not get ahead of ourselves….
February 1970. The Windsocks familiar shape finally begins to appear. Note the supports to the far left holding the building up and angled columns visible inside the main structure. Copyright John Beegan
Spring 1970. Hand made windows were commissioned because of the unique nature of The Windsocks design. Copyright Soul Stew Productions, reproduced with thanks to Paul Gray
Finally after around 14 months, over 200 tonnes of poured concrete and who knows how many restless nights John and Joe signed off on The Windsock and handed the building over to the internal fitters.
Approx August 1970. Construction is almost complete and internal fittings are about to commence. Photographer unknown
Not a lot is known about the original internal features of The Windsock. Most of the information I have gathered is from the memories of staff or people who visited and the impression I have gained is that it was an impressive building. Underneath at lower ground floor level was a patio bar with bespoke tables built around those support columns which caused John Beegan and Joe Curran so many sleepless nights.
Not the greatest view but the only one I have found of the patio bar. Copyright BBC
The main block of the building was accessed by a few steps up to the front door from which you would enter an inner hallway. The living quarters were situated behind this hallway underneath the main floors. From the inner hallway a few more steps led up to a fairly large landing which housed toilets and at a right angle to the steps from the ground was another staircase to the first floor which was the bar and grill.
A dramatic view of the underside of The Windsock. The area directly above the columns is the living quarters. The patio bar is just about visible behind the columns to the left of the steps leading to the main doors. Copyright BBC
The steps which led up to bar/ grill deposited guests in the bar area. On both floors this was a distinctive warped hexagon shaped bar. From this area a couple of steps dropped down to the grill and dining area which was situated by the long façade of windows facing Dunstable Downs. From the outside this façade gently curved upwards from one end of the building to the other but inside and contrary to what many people swear they remember it did not. The bar area on both floors was totally flat and the area by the windows which was so memorably curved on the outside of the building was gently terraced as it rose. It seems even Roy Wilson Smith drew the line at floors which made patrons feel the effects of alcohol before they’d even had a drink.
The grill area shortly after opening in late 1970/early 1971. Note the terraced floor visible near the centre of the picture. Copyright Dunstable Gazette, reproduced with thanks to Geoff Cox
Plan of the second floor restaurant which was officially the third floor of the building, the patio bar being ground floor, living quarters first floor, bar/grill the second floor. Copyright Wilson Smith and Partners.
Drawing from the first draft of The Windsocks design. This is not an entirely accurate representation of the finished building but I’ve included it because it illustrates the staggered relationship between the landings and bar floors extremely well. Copyright Wilson Smith and Partners
Leaving the bar and grill another short set of steps led up to another landing/hallway which accommodated more toilets, a managers office and then turning at a right angle again another short set of stairs to the second bar and restaurant floor. One side of these landings was exposed to an open void from ground to roof so from the stairs visitors could look down to the ground floor hallway from all floors. The second storey of pubic access was built much the same as the bar and grill level except instead of an open grill at one end of the terraced section facing the window facade there was increased dining space, the kitchen being completely out of sight behind a wall. There was also a cut out section in the floor of the main bar area between the terraced section and main bar area from which where guests could look down into the lower bar. Apart from the absence of the grill area there was another reason second floor restaurant was slightly larger than the floor below. A raised landing/hallway area was still present but unlike the lower storeys this was not required to house stairs leading upwards because it was the highest point in the building. Also on this level the landing area was not directly joined to the main bar floor as it was on the floor below. Inside there was a narrow gap between the two which were bridged by steps and a railing on each side overwhich guests could see to the floor below. Another feature of the second floor restaurant was that the ceiling above the bar was absent affording a view into the high roof. Hanging on wire within this space was an elaborate model of the solar system. Try as I might I have found hardly anyone who remembers this and no photographic evidence. I was sceptical about whether or not it actually existed until I heard a story that convinced me which I will recount it in part three of this article. Both floors had fully equipped kitchens and a dumb waiter which enabled food to be sent down to the cellar so staff operating the patio bar in summer months could serve food to guests outside. Behind the scenes of the public area the building had sets of stairs running from the lower ground floor all the way to the top floor at both ends of the building. Both of these private sets of stairs also provided access to the living quarters meaning there were numerous methods of escape in the event of an emergency. Upon looking at the plans of The Windsock you might be forgiven in thinking that Wilson Smith over engineered these safety features but sadly the last 50 or so years are littered with stories of buildings which were built without adequate methods of escape and the appalling tragedies that arose as a result. Only two years after The Windsock opened the UK was shocked by the Summerland fire on the Isle of Man where a significant factor in the appallingly high death toll was the lack of alternative staircases from high areas and insufficient exits. Another feature of this particular disaster was that the building was clad in combustible material, something which we have seen yet again in recent years so its also worthy of note that Wilson Smith specified as far back as 1969 that the external cladding of The Windsock not be wood or plastic but metal.
Composite showing the private areas and emergency/staff staircases. Copyright Dunstable Gazette/ Wilson Smith and Partners
The Windsock finally opened to the public on 15thDecember 1970, fourteen months after construction began. John Beegan recalls first being invited to eat there sometime earlier in late autumn so I imagine he was invited to a private dining session. He and Joe continued their careers working on other large scale projects like The Luton Arndale Centre and Heathrow Airport. They eventually retired and sadly Joe passed away in 2017. I’m pleased to report John Beegan is still enjoying his retirement in Ireland at the ripe age of 83. He is extremely proud of the work his team carried out on The Windsock and states that it was an amazing feat of engineering for its day in and in all his years working in construction The Windsock was the most challenging project he ever undertook. It only seems right to dedicate this chapter to John, Joe and their extremely skilled tradesmen* without whom Roy Wilson Smiths vision and my lifelong fixation never would have existed.
…And that was originally the end of this chapter. Then a few days after it was published and he’d read the piece John Beegan wrote to me again. He had a correction he wished to make and a few more comments about the build. My first instinct was to edit the article to include Johns further comments but after a day or two thinking about it and rereading Johns heartfelt email I decided it would be better to publish Johns message so you, the reader can hear him talking in his own words…
Many thanks for sending me your extremely well written account of The Iconic Windsock. It brought a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat, while reading it. I hope you will have great success when you publish it.
The couple in the restaurant photo, the man with his back to the camera could very well be me with my long black hair and full beard with my wife Bridget.
Just one comment regarding the steel poles. It should read high tensile reinforcing steel bars.
While living in Dunstable for 10 years the winters were referred to as Little Russia. In particular 1963 when the temperatures were below 20 degrees and lasted up to May, and we’re pretty much the same when building the Windsock. The steel bars would stick to your hands if you were not wearing gloves, the icy wind from The Downs would cut into you. No concrete could be poured in those temps, chemicals were used to delay the setting time. Happy days though, plenty of Guinness in the evenings at St Mary’s church hall West st.
John Beegan, I’m sure you’ll agree a true gentleman.
Coming Soon: Chapter Three: Life in The Windsock
*John Beegan kindly provided the names of some of his crew on this build:
Pat Nolan, John Short, Ken Firman, Mick Fitzgerald, Hue Hegarty