Northampton, a town that needs to grow up and become a city

In praise of ordinary places logoThere 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.

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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.

The paradox is that this chorus of disapproval has accompanied Northampton’s success, not its decline. In 1961 the borough’s population was still under 100,000: since being designated a New Town in 1968 it’s doubled, reaching 211,000 in 2011 (the real population is arguably bigger: the borough doesn’t cover all of Northampton’s sprawling outskirts). If anything its expansion is accelerating: according to the Centre for Cities Northampton was among the top ten fastest-growing towns in Britain between 2004 and 2013, with population growth of 11.3%.

Northampton’s key public buildings are all of limestone that would not look out of place in Oxford or Bath

But just as Northampton has grown, its stature has fallen. New Town status made Northampton a more generic place: its main brewers, Phipps and Northampton Brewing Company, were merged, shut down and then replaced by a Carlsberg plant in 1974, and its shoe trade continued to decline. Northampton’s breakneck expansion since the 60s is seen as a disaster, not a boon. “The tale of Northampton is tragic indeed,” the architecture critic John Julius Norwich once grumbled. “Many of the best of the old buildings… have been swept away. What remains amidst the desolation?” A more softly-spoken critic, Niklaus Pevsner, wrote in the early 70s that Northamptonshire is “the architecturally most important county in England” but that its county town’s medieval street pattern “is now disappearing among recent developments.”

When Ian Nairn made one of his documentaries about Northampton in 1972 the Edwardian Emporium Arcade, just off the Market Square, was about to be demolished to make way for the Grosvenor shopping centre: “a diabolical shame,” said Nairn, close to tears. Memories of Northampton’s 20th century mistreatment have persisted into the 21st: “Northampton, following the wrecking of the old Market Square and its surrounding streets, is now a shadow of its former self,” lamented the late Alexander Chancellor, a Northants native, in 2013.

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It wasn’t always this way. Until recently Northampton was a confident, important place. It has a very long history: Hunsbury Hill, just south-west of town, is a Iron Age hillfort first occupied in 400 BC. The Danes established a fortified stronghold (or Burh) on the banks of the river Nene nearby in the ninth century, a settlement first recorded as Ham tune (“home town”) in 914 (it was later prefixed “North” to distinguish it from other Hamptons, most prominently Southampton).

Northampton was made a county town, with an earldom, in 918 and by 1100 it was one of the twenty largest towns in England, with a thriving cloth trade (one of its main streets is still called simply Drapery). Because of its central location Parliament often sat in Northampton in the middle ages and Thomas a Becket was tried here in 1164. The town had an important university until it was closed down by Henry III in 1265 (its scholars had resisted the king’s forces during a siege the previous year). It’s been said that if history had taken a slightly different course in the 13th century, the pre-eminent universities of England would today be Northampton and Stamford, not Cambridge and Oxford.

But Northampton was badly hit by the Black Death of the 1340s and stagnated over the next 300 years. The cloth trade declined, as did the town’s population. Northampton supported Parliament – and shod its soldiers – in the English Civil War so Charles II ordered the destruction of the town’s walls in 1662, and in 1675 a Great Fire destroyed most of the rest.

Northampton was quickly rebuilt (Charles II forgave the town and paid for the rebuilding of All Saint’s, where his statue is still garlanded with oak leaves every May 29th), and thanks to the boot and shoe industry it began to grow rapidly. Northampton was considerably larger than Birmingham, 50 miles to the northwest, until well into the 18th century. When Napoleon’s army invaded Russia in 1812 its soldiers wore boots made in Northampton.

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Like this roadsign, many of Northampton’s 70s developments have not aged well  

The town centre is still dotted with buildings with inscriptions like Northamptonshire Union Bank and Northampton Gas Light Co, reminders of how much Chamberlainite civic pride there once was here. Northampton was a hotbed of non-conformism (Philip Doddridge preached here from the 1720s onwards) and political power (Spencer Perceval, Prime Minister from 1809 until his assassination in 1812, was MP for Northampton). The omnipresent Spencer family, members of which were members of parliament for Northamptonshire seats almost continuously from the 16th century to the late 19th, have their family seat at Althorp, 6 miles out of town.

But despite the arrival of the Grand Union Canal in the 18th century Northampton began to decline again in the 19th. It was bypassed by the main railway from London to Birmingham because of the steepness of the Nene Valley here. At first Northampton was only served by a branch line from Blisworth, and it didn’t get a proper mainline connection until the opening of the Northampton loop in 1872 – several decades later than most equivalent towns.  Dr Beeching closed down branch lines to Peterborough, Oxford, Bedford and Leicester in the 60s and now you only catch trains northwards to Birmingham or southwards to London. Although trains are plentiful, both London and Birmingham are more than hour away (the fastest trains bypass the loop) and Northampton’s station – like Oxford’s and Cambridge’s – is nearly a mile from the centre of town.

