Welcome to little Britain in Shanghai
By Thomas Brown in Shanghai and Colin Freeman
(Filed: 19/02/2006)

Castle Combe, Wiltshire: voted "Prettiest Village in England." But go to Shanghai in China and you'll be able to see English buildings like this in Thames Town.

Shanghai: What you would normally think of as quite different from a quintessentially English village.

From its pubs and cobbled streets to the houses with mock-Tudor frontage, it is every inch the tourist's image of a typical English town.

Only one thing reveals to the visitor that the buildings are not quite what they seem - the rows of bamboo being used as scaffolding.

Welcome to Thames Town, Shanghai, where the land that once declared war on bourgeois values is recreating Middle England in all its glory.

Nostalgic expatriates and upwardly mobile Chinese can now swap the smog, crowds and skyscrapers of Shanghai for the tranquillity of an Oriental Cambridge or Chichester, where the highest building is the 200ft steeple of the Gothic-look church.

The scheme is part of a plan by the Shanghai authorities to rehouse millions of people in nine new satellite settlements, easing the strain on the overheated commercial capital's infrastructure.

It is the work of the British-based consultants Atkins, who won an international contest to design the city set up by the Chinese government five years ago. Their entry was based partly on the ideas of the English urban planner Ebenezer Howard, whose vision led to Welwyn Garden City and later Milton Keynes.

"The Chinese respect Western architecture and they are keen to adapt it to their own communities and lifestyles," said Matthew Tribe, an associate director with Atkins. "We've tried to design and create the essence of an English market town by using certain historic landmarks and structures. It is an adaptation of traditional styles but it has a very distinctive feel to it."

Like much housing in modern-day rural England, it does not come cheap: a standard post-war style, two-storey house may easily cost 200,000, and overall Thames Town has had almost 200 million spent on it.

But the developers, Shanghai Henghe Real Estate, have catered for the needs of the average middle-class family - be they Chinese or English.

In addition to a good school with excellent sporting facilities, there is a hospital, a business district and an express train that can take commuters to Shanghai in 15 minutes.

Situated about 25 miles from the city, Thames Town was started just three years ago in an area that previously contained nothing but fields and peasant farmhouses.

When it opens this summer, it will be able to house about 10,000 people, and may eventually grow to a population of 50,000. It will feature pubs serving "traditional" English food, village greens, hawthorn hedges, football pitches, a garden maze and a covered market reminiscent of Covent Garden.

Architecturally, the project will span five centuries, with imitation Tudor beamed shops in its centre, Georgian-style terraces in the suburbs and a Victorian-style waterfront of purpose-built "warehouse" flats. There will even be a fake turreted castle and possibly a windmill or two. As part of the design process, Atkins invited their clients to Britain to see its architecture for themselves. Among the locations that provided inspiration were John Nash's Regent's Park and the Georgian crescents in Bath.

Built alongside Thames Town will be nine new universities, housing about 100,000 students. A large proportion of the first residents are expected to be academics.

In the property agents' office - soon to become a low-key, canalside pub - a painted copy of Constable's The Haywain gives prospective buyers a hint of the rural idyll Thames Town promises to be.

"I like this style of living and the look of the English towns," said Qing Xiao, a businesswoman in her late twenties. "They are attractive and traditional. There's nothing else around here like this, so it has a kind of unusual appeal."

For Chinese of a less Anglophile persuasion, meanwhile, there will be no need to remain cooped up in Shanghai. Thames Town's eight sister satellites are based on other nations - including a German auto-town with a BMW plant and a Spanish town with a Ramblas-style shopping arcade.