There are few pleasures like exploring an unfamiliar town on foot for the first time. A new series of posts on this website, In Praise of Ordinary Places, looks at Middle England towns that are overlooked by tourists (Oxford, Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon need not apply). This is the antidote to Crap Towns. I’ll speak as I find and won’t overlook ugliness, tackiness and misery. But I’ll also celebrate authenticity, unexpected surprises, and the ordinariness of places that rarely feature in Best Places to Live contests. I started with Bedford and my second outing is to another county town 20 miles away: Northampton.
It feels a bit like London’s West End did back in the 80s: there’s a lot of downmarket employment and letting agencies, and a lot of takeaways, sticky pavements and pigeon droppings.
Northampton’s many things – a county town for almost 1,100 years, a boot and shoe capital, a 1970s boomtown – but chic it is not. Historically it’s been ignored rather than ridiculed; it hasn’t been the butt of jokes as Slough, Blackpool or Milton Keynes have. But that may be changing. The 2015 Channel 4 comedy series Not Safe for Work centred on a civil servant, played by Zawe Ashton, who’s forcibly relocated from London to Northampton (“Not Northampton….” sighs Ashton in the show’s trailer). In the latest series of Line of Duty a character cited “A work function in Northampton” as an alibi (“sounds amusingly tedious”, wrote the Telegraph’s TV reviewer).
“Is Northampton rubbish?” asked Ross Noble in an episode of his Freewheeling series last year. The answer from locals was a qualified yes. A Northamptonian’s DIY documentary on YouTube tells a similar story: “Northampton’s not what it was”, ”Too many kebab shops,” “An OK cinema,” “Lots of good bars and clubs,” “Too many charity shops” and “When you see the lift tower you know you’ve come home” are the most complimentary vox pops. If Northampton ain’t rubbish it’s certainly dull, average and ordinary, these answers suggest.
You don’t have to scratch the surface very hard to find the real gripes: “Too many immigrants”, ”You hardly ever hear English spoken on the street any more”, and so on. Northampton’s always been a cosmopolitan place (it had one of England’s largest communities of Jews until their expulsion in 1290) but the arrival of tens of thousands of non-white immigrants since the 1960s is still resented by some. Because of its central location and proximity to the M1, the town has many warehouses, distribution centres and “logistics hubs” which depend on cheap migrant labour. More eastern Europeans have arrived in Northampton in the last decade than almost any other English town, causing some tensions (in 2012 the Daily Mail reported on a “shanty town” of homeless migrants just off the A45).
Like its near-neighbour Bedford (with which I started this series back in April) Northampton has an image problem. The place constantly talks itself down: when I first visited All Saints, the town’s main church, the churchwarden lamented the town’s “dreadful modern buildings” rather than proselytise about the church and the town’s other ancient buildings. This town wears its antiquity lightly, and takes a lot for granted. Continue reading