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Apart from going to a wedding in one of its suburbs as a child, I’d never set foot in Northampton until I moved to Northants a couple of years ago. When I first walked around the town centre my expectations were low, yet I was amazed not by how much of its historic fabric has been lost, but how much has survived.

Locals often cite the 418-foot Lift Tower –  England’s highest, built in 1980 and listed in 1998 – as Northampton’s key landmark. Resembling a broken drinking straw and relentlessly lampooned by Terry Wogan, it isn’t a landmark to boast about. The real landmarks (summarised in a useful Heritage Trail) are right in the centre: they may be too familiar to natives, but to a first-time visitor they are a delight. Northampton’s Guildhall by E W Godwin is one of England’s finest Venetian Gothic buildings outside London. The town still retains most of its ancient street pattern, with the key streets – Drapery/Sheep Street, Abington Street, St Giles Street, Bridge Street and Gold Street – radiating like spokes of a wheel from the Wren-like All Saints, which has one of England’s finest 17th-cenutry church interiors. Overlooking a well-proportioned piazza, All Saints would not look out of place in an Italian hill town if the ironstone was turned to marble.

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The Sessions House: a rare surviving example of a 17th-century courthouse

Between the Guildhall and All Saints is a remarkable Sessions House, built in 1678 straight after the fire and a rare example of a 17th century courthouse (the courts only moved out in the early 90s and it’s now a tourist information office and the reception for County Hall next door). Together, these buildings make one of the best civic compositions I have ever seen outside London.

There’s a lot of red brick, but the main civic buildings – The main Post Office, banks, Police and Fire Stations, Magistrates Court, County Hall and Guildhall – are all in a honey-coloured limestone that would be at home in Bath or Oxford.  Don’t miss the remarkable modernist Mounts Baths of 1936, listed Grade II since 2013. Historic England says “its striking pool hall…. resembles a cathedral nave flooded with light from the tiered clerestory” (if you can’t visit in person, you can do a virtual tour). Outside the centre are some fantastic parks – Abington Park to the east, the Racecourse to the north, and Delapre Park and Beckets park to the south. And at 78 Derngate is the only house in England designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, now open to the public six days a week and easily his most important work outside Scotland.

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The northern edge of the town centre has, it must be admitted, been mangled. Since the recent demolition of the 70s brutalist Greyfriars Bus Station – think of an oil rig made of brick and you’re close – there’s a massive gap in the townscape just north of the Grosvenor, whose pedestrian entrances are woeful. All around are dingy subways that have been made redundant by surface crossings. On Gold Street – the western spoke – the Grand Hotel has been shoddily redeveloped as a Travelodge behind its Victorian façade. Georgian terraces survive on Sheep Street – the northern spoke – but the street’s been cruelly severed by the inner ring road. At its northern end St Sepulchre’s – one of only four Norman round churches in England and a building of national importance – is obscured by a new residential block of such mediocrity that its construction is like a sort of crime.

The construction of this block of flats right in front of the Norman St Sepulchre’s Church (right) beggars belief

To the south, west and north the town centre is ringed by uninviting roundabouts and dull (and often empty) 1970s office blocks (gradually being redeveloped as housing, with some positive results, such as the St John’s student flats on Swan Street).  The nearby St John’s Hospital – built as a hostel in 1138 and now a restaurant –  languishes at the side of a busy gyratory. Just by the railway station the remains of the Norman castle mound are a sorry sight – interpretation signs are missing or vandalised, and modern housing has encroached on the mound’s sides. And back in the very centre, Nairn was right. The north side of the Market Square – the largest in England – has indeed been tragically ruined by 1970s office blocks (though the bland 80s and 90s PoMo infill alongside could be worse).

But on the square’s other sides narrow lanes still run to the surrounding streets. Such market squares are unusual in England –  markets normally take place along a street, rather in a square. This square could do with decluttering and repaving (it had  beautiful granite setts until they were replaced by red bricks in the late 80s), but reaching it for the first time when the market’s in full swing still makes you catch your breath.

