If old shoes are not your scene, why not just take off?

As Northampton prepares for its annual balloon festival, Edmund Bealby-White pays the town - best known for making footwear - a visit
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The Independent Travel
In 1968 the government announced the creation of a new town, to be called Northampton. Acres of new housing estates were planned, spread around a network of roundabouts and a one-way system in the most modern style. Amid all the excitement, no one seemed to have noticed that Northampton was already a town, whose history reached back to the Iron Age. Surely the name should have rung a bell with someone in the Cabinet?

To this day, what comes into your head when you see the word Northampton is probably a blank. That is Northampton's identity problem: it doesn't have one. A history dating back to the Iron Age is all very well, but what did they do in it? They made shoes.

The town museum celebrates this underrated contribution to the nation's destiny with the world's largest collection of footwear. I went along with low expectations, arguing that if I wanted to look at old shoes I could rummage around at the bottom of my wife's wardrobe, but I found myself absorbed by the surreal quality of the collection, shown in glass cases like stuffed animals, including a special display labelled "Shoe of the Month".

They say you can judge a man by his shoes. When the man in question is a long-dead Roundhead, or an 18th-century huntsman, this is not snobbery, it is time travel. There is pungent magic in an abandoned shoe - a personal imprint that clings to the moulded leather. Each boot is a double portrait - of the man who wore it, and of the boy who polished it.

The 1968 announcement was not the first time a new Northampton had been proclaimed: in 1675 the medieval town was almost entirely destroyed by fire. The earlier rebuilding came in the golden age of British architecture, presided over by Christopher Wren. The superb buildings of the period still prompt us to ask: what has the second new town done to compare with this?

Yet there is a lot to see: in a short walk from the wonderful wide market place you will find a rare medieval round church, numerous Regency villas, the Victorian Gothic Guildhall and - if you search it out - a unique landmark in modern architecture.

Number 78 Derngate is a two-up, two-down house, unoccupied and in need of renovation. But if you wipe the dirt off the window and peer in you can see an undusted and neglected masterpiece of modern design. This is one of the late works of Charles Rennie Macintosh, the currently popular genius. He was commissioned to refurbish the house by Wynne Basset- Lowke, a design junkie who made model trains. A display in the museum gives an idea of how this front room would have looked, with coal-black walls studded with triangles of gold. Apparently, when the neighbours popped in they felt they were entering a mine, and you cannot entirely condemn whatever later hand applied an obliterating coat of white.

The spare room was equally unsparing: an anticipation of Pop Art with black and white stripes running up the walls and folding together on the ceiling like an envelope. One of the Basset-Lowkes' guests who had to spend a night beneath this hypnotic ceiling was George Bernard Shaw. When doorstepped by a local reporter and asked "How did you sleep?" he replied: "With my eyes closed."

The town council has recently bought the property, and plans to restore it and open it to the public. In the meantime you can "discover" this modern masterpiece for yourself - but you cannot get in.

Sadly, it takes more than shoes and Rennie Macintosh to fill that blank space in our minds labelled "Northampton". But a few years ago someone came up with the brilliant idea of a balloon festival. Hot air balloons are universally popular, they're fun, of no conceivable use to anyone - in fact, the antithesis of shoes.

So this weekend, more than 80 balloons will take off from the Racecourse Park at 6am and 6pm each morning and evening. After dark the tethered balloons, lit up by their burners, glow like giant Chinese lanterns. A firework display follows. Festival fringe highlights include the Ronald McDonald Magic Show, the Daily Star Strong Man Competition and the Flying Gunners Motorcycle Display Team. (You weren't expecting Hedda Gabler, were you?)

So things are looking up for Northampton. The only risk is that, having had its feet on the ground for so long, the town may get carried away with the intoxication of flight. One dawn, it may float up into an aerial region where nobody needs shoes any more, leaving a one-way system circulating traffic around empty fields.

Tourist Information Centre, 01604 22677; festival direct line, 01604 238 791.


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