German has a good word – unheimlich – for this eerie feeling: when something mysterious or unfamiliar somehow makes uncanny sense. Over the last year I’ve felt it in the most unlikely of places: Northamptonshire. Let me explain why.
Nearly 18 months ago my partner and I moved out of London. We had grown tired of city life – not an active dislike, but itchy feet. After 35 years living in the capital – sixteen of them as a Labour councillor, the last two years much less happy than the others – I had hit 40 and stepped down at the elections of May 2014, no longer legally required to live in the borough of Greenwich. My partner Liz had enjoyed teaching in London for five years but wanted a fresh challenge. With our daughter approaching her ninth birthday, we knew that it was either move now – before decisions about secondary education reared their heads – or never.
Serendipitously we ended up in Northamptonshire (Northants for short), and to many of our London friends it felt like we had moved to the dark side of the moon. The county does not get a good press, if it gets any press at all. It’s often completely ignored by tourists, who flit directly from Shakespeare Country to Cambridge without pausing to explore Northants on the way.
I have yet to find a decent, up-to-date guidebook to the county’s attractions. And when Northamptonshire is mentioned in travel books and gazetteers, it’s almost always mentioned apologetically. Never has an English county been damned with so much faint praise.
Even posh people don’t know where on earth it is. In 1968 Lady Juliet Smith, who later served as High Sheriff and then Lord Lieutenant of the county, wrote in the introduction to her Shell Guide to Northamptonshire that “When I was writing this book, people often said to me ‘Oh yes, you’re writing a guide to Northumberland aren’t you – or is it Norfolk?’” John Julius Norwich’s magisterial Architecture of Southern England opines that “Northamptonshire is not one of those counties the very mention of which quickens the pulse… It has no coastline, no major city, no cathedral, no spectacular scenery… It does not even possess any readily definable character as do, for example, Suffolk, or Devon, or Shropshire” (in fact Peterborough, whose fine cathedral holds the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, was part of Northants till its Soke broke free in 1974, and Northampton has had a Roman Catholic cathedral since 1825). Only Arthur Mee is vaguely effusive, writing in his King’s England volume on Northamptonshire, published in 1945, “This thousand square miles in the middle of England is as completely representative of our green and pleasant land as Shakespeare’s Warwickshire; but it is all too little known.”
More recent literature continues in a similar vein. Robert Shore’s eBook Fifty Great Things to Come Out of the Midlands only namechecks Northants three times (the art collection at Lamport Hall, Princess Diana’s resting place at Althorp, and the world conker championships held annually in the Northants village of Southwick, and until a couple of years ago nearby Ashton). Shore’s longer version Bang in the Middle has a chapter on Northants, but it’s hardly glowing and barely strays more than ten miles from Northampton.
When it isn’t being ignored, talked down or mistaken for somewhere else, Northamptonshire’s being ridiculed. In 2015 the Channel Four comedy series Not Safe for Work used Northampton as a symbol of stagnation and faded dreams (even though it’s actually filmed in Glasgow). Since 2010 Radio Four has run a silly comedy series by Katherine Jakeways, North by Northamptonshire, whose running joke is the county’s supposed banality (one recent episode had an extra running gag: an old duffer played by Geoffrey Palmer stuck in a traffic jam on the A14, bursting for a pee).
Its producers seem to think that rather like a tree falling over in an unpopulated forest, a county only exists once it has been lampooned on Radio Four. Runs the show’s blurb on the BBC website: “As is well-known: Yorkshiremen wear flat caps and Essex girls wear short skirts; Liverpudlians are scallies and Cockneys are wideboys. Northamptonians gaze wistfully at these stereotypes and wish for an identity of any kind and a label less ridiculous than Northamptonians. Northamptonshire, let us be clear, is neither north, nor south nor in the Midlands. It floats somewhere between the three eyeing up the distinctiveness of each enviously. Now Katherine Jakeways is giving Northamptonshire an identity. And she waits, eagerly, for her home-county to thank her. And possibly make her some kind of Mayor.” This is as scathing as you can get. Robert Shore has rightly said that North by Northamptonshire is about a county that’s “so bland it can’t be caricatured”.