The centre of town is ringed by too many pieces of unusable public space, redundant underpasses, underused 70s office blocks, and gyratory roads

Many of Northampton’s 1960s buildings – the block housing Nando’s and a Prezzo just east of All Saints, and the Park Inn Hotel, for example – are not half bad, and nowhere is the damage irreparable. Abington Street, the town’s main pedestrianised shopping street (there’s no High Street, oddly) has a vibrant street scene, with lots of outdoor tables on one of its turnings, Fish Street. Around the corner are two backstreets, The Ridings and Dychurch Lane, where wheelie bins compete with pop-up bars and restaurants: Northampton’s shops may struggle but its night-time economy seems to be booming.

Market Square has a lot of presence, even if its north side (right) has been ruined

Abington Street has been partly de-pedestrianised, resulting in lots of unnecessary guardrails, but the recent repaving work around the Guildhall and All Saint’s has been exemplary. South of Abington Street, St Giles Street and Derngate retain their Victorian and Georgian charm, with regency terraces of brick, limestone and stucco that would not be out of place in Clifton or Cheltenham. This side of the town centre hasn’t been spoilt: approaching Northampton from the Bedford direction, across Beckets Park, you can still just about recognise the discrete, compact town that Samuel and Nathaniel Buck drew in 1731. Here the town has a very clear edge, and the ring road is easy to cross. When you climb Guildhall Road, past old shoe factories, the theatre and the town’s museum, and spot the Venetian arches of the Guildhall at the top you feel a real sense of arrival. Prince Charles would approve of the Guildhall’s twee 90s extension, but it’s so well detailed that you can forgive the pastiche.

The Guildhall (right) and its 1990s extension (left) which includes an elegant Gothic cloister

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This is now the town’s cultural quarter: the Royal and Derngate theatres were combined in 2006, linked by a foyer reminiscent of the Royal Festival Hall, and the complex now includes a two-screen Errol Flynn Picturehouse (Flynn lived in Northampton in the 30s and again in the 50s, leaving an unpaid bill at his tailors, Montague Jeffery). This isn’t just any old provincial receiving house. The Royal & Derngate is now a well-respected producing house, whose well-reviewed King Lear, starring Michael Pennington, went on national tour in 2016. Tim Pigott-Smith died in his Northampton digs in April this year just three days away from playing Willy Loman in a new Royal and Derngate production of Death of a Salesman (the show went on, with Nicholas Woodeson taking over the lead role).

Guildhall Road, the Royal & Derngate, and the recently-demolished Fish Market

Next door to the theatre are a contemporary art gallery (the artists used to exhibit at the old Fish Market before it was pulled down to make way for the new bus station), and a trendy bar that’s recently changed its name from Hygge to John Franklin’s (after a Victorian entrepreneur who rebuilt Northampton’s rugby stadium in the 1880s). Inside Franklin’s I recently had a plate of Northamptonshire blue cheese and even spotted some bearded hipsters: after decades below the cultural radar, Northampton is belatedly becoming prouder of its heritage, and is even running the risk of becoming hip.

The Royal and Derngate redevelopment (and the cultural quarter it has spawned) was one of a number of grand projets started in the late noughties, thanks largely to the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation, a Blairite quango which covered the town for a decade until 2014. Just south of the town centre, an old power station and an Avon Cosmetics factory were pulled down to make way for University of Northampton’s Waterside Campus, now nearing completion (Northampton’s been a university town again since the nineties, when Nene College got university status). Both the railway station and bus station were redeveloped. It’s a pity that the new bus station required the demolition of the 1950s Fish Market (I’m amazed that Northampton had one, given that it is a good 80 miles from the sea) and that both new buildings seem value-engineered (the new limestone frontage of the bus station does not make it round the corner to where the buses park). Still, you have to admire the improvements: the old Greyfriars Bus Station was a cellar beneath a multi-story car park; the old railway station a 60s glass shed which had not aged well.

The new railway station (top) and bus station (below) are impressive, despite the obvious value-engineering

But these grand projets have not been without controversy: Northampton Borough Council council was widely criticised for selling off a valuable Egyptian statue in 2014 to help fund an extension to its museum. And another has been the downfall of the town’s foremost politician. In 2013 David Mackintosh, then council leader, signed off a £13m loan to Northampton Town Football Club (aka the Cobblers) for the redevelopment of its Sixfields Stadium. £10m of that loan has since been written off. Mackintosh, who was elected Conservative MP for Northampton South in 2015, was forced to stand down just before the 2017 election when police started investigating secret donations to his campaign from a developer involved in the Sixfields project, which has come to a suspicious halt.

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Such  scandals have a distinctly small-town aftertaste. But Northampton’s no small town: it’s a big place that faces big challenges, above all its precarious status as a shopping centre. Northampton lost its House of Fraser department store in 2014 (more downmarket Primark and Next outlets have taken its place). Northampton used to have a Habitat as well, but now the only department stores to speak of are a shabby M&S and an even shabbier Debenhams.

