BIG INTERVIEW: Saviour of iconic bus station in Preston re-lives his biggest battle of all
There is a special kind of modesty about John Wilson that you often find in people who have helped make history.
The humble bricklayer, who as a young man worked on some of Preston’s most impressive buildings, will forever be remembered for saving its most iconic.
John was the public face of the campaign to rescue the city’s bus station from the bulldozers. Now, job done, he is content to stay in the shadows while others pat each other on the back and celebrate a 50th birthday which, without him, would almost certainly never have happened.
“I’m taking a back seat from it now because there are a lot of people coming out of the woodwork who didn’t get involved with the campaign, who could have done and maybe should have done,” he tells me from his holiday home on the Costa del Sol.
“It’s up to them now. I’m just happy to have played my part in saving such a unique piece of architecture and such a magnificent Preston landmark.”
John was a notable absentee from the party in October which marked the bus station’s golden jubilee. Failing eyesight meant he was spending a month in the Spanish sun recovering from his latest bout of opthalmic surgery while Preston was holding its anniversary knees-up.
Aged 72, and having done his bit over almost a decade, he was happy to let others celebrate the momentous milestone while he focused on his own rehabilitation.
“I couldn’t be more delighted to see the bus station reach its 50th birthday - for many years it was something I feared would never happen,” he says. “Now its future is secure I can relax and concentrate on making the best of retirement. I think that’s the least I owe my wife Sue.”
Those close to John know only too well how much he loves a challenge. And it seems the past two decades have been one long series of tests, all of which he has faced with the same steely determination.
In 1999/2000 he was struck down with ME, a chronic debilitating condition which can leave patients bed-ridden. He still admits to having “good days and bad.”
More recently he has been struggling with an eye condition which has already cost him the sight in his left and is gradually affecting his right.
Yet throughout those ordeals he has thrown himself into the crusade to save the bus station, fought unsuccessfully to become a councillor and also become a prominent advocate of Brexit.
Oh, and then there has been his unswerving support for Preston North End in its battle to reach the Premier League.
He shrugs his shoulders and smiles as I tell him he can certainly pick a fight. “Yes, I suppose I can,” he replies. “I tend to like a challenge - the bigger, the better, I suppose. But when I’m passionate about something I just have to support it. If I have something to say I will look people in the eye and tell them how I feel.
"That’s the way I have always been. And I think people will admit I don’t give in easily. If I believe something I will fight until I drop.
"When I go back to 1999/2000 I was diagnosed with ME and I was very ill. There came a point where I couldn’t get out of bed and walk to the bathroom unaided. It was like walking on broken glass.
“I was in a real black hole for quite a long time and, of all things, it was politics I suppose which pulled me out of it. I stood as a councillor and really threw myself into it, even though I wasn’t always feeling well. I still have good days and bad days.
“I had those during the campaign for the bus station. There were days when I was standing on the concourse doing interviews or whatever and I was freezing cold and feeling awful. But I wasn’t going to give in.”
John is Preston through and through. And of all the battles he has fought in his lifetime, the one to save the “doomed” bus terminus is up there with the toughest.
Having watched it being built as he laid bricks for the neighbouring Guild Hall, John immediately felt an affinity with the place. And, as he worked his way up to become a senior construction manager with Bovis, his love affair with the ‘Marmite’ landmark deepened.
So when news broke that Bovis were in the running to work on the ill-fated £700m Tithebarn development - with John Lewis as its anchor store - it was a bitter sweet moment for him.
“I was really chuffed that Bovis were coming to my town, but when I saw John Lewis wanted to plant their store right where the bus station sits, my heart sank,” he recalls.
“Two men started campaigning to save the bus station - conservationist Aiden Turner-Bishop and Preston councillor Terry Cartwright. They were the first. But they had to give up because at the end of the day they weren’t getting anywhere.
"Demolition looked on the cards and the thing that really annoyed me was seeing people who weren’t from Preston making decisions about my town.”
The Tithebarn scheme collapsed after John Lewis pulled out and it was formally abandoned in 2011. But the dark cloud of uncertainty hanging over the bus station refused to blow away.
With Preston Council admitting it could no longer afford to maintain it and subsequently voting to knock it down, John roared full throttle into the campaign to save it for the nation - as well as the city - as a precious example of Brutalist architecture.
John was invited to address the council after their decision to go ahead with demolition. He had appealed for a referendum, to let the people of Preston decide its future. “I got a standing ovation,” he says.
“But still they all voted against it - apart from Terry Cartwright. I wanted the people to make the decision, not the men in suits. They were just bothered about how much money they could make out of that site if they knocked the bus station down.”
Having had two applications to get the bus station declared a listed building rejected in 2000 and 2010 - and a review of the second decision in 2011 - the campaign turned its attention to central government. John recruited Angela Brady, president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to help push the claim, with English Heritage also on board.
The campaigners lobbied Culture Minister Ed Vaizey and a third application for listed status was submitted in 2013 - this time with the backing of the Twentieth Century Society - and finally it got the nod.
“I’ve got to say I fell out with a lot of councillors during all that, but they just wouldn’t support us,” recalls John. “Even though they were representing the people of Preston, they didn’t seem concerned about how they felt. They just wanted rid of the place. One even said to me: ‘It’ll be down by Christmas.’
"Well it wasn’t and it’s still here, refurbished and looking back to its best. It looks beautiful. We - Andrew Lloyd and me - had to put up with a lot. But we just took it on the chin because we believed wholeheartedly in what we were doing.
"I’ve got to admit I did get fed up of all the criticism, all the stuff from the trolls on social media. But I didn’t allow it to get me downhearted.
“I’m just an ordinary lad from Preston who loves his city. I was a humble bricklayer and, having got to the top of my trade, it gave me an insight into buildings. I’ve worked on projects up and down the country and seen a lot of architecture.
“But I’ve seen nothing like Preston Bus Station. It stands out as a landmark and I am still amazed that Preston Council wanted to demolish it.
“When I first suggested we should try and get it listed, people asked if we could ever do that. And I admit my reaction was ‘probably not.’
"So it was a massive achievement and worth every bit of the hard work we put in.”