Even Northamptonshire’s most distinctive town, Corby – which thanks to the arrival of thousands of steel workers from the 1930s onwards, still has the largest Scottish community anywhere south of the border – is patronised by the London-centric media. In 2012 Mark Steel, a leftie Radio Four presenter who you might expect to show more sensitivity, did an episode of Mark Steel Comes to Town about the “Baffling Northamptonshire town of Corby”. It consisted of a tirade of weak jokes about trouser presses, Irn Bru, Corby’s status as Britain’s largest town without a railway station (Steel seemed unaware that the station reopened in 2009), and its sibling rivalry with Kettering – many of delivered them in a hammy Scots accent. Relying on Wikipedia, with added metropolitan sarcasm, does not do the county justice.
Northamptonshire has been dubbed “rose of the shires” and “the county of spires and squires” but both labels could just as easily be applied to a dozen other counties. There’s something missing in the middle: many of Northamptonshire’s most fascinating places are right on the edge of the county (Silverstone, Fotheringhay, Naseby battlefield, Rockingham Castle, the Welland valley and the Harringworth viaduct that crosses it), or just beyond its borders (Little Gidding for T.S. Eliot fans, Stowe, Stamford and Burghley).
The same identity crisis afflicts the six East Midland counties – of which Northamptonshire is the southernmost – as a whole. Everyone’s passionately indifferent to the region. The Guardian’s “Britain Uncovered” survey of social attitudes in 2015 found that just 2% of Britons regarded the East Midlands as having the best quality of life (29% plumped for the south-west).No-one had strong feelings either way: only 4% of Britons said the East Midlands would be their best place to move to, and 5% said it would be the worst – much lower numbers than anywhere else. At least 94% of people had stronger feelings about other regions (you can read the full report here).
When the region is noticed, it’s often only as a byword for blandness and boredom. According to a recent survey by tourism chiefs, the East Midlands are perceived as “industrial, built up, heavily populated, busy, no countryside”. In 2003, the Spectator ran a piece by Michael Hanlon called “Places that suck”, which glibly dismissed “places which have simply nothing worth seeing. The homes of light industry and flyovers, with no distinguishing architecture, scenery or climate. The Midwest, and its English equivalent, the East Midlands”. When Leicester City won the Premier League title recently the media was ecstatic but also patronising, implying that Leicester was an obscure one-horse town which could only win anything by a miracle (in fact, as the New Statesman’s Peter Wilby has pointed out, Leicester is by one measure the eighth-biggest city in England).
Even people who live in the East Midlands often don’t know that they do. In 2014, the BBC reported that only 15% of East Midlands residents identify themselves as such: most instead see themselves as residents of Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire or Derbyshire (Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire were only “technically” East Midland counties, the report added). There’s nothing new about this: the University of Leicester (where else?) has concluded that the East Midlands had lost its regional identity by the eighteenth century, possibly earlier – as most people’s social and family connections were all within one town, or at most one county.
The region is not actively disliked or shunned – it is just not known. And Northamptonshire is even less known than other Midland counties – indeed, it’s often seen as a no-man’s land that isn’t really either a Midland county or a southern one.
But the reality is a long way from the perception. Northamptonshire is to my mind one of the best places in England to live, and that it is unknown is a key part of its charm.
It is full of unique, special places. At Naseby the Roundheads really turned the tide in 1645: it is arguably the most important battle ever fought on English soil. At Harringworth, on the Rutland border, is the UK’s longest railway viaduct, taking trains over the river Welland from Corby to Oakham. Thanks to its fertile soil and hunting grounds the county has many of England’s grandest houses (Althorp, Apethorpe and Boughton), and thanks to its limestone it also has some of the country’s finest churches (Titchmarsh, Stoke Doyle and Lowick are my favourites). And at Geddington and Hardingstone, near Northampton, are two of Britain’s three surviving Eleanor crosses (erected by King Edward I in the 1290s at the nightly resting-places of the body of his wife Eleanor of Castile when it was transported from Lincoln to London). Stamford – now in Lincolnshire but historically partly in Northants – is rightly praised as the finest stone town in England (think of Bath with twistier lanes and fewer sash windows). Northants’ larger towns may be too gritty for some, but many of its small ones – Oundle, Towcester, Brackley and Daventry – are charming, and refreshingly free of the snobbery that bedevils such towns in the Cotswolds or along the south coast.