Despite the Grosvenor Centre’s recent refurb, most of its pedestrian entrances are woeful

The Grosvenor Centre recently got a modest £3m refurb but there’s not much to show for it, and complete rebuilding may be the only way to undo the damage the centre has done to Market Square.  Just off Gold Street the bland St Peter’s Square shopping centre is little better, facing towards a car park off the inner ring road, not the town proper. There’s a worryingly high number of empty shops. Even on St Giles Street – one of the town’s trendiest and voted ‘Britain’s Best High Street’ in 2015  – a vinyl advert in an empty shopfront proclaims “10k to move into this unit” through Northampton Borough Council’s Business Incentive Scheme: hardly a healthy sign. Nearby a St Giles Street stalwart – Oliver Adams – has just closed after 150 years of baking in Northampton.

Northampton badly needs to reconsolidate and attract new shops to its centre. That’s not easy, given the competition from its four huge suburban retail parks (Weston Favell, Sixfields, Riverside and Nene Valley). 15 miles to the east, an even bigger 50,000 sq m retail park is under construction at Rushden Lakes (including a House of Fraser to replace the one that closed in the Grosvenor Centre three years ago). But given all its assets Northampton should be able to rise to these challenges: its decline isn’t inevitable and can be reversed. Northampton’s small enough to be a real place, and large enough to have the capacity to reinvent itself.

With vandalised signage and tatty wooden statues, the Castle Mound is a sorry sight

Absurdly, Northampton’s often still described as a “market town” on the grounds that it has a big street market, lacks an Anglican cathedral, and a bid for city status was turned down in 2000. One of Northampton’s many recent strategies describes it as “the prototype for the 21st century county town, its Market Square the centre of life for a fast growing creative and enterprising community in a developing region”. That may sound ambitious but it’s really not ambitious enough. A town of more than 200,000 people – England’s largest, some claim – is not comparable to small county towns like Dorchester or Lewes. It’s really a city, and should start behaving like one even if official city status eludes it.

The borough council needs to move on from the Sixfields scandal. Sticky pavements, not grand projets, need to be made a higher priority. The council has strategy after strategy after strategy and loads of hash tags – Northampton Alive and Love Northampton, amongst others – but amidst all the hot air there’s no clear plan to get shoppers back, or for the future of the Greyfriars site. Its hinterland is prosperous (Northamptonshire’s recently been dubbed ‘The Cotswolds without the price tag’ and London, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge are all within commuting distance) but too many locals shop in Milton Keynes. Northampton’s got vital qualities that MK will always lack – history, character, edginess – and needs to turn them to its advantage.

St Giles Street has lots of vibrancy – but the “10k to move into this unit” sign in an empty shopfront isn’t a healthy sign

If the council feels parochial, it was designed that way – several outer suburbs like Moulton and Grange Park have spilled over outside the borough boundaries. A single unitary council covering Northampton’s satellite towns – Wellingborough, Towcester and Kettering – or even the whole county, would give the place a lot more clout to stand up to Birmingham, Leicester and Milton Keynes. At Angel Square, just behind County Hall, Northants county council has just built itself a new office block, which would make an ideal place to bang heads together.

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78 Derngate

And Northampton’s woeful public transport must be improved. In the 60s Northampton had red double decker buses, just like London, and a contemporary view of Drapery looks at first glance like Haymarket or Oxford Street. But unlike London, Northampton hasn’t improved its public transport to keep pace with its rocketing population. Girdled by multiple dual carriageways Northampton’s a place for petrolheads, with only one railway station and a ropey bus network. Adrian Jones’s description of Northampton’s post-war suburbs as “a series of inward looking Radburn estates tagged on to new expressways, hugely car dependent and with little relation to the older Northampton” and their “manic separation of traffic from pedestrians” is spot on. Northampton had trams until the 1930s, when it was less than half its current size, and its modern suburbs are dense enough for a tram or light rail system to make perfect sense. But though a putative Northamptonshire Arc Transit network (NAT) produced a glossy document in 2011, 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.

Whatever that character from Not Safe for Work says, Northampton is not a basket case. But it badly needs to attract national institutions, or develop one of its one. It needs to do something big and bold on the old Greyfriars site, not tinker at the edges. Rather than brag about Next and Primark, it should aim to get Selfridges or John Lewis to come to town. And it needs to start fighting now for a big, bold 21st-century tram system. Boundaries – like horizons – matter, and Northampton’s have been set too small and too low for too long. Towns don’t make headlines: cities do.

All photographs by Alex Grant

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