First there was Slough, John Betjeman's ideal target for a bombing raid. Then there was Hancock's dreary East Cheam and Lord Gnome's ville noire, Neasden. Now there is a new star in the firmament of vilified British towns: Luton, home to a package holiday airport, a second-rate football team and some of the ugliest architecture in the land.
The Bedfordshire town has just come top - or bottom - of a contest to find the 50 most awful places in the country. The depressing results are revealed in a book published this week, and, according to the publishers of Crap Towns II, Luton won hands down.
"It was the one that really stood out," said the compiler, Sam Jordison, "and the simple reason is that it is incredibly ugly. Architecturally it is the worst town in the country. It is too close to London for there to be any proper facilities. At the same time it's far enough away to generate an other-worldly sense of neglected isolation."
Luton is still more closely associated with the late Eric Morecambe, who claimed to follow the football team, than with anybody who actually lived there. Only Paul Young, the 80s pop star and John Hegley, the poet, owe allegiance to the town.
Hegley yesterday attempted a rearguard action. "Luton is a holy place," he claimed, "and I say that with no more than a healthy amount of irony."
There was plenty of competition, some of it surprising. Bath, Bournemouth and Newbury all make their appearance alongside more predictable targets such as Wrexham, Hackney and Corby. Hull, last year's winner, fell by 31 places.
Windsor is a controversial choice as runner-up to Luton, damned by the snobbery of its inhabitants. "The big thing about Windsor is that its townsfolk believe that by living near the castle they are more or less royalty themselves," one resident complained to the authors.
Sunderland, where "residents shuffle around the town's meagre consumer options like zombies", comes in at number three. Nothing, meanwhile, could divide Glasgow and Edinburgh for dreadfulness, according to the voters, and the cities registered a joint fourth place.
Crap Towns II is published by The Idler, a small magazine dedicated to the pursuit of leisure. The first edition of the book was a surprise hit when it appeared last year, selling 120,000 copies. This time round, say the authors, they have been deluged with contributions and have persuaded 20,000 members of the public to nominate their most hated location.
Shoppers in Luton town centre came to its defence yesterday. Caroline Littler, 30, said it was better than most industrial towns: "Most people only know it from passing through. There are plenty of green spaces, good sports facilities and really nice pubs." Helen Watson, a 21-year-old veterinary nurse, said the maligned town is "not as rough as people say".
But Keith Jacobs, a 34-year-old lorry driver, was uncompromisingly downbeat. He said: "Luton deserves its reputation as a horrible dive. The houses are run down and there's nothing nice to look at."
Natawarlal Lad, a 53-year- old retired medic, was more damning still. "The town is becoming really ugly. There's no future. Once my son has finished university he will go elsewhere to look for a job."
'The Idler Book of Crap Towns II - The Nation Decides' is published by Boxtree, price £10
Additional reporting by Janek Schmidt
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