Northampton itself may be rather down-at-heel, but the huge portico of All Saints Church, and the piazza before it, would not look out of place in an Italian hill town. The church, the neighbouring seventeenth century Sessions House and the 1860s gothic Guildhall make one of the best civic compositions I have ever seen outside London. The northern edge of the town centre may have been mangled by the post-war planners, but to the south St Giles Street and Derngate retain their Victorian charm, and nowhere is the damage irreparable.
This is an important place: the English Parliament regularly sat at Northampton between the 12th and 14th century, and it could easily have become the third university town of medieval England, alongside Cambridge and Oxford, had its university not been dissolved in 1265 (apparently, the students had backed Simon de Montfort’s rebellion against Henry III).
A few miles north, the Saxon church at Brixworth has been described by the scholar Sir Alfred Clapham as “the most imposing architectural memorial of the seventh century north of the Alps”: high praise indeed. Fotheringhay, in the north-east of the county, is one of the great “what ifs” of English History. Its castle was the birthplace of Richard III and the place of execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1585. Had the Yorkists won the War of the Roses it would probably be one of the great Royal castles of the land today. Instead the castle was completely demolished by James I and all that stands today is a grass mound (well worth a climb – it has great views across the Nene valley to Oundle and beyond). The church is now a fraction of its original size, but still has a remarkable Perpendicular tower, a well-lit nave, and the tomb of Cicely Neville (mother of both Richard III and Edward IV). If these places were in Kent, Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire they would be swarmed by coach parties, but because they are in Northants visitors are few.
As for the region that Northants belongs to, summarising the East Midlands as “light industry and flyovers, with no distinguishing architecture, scenery or climate”, as Michael Hanlon did, is an almost libellous slur on a place that has the Peak District, Rutland Water, the Lincolnshire Wolds and the ancient forests of Sherwood, Charnwood and Rockingham within its borders. Recent research by Halifax has shown that Rutland has the highest quality of life anywhere in Britain. And far from being an arbitrary collection of counties, the East Midlands has one of the oldest regional identities anywhere in England – its boundaries are still almost the same as Danish Mercia, established in 877 after the Danes partitioned Mercia and established the Five Boroughs (Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford).
Admittedly, the terrain of Northamptonshire does lack the drama of the upland moors of Devon and Somerset or the steep chalk downland of Wiltshire or Sussex – though the steep sides of the Welland valley come close. It has three distinct parts. The gently hilly country to the west of Northampton – which I have not explored much yet – has been dubbed “the Cotswolds without the price tag”, and while less dramatic these hills are very similar geologically: Northamptonshire is on the same belt of Jurassic Oolite limestone that runs from Dorset, through Bath, the Cotswolds, Northants and on to Lincolnshire, and it’s provided building stone for centuries.
The centre of the county is full of towns – the largest being Northampton (population 220,000, but still no Anglican Cathedral). To its east are three more defiantly ungentrified large towns (Kettering, Corby, Wellingborough) and a dozen more small ones (many with alliterative names: Rushden, Raunds, Rothwell, Earls Barton, Irthlingborough, Irchester, Barton Seagrave and Burton Latimer). They all have one thing in common: hardly any tourists visit them. Their brick back-to back houses, built during the Victorian “boots and shoes” boom, evoke towns far more northern but these towns still have an unself-conscious confidence you don’t quite expect. Their high streets are hardly chic but they are not depressed, and empty shops are rare.
The north-east of the county – where we live – is deeply rural. Despite its public school, farmer’s market and bunting, Oundle is a fine town of honey-coloured limestone that does not quite descend into smugness. There’s a lot of woodland: remnants of the former hunting forest of Rockingham, William the Conqueror’s hunting grounds, or the older Brunewald forest (which straddled the Northants- Bedfordshire border and is still echoed in the village names of Newton Bromswold and Leighton Bromswold). The river Nene, navigable all the way from Northampton to the Wash, flows quietly past exquisite villages like Wadenhoe, Pilton and Tansor, and the gravel pits that used to line its banks are now bird sanctuaries. Across much of Northants the limestone is dark brown or even bright orange, but here it is the colour of sand, or honey.
Away from the river, on top of the limestone are flat-topped clay hills and plateaux. They can be flat, even fen-like on top but where the land drops at their edge there can be unexpectedly dramatic views across the Nene valley and beyond. I defy anyone who thinks the East Midlands are “industrial, built up, heavily populated, busy, no countryside” to walk with me from Aldwincle towards Lyveden – Thomas Tresham’s unfinished garden lodge, now in the care of the National Trust – and pause halfway, near Green Side Wood, to gaze back over the Nene valley towards Aldwincle and Titchmarsh. It is a view that encapsulates all that is best about the English landscape: unshowy and undramatic but rolling, tranquil and well-wooded. Other than churches few buildings are in sight: it is difficult to believe you are within 25 miles of Peterborough, Northampton and Bedford.
Northamptonshire hides in plain sight. Many of its towns are barely known outside the county. Despite having a population of 50,000 and being just 53 minutes from St Pancras by train, Wellingborough is a town that few in the south-east will have ever heard of, let alone visited.
In Batsford’s The English Countryside, a late 1940s coffee-table book, a view of the Welland Valley is captioned “Northamptonshire is one of the those counties graced by absence or remembered in passing: we are on our way from Rugby to Bedford, Oxford to Lincoln, and we pace through, thinking as the broad undulating acres spin by, ‘Good farming’ and when we pull up at one of the towns, briskly intent on its own business, ‘Nothing like leather’. Nothing exceptional, perhaps, has stuck in the memory except the thought, ‘This might be rather a good place to live in; country is country and town is town; everyone’s too keen about their own business to worry about other people’s, and the rest of the world isn’t interested… Unpainted, unsung and unspoilt: such is Northants, and so it will continue as long as we are content with passing through.’
These days shoemaking has almost disappeared – Doc Martens shut down in 2003 and moved production to China, with the loss of several hundred jobs in Irthlingborough- and there is only a bit of niche manufacturing left in Northampton and Rushden. But otherwise those words are just as true today as when they were written seventy years ago. Country is still country and town is still town. That a county at the very heart of England retains so much rural character is a powerful testament to the British planning system. In planning policy terms Northamptonshire is plain vanilla amidst a sea of Pistachio, Mint Choc Chip and Neapolitan: it contains no green belt, no “major development areas”, no national parks and no areas of outstanding natural beauty. Given Northants’ central location there are inevitably a lot of warehouses along the A14 and A45, but elsewhere the sprawl has been mostly kept in check.
Local people are friendly without prying, comfortably off without flaunting their wealth, and proud of where they live without being insular or xenophobic. They are not trying to be something they are not. Unlike many of the home counties, Northamptonshire does not reek of keeping up with the Joneses. The county is rural enough to have roadside honesty boxes for eggs and honey, court reports in local papers, and tradespeople who will wait months before presenting you with a bill. Although plenty of people commute to London, Peterborough or Birmingham the villages are more than just dormitories, and the countryside between them is sparsely populated and unspoilt.
Why then does Northants lack a clear identity? One reason is simply bad luck: unlike its neighbour Warwickshire, it never produced a writer like Shakespeare. The county’s three best-known literary exports – John Dryden, John Clare and H E Bates – remain defiantly unfashionable (Dryden, poet Laureate during the reign of Charles II, is seldom read outside universities these days). Bates, born in Rushden in 1904, is best known for the Darling Buds of May, which was inspired by his Northamptonshire childhood but is ostensibly set in Kent. His short stories set in Northants are unknown today: hats off to East Northants council and the Rushden & District History Society for putting together an H.E. Bates trail, but I can’t imagine many visitors have followed it. In the 1800s Northants did produce a half-decent impressionist artist, Alfred East, but he is almost unknown outside the county, and it’s never produced a famous composer, rock band or film star.
