All roads lead here (as the Romans used to say)

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Derby is a 'must-see' destination, according to the folk at Lonely Planet. Why? Nick Coleman finds out what this city on the Derwent has ever done for us

Why go to Derby? Casting around for Derby chums to answer this question, I find I have none. Not one.

Nottingham, Leicester, Lincoln, Belper – yes, I am well connected in all these easterly Midland swingtowns. But Derby? Not a sausage. I am forced to depend upon Derby friends of friends, although I find that I have only one of those, and she doesn't live there any more.

Why go to Derby?

"Good question," she says, abruptly. "I'm not sure I would, unless I had to."

Come on. There must be something worth going to Derby for.

"Well, Derbyshire's nice. It's lovely, actually. Hills. Beautiful villages. But Derby itself ... quite ugly. Nothing to recommend it. Oh, let's just say I left such a long time ago I'm probably not the best to ask. Do you want to talk to my sister?"

I attempt to count my prejudices about Derby and find that I don't have any of those either. What, in the way of lewd generalisation, can be asserted about Derby and its people? Not much. They don't speak with a horrible accent; they are not known either for their mean-spiritedness or for their wild romanticism; they are neither short nor tall nor smelly. There is no tradition which insists that the burghers of Derby are more or less criminally minded than anyone else. They are certainly not famous for their cauliflower cheese. Indeed, a few days' research uncovers very little at all – although my Derby friend-of-a-friend does at last reveal, with a shout of joy, that Derby was once noted for an unusually high incidence of goitre. This was due to the city's distance from the sea and a consequently low fish-oil intake. "I knew there was something!" she says, sounding relieved rather than triumphant. There: you can't actually be much further from the sea than Derby. That's fame of a kind.

And then ....

"DERBY IS THE CROSSROADS OF HISTORY!"

These words are uttered, quite loudly, by Richard Felix, over a bucket of coffee in one of the several pleasant independent cafés which dot the city centre. My prejudice shortfall has not stopped me from tootling up to Derbyshire and

throwing myself on the mercy of the one man in England who can assert with a frown that, even if Derby was once the goitre capital of north Europe, that doesn't stop it also being THE CROSSROADS OF HISTORY.

Crossroads? Well, yes. Quite literally. Five Roman roads met here. By the 19th century there were nine intersections. Derby's principal feature, geographically speaking, is that it's on the way to just about anywhere else you care to mention. And, as if to prove the point, the next train to leave the station, after I get off mine, is going to Penzance.

But Mr Felix also has other things in mind when he considers Derby's cruciate status. Richard is a local historian of the nu skool. His passion for Derby's past supports a small industry which outweighs in spookiness, if not in weight, the city's other industrial interests. Those other interests are, in no particular order, Rolls-Royce aero engines, Toyota, Egg, Royal Crown Derby ceramics, a long history of silk manufacture, plus all things related to the railway, now condensed into the chunky shape of Bombardier Transportation, which manufactures rolling stock.

But Mr Felix is also into another kind of commodity. Ghosts. He goes on TