Cover Story: Six of the best 'dull' towns

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The Independent Online
Croydon is far from being the only town labelled dull that is trying to pull itself up by its civic bootstraps.

Milton Keynes Like Croydon, a town that would be a city: synonymous in many minds with middle-of-the-road culture, it boasts a new cathedral (with a dome but hard to spot) and lots of shops, parking spaces and cars. The most ambitious of the New Towns built in post-war Britain, Milton Keynes was loosely based on Los Angeles and the idea that everyone would want to drive everywhere. It is full of cars, but they cruise freely along broad avenues of trees that are the town's saving grace. By 2000, cars or no cars, Milton Keynes will be the greenest town in Britain.

Nimes Not exactly dull, but a sleepy old town in the south of France that, over the past decade, has woken up with a vengeance. A dynamic mayor, internationally famous architects and energetic entrepreneurial interests have put Nimes firmly on the cultural and business map of France. Here, alongside the ancient Maison Carree, a Roman temple in remarkably good nick, you will find a new palace of culture designed by Sir Norman Foster and Partners, striking new housing by Jean Nouvel and hip new hotels.

Hartlepool Huge strides have been made in recent years to transform this east coast town, abandoned by industry in the Eighties, into a sophisticated tourist attraction. The new theme park-like extension to the town, which includes a marina, "designer shops" and bars for visiting "yachties", is 200 yards from the old town centre - yet a world away.

Fakenham A Norfolk market town that has gone to seed in certain areas and allowed banal new "vernacular" flats and houses to be built too close to its historic centre. Now planning, with the inspired help of the local architect Nicholas Hills, to improve itself; Fakenham has the chance to reinvent itself as the near-perfect, superstore-free country town.

Swindon This Wiltshire town was in effect created by the Great Western Railway. Here, for more than a century, those giants of English steam - Gooch, Dean, Churchward, Collett and Hawksworth - designed and built their mighty Brunswick green locomotives. When the world-famous Swindon railway works closed in the Thatcher anti-railway years, Swindon itself seemed threatened with closure; now, for better or worse, Swindon is reinventing itself as the biggest and glossiest regional shopping centre: what were workshops are now Sock Shops.

Lyon The most bourgeois of all French cities, comfortable, isolated and unwilling to encourage tourists, Lyon has become one of the glamorous destinations of the Nineties. Honest. With a host of superb new museums, a revamped opera house, a spectacular and recently enhanced annual festival of light, and, of course, food beyond reproach, Lyon has decided to let its fastidiously tied hair down and even extend a welcome to impoverished Brits arriving by TGV at its truly spectacular sci-fi railway station, designed by Santiago Calatrava, alongside Lyon-Satalas airport.