16 November 2022

A walking tour of the buildings
and architecture in the grounds
of the Open University

Walton Hall dates back to 1201 and is now administration centre at the Open University (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was on the campus of the Open University in Milton Keynes for the first time last week, to receive my fourth Covid-19 vaccination in the Michael Young Building.

Wandering around the campus after my vaccination, there was an opportunity to appreciate the modern architecture and sculptures on the campus, which I described on my blog posting last evening (15 February 2022), to visit Saint Michael’s Church, which I described in my blog posting on Monday (14 November 2022), and to see Walton Hall, which provides the original core of the university buildings.

The story of Walton Hall dates back to 1201, when Walton first appears in documented records as an estate consisting of land that had been taken from the Bow Brickhill Parish.

The Rixbaud family were the earliest owners. The earliest surviving part of Walton Hall was built in 1622 by the Beale family, who are commemorated in plaques in Saint Michael’s Church.

Walton Hall was then owned by the Gilpin family, followed by the Pinfold family. Thomas Pinfold (1638-1701) pulled down most of the hall. The front white square part of the hall was built by Thomas Pinfold’s descendant, Captain Charles Pinfold, in 1830.

Walton Hall was sold in 1907 to Dr Vaughan Harley, a distinguished heart specialist from the family that gives its name to Harley Street in London.

Dr Harley’s daughter and his son-in-law, Brigadier Eric Earle, were the last family to live at Walton Hall. During the latter part of World War II, the hall was used to house 40 WRNS who worked at Bletchley Park, and the Earles moved into the nearby Walton Lodge Cottage.

Brigadier Earle died in 1965 and the hall was briefly occupied by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation Planning and Architects’ Offices. The Open University officially moved in on 1 September 1969, and Walton Hall was opened by Lord Mountbatten as the university’s first building on 18 May 1970.

The Walton Hall building is used today as an administration centre.

The George Abell Observatory is at the entrance to the Open University campus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The George Abell Observatory is at the entrance to the Open University campus. The observatory is part of the School of Physical Sciences and is operated jointly by the school and the Open University Astronomy Club.

The observatory is also used to train postgraduate students in observing techniques. It houses a Meade LX200 16-inch instrument known as the Alan Cooper Telescope. Professor Andrew Norton is director of the George Abell Observatory.

The George Abell Observatory is named in honour of George Ogden Abell (1927-1983) of UCLA, a research astronomer and a populariser of science and of education. He began his career in astronomy as a tour guide at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. He worked with the National Geographic Society Palomar Observatory Sky Survey on clusters of galaxies and planetary nebulae. He chaired the UCLA Astronomy Department (1968-1975).

Abell worked closely with the Open University on the first ‘Understanding Space and Time’ course in 1983. Sadly, he died later that year and the observatory, opened in 1984, is named after him, as well as a galaxy, an asteroid (Asteroid 3449 Abell) and a periodic comet.

One of the first objects seen through the telescope was Halley’s Comet on its approach to pass the Sun in 1985-1986.

The Betty Boothroyd Library is named after the former Speaker of the House of Commons (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Betty Boothroyd Library is named after the former Speaker of the House of Commons who was Chancellor of the Open University. She was the MP for West Bromwich and West Bromwich West from 1973 to 2000.

She was the Speaker of the House of Commons in 1992-2000, the only woman to have served as Speaker. She is one of two living former Speakers of the British House of Commons and sits as a Crossbench peer in the House of Lords.

She was Chancellor of the Open University from 1994 to 2006, and has donated some of her personal papers to the university’s archives. She was awarded an honorary degree from the Open University as Doctor of the University (DUniv) in 1995.

The Jennie Lee Building opened in 2008, 20 years after Jennie Lee died in 1988 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Jennie Lee Building, housing the Institute of Educational Technology (IET), was built on the site of the Jennie Lee Library, and opened in 2008. Jennie Lee (1904-1988) laid the foundation stone for the Open University’s first library in April 1973, and it opened in 1974.

Jennie Lee (1904-1988) was one of the earliest women MPs. She was born Janet Lee in Fife to a family descended from Irish immigrants. She was elected an Independent Labour Party MP in a by-election in 1929 and sat until 1931. In 1934 she the Welsh Labour politician Aneurin ‘Nye’ Bevan, who died in 1960. She was the Labour MP for Cannock from 1945 to 1970. She also worked as a journalist for the Daily Mirror.

Harold Wilson appointed her as Minister of the Arts in 1954, with additional responsibility for a ‘University of the Air’. She formulated the first solid ideas about the Open University, how it would be run, its independence from other educational institutions and that it would be open to all with no necessity for previous qualifications.

When she retired from front-line politics, she was made Baroness Lee of Asheridge. Jennie Lee retained a very close relationship with the Open University and bequeathed her personal and political papers to the university. She died in 1988.

The Alan Turing Building honours the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Alan Turing Building is named in honour of Dr Alan Turing (1912-1954), who is widely considered to be the father of theoretical computer science and artificial intelligence. He was highly influential in the development of theoretical computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of algorithm and computation with the Turing machine, a model of a general-purpose computer.

During World War II, Turing worked for the Government Code and Cypher School, the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park. He had a crucial role in cracking intercepted coded messages that enabled the allies to defeat Nazi Germany.

Turing was prosecuted in 1952 for homosexual acts. He died on 7 June 1954, 16 days before his 42nd birthday, from cyanide poisoning. Following a public campaign in 2009, the Prime Minister Gordon Brown made an official public apology on behalf of the government for ‘the appalling way [Turing] was treated.’ Queen Elizabeth II granted a posthumous pardon in 2013. The ‘Alan Turing law’ in 2017 retroactively pardoned men cautioned or convicted under historical legislation that outlawed homosexual acts.

In a BBC poll in 2019, Turing was named the greatest person of the 20th century. He appears on the £50 note issued in 2021.

The Wolfson Building opened in 1993 with the support of the Wolfson Foundation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Wolfson Building is the Earth Sciences extension to the Gass Building, and opened in 1993. The Wolfson Foundation helped to finance the building of the extension. The foundation was founded in 1955 by Sir Isaac Wolfson (1897-1991) and his family.

The charity awards grants to support excellence in the fields of science and medicine, health, education, the arts and humanities. The foundation has also given its named to colleges in Cambridge and Oxford: Wolfson College Cambridge was founded as University College in 1965, but was refounded as Wolfson College in 1973 in recognition of the benefaction of the Wolfson Foundation. Wolfson College Oxford was founded in 1965, and its first president, the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin was instrumental its establishing its traditions of academic excellence and egalitarianism.

The Open University logo at the Peter Venables Building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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