Claire Gervat went in search of history in Northampton, famous for its boots, shoes, Anglo-Saxon artefacts and unhappy town planning
Wednesday 28 May 1997
Northampton is not, from a distance, a pretty town. Even from quite close to, it's hard to find much to like about the place: "Like Milton Keynes but with 50 years more history", according to one reluctant resident. The town planners of the Fifties and Sixties did their best to make it unappealing for the casual visitor by pulling down old buildings and replacing them with one-way systems and multi-storey car parks that now look well past their demolish-by date. They didn't get their hands on everything, however, and enough remains for the tourist office to have put together a historical walking trail that includes Norman churches, Regency villas and work by Lutyens and Charles Rennie Macintosh.
The centrepiece of the town, and its main landmark, is All Saint's Church, built in 1680 after a fire five years previously destroyed the old church and much of the rest of the town. It's an elegant building, with graceful, classical proportions inspired by Wren, though the church is thought to have been designed by Henry Bell of King's Lynn.
Above the portico, there's a statue of Charles II dressed like a Roman. It was put up to thank the king for his pounds 1,000 donation to the destitute townsfolk. Plainly, relations between town and crown had improved since 1662, when Charles pulled down the ancient castle.
The other main churches in the town centre are much older. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is one of only four round churches in England. It was built in 1100 by Simon de Senlis, the first Earl of Northampton, to celebrate his safe return from the first crusade. It has been added to over the years - the original building was just the round part and a small chancel - but you can still imagine what it must have been like 900 years ago.
St Peter's, on a street called Mare Fair, just round the corner from Horsemarket, was probably built over a Saxon church in 1160. Its stumpy tower is decorated with a double row of simple Norman arches, and a single row graces the rest of the building. The inside is far more ornate, but the doors are often locked during the week.
There's more to the town than churches, though. The vast market-place is surrounded on two sides by handsome houses, some of them dating from the 17th century, and on the other two by modern buildings too ugly to look at. There were international trade fairs here in the 12th and 13th centuries; today the stalls mainly sell fruit and vegetables, cheap clothes and "antiques".
Near the market square and All Saints is the Guildhall, built in the 1860s. Even if you're not a great fan of Victorian Gothic architecture, you could be converted by this building. Its recent restoration has left the brickwork - pale yellow and lilac rather than lumpish red - glowing. There are organised tours every Thursday afternoon, bookable at the tourist office.
Further along St Giles Street is Lawrence's Coffeehouse, with pretty, arcaded windows. Sixteen years ago, when I first visited Northampton, it was staffed by Dot Cotton lookalikes with permanent scowls and pink nylon overalls. Everything was too much trouble for them, and the coffee tasted of chicory. It was so awful it was funny, a kind of Fawlty Tearooms. These days, it's a soothing haven in a town woefully short of places to have tea; the cakes are delicious, you can drink fresh coffee or a choice of teas, and the staff are positively cheerful.
Back round the corner in Guildhall Road are Northampton's two theatres: the Derngate, very modern, and the Royal, from 1884. The word "restraint" was not part of the design brief of the Royal; inside the place looks like a sumptuous chocolate box, all scarlet and gold and pale blue. If cherubs flew about in the interval selling heavenly ice-cream, no one would be in the least surprised. The theatre is still in use, and well worth a visit not only for its setting.
Opposite is the town's museum, with a large collection of the boots and shoes for which the town is still famous. (The local football team are nicknamed "the Cobblers", and have just won promotion to the Second Division - raising hopes that they may emulate their astonishing rise to the top flight in the Sixties.) The collection ranges variously from Queen Victoria's white, beribboned wedding slippers to an embroidered Huron moccasin with moose-hair embroidery from the 18th century - obviously not made locally.
Upstairs is the story of the town from Saxon village to the present, with tableaux and models, the tale of the great fire and the comments of visitors after the rebuilding. All trainee town planners should be made to visit; after reading that Daniel Defoe called Northampton "the handsomest town in all this part of Britain" in 1724, they could go to the Grosvenor shopping centre and bus station, and the Barclaycard offices, and wonder where their predecessors went so wrong. Yet I'm thankful that the planners managed, despite everything, to leave so muchn
Northampton Tourist Information and Visitor Centre is in Mr Grant's House, St Giles Square (01604 22677).
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