Another reason is the county’s irregular shape, running diagonally from south-west to north-east. Public transport is very poor: there is no rail connection from Northampton to Kettering, Corby or Wellingborough other than a ridiculous detour via Birmingham or London. Despite the continued growth of all these towns there is no call for new rail links – the county council’s useless rail strategy will “only consider protecting disused rail lines for future rail use when there is a clear demonstration of both engineering viability and a current or future commercial business case” – what civil servants say when they want to kick good ideas into the long grass. Rather than re-opening the old lines from Northampton to Wellingborough and Bedford (“no longer an option”, says the strategy) the priority seems to be to improve rail links to London and Birmingham – making it easier to get in and out of Northants, not to travel from one end of the county to another.
This is a good place for petrolheads: there are the motor circuits of Silverstone, Santa Pod and Rockingham, and Oundle has a Classic Car Sprint every Christmas. The county is criss-crossed by motorways – not only the M1 but also the A14, A43 and A45, dual carriageways that are motorways in all but name. Given the regular traffic jams between Northampton, Kettering and Wellingborough a tram or light rail system would make perfect sense: the Northamptonshire Arc Transit network (NAT) produced a Glossy document in 2011, but nothing has happened since. A story about a proposed metro system for Northampton in the town’s Chronicle & Echo in 2012 turned out to be an April Fool.
If the county is a good microcosm of middle England’s terrain, and its transport woes, it also neatly encapsulates its political ones. Nowhere else is Labour’s collapse more apparent. In 1997 five out of the county’s six MPs were Labour; in 2015 all seven were Conservative (boundary changes had added an extra seat in the meantime).
If Labour wants to recover nationally, it could do worse than scrutinise why it has lost support in places like Wellingborough and Kettering, which had Labour MPs until 2005 but are now two of the safest Tory seats anywhere (the miserable fate of the Labour candidate in Wellingborough, Richard Garvie, symbolised the party’s implosion in 2015: suspended by the party shortly before the election amid allegations of fraud and sending a schoolgirl inappropriate messages on Snapchat). If Labour cannot win the support of middle managers and small business owners in such places, it can’t win nationally. Forget Essex man or Worcester woman: the key figure in the 2020 election will be Kettering Kevin, and getting him to vote Labour could be a tall order.
If Northamptonshire’s towns have been Labour’s nemesis in the last decade they have to be the springboard in the next, as few places are closer to the national average in terms of age, income and ethnicity (Northampton is often dubbed ‘everytown UK’ and the daily Mash has lampooned Kettering as the “most adequate place to live” in Britain).
Average need not mean boring, but the county’s marketing material does its best. The Visit Northamptonshire website is full of clichés, missing links and an excruciating tourism film (“Cosy cottages, country inns… our high standards of friendly service are a modern echo of bygone days,” etc). Northamptonshire County Council’s website carries a promotional video with an equally excruciating, David Brent style homily by its chief executive Paul Blantern (“Open for business… the best place to do business… culture, heritage – it really is the place to be,” he opines).
It’s often said that 30 million people – half the UK population – live within 100 miles of Northamptonshire. It’s common to deride unvisited rural counties in England as the middle of nowhere, but fact Northants is the opposite: it’s in the middle of everywhere. With a fair wind it’s only an hour to Birmingham, London, Cambridge and Oxford by car or train, and an hour and a half to Yorkshire or the beaches of the Norfolk coast. At least the county has moved on from its laughable “NorthLondonshire” promotional campaign of 2010, which defined Northants purely as an extension of the capital, to the fury of many locals. But Northants is still too keen to emphasise its proximity to familiar lodestars to remember to forge its own identity. Since a £100,000 study in 2006 to find a phrase which summed up the county, its welcome signs have proclaimed “let yourself grow”, a banal slogan that could have been lifted from a 1990s campaign for vegetable spread (the Plain English Society slammed it for making Northamptonshire “sound like a bag of compost”).
Let’s go back to unheimlich. As well as uncanny and mysterious, it was used by Freud to mean something rather different: a thing that is supposed to be kept hidden but is inadvertently revealed. Rather like the word unheimlich, maybe Northamptonshire does not translate well. And neither does it have a single meaning. It is at once familiar and mysterious, average and exceptional. It is an unvisited area in the middle of everything else; a county that is passed through but seldom explored.
I like living in a place that most people have never heard of. Maybe everyone has their own private Northamptonshire: an unheimlich territory or realm of experience on their doorsteps that’s long been ignored or forgotten, but which repays its discovery over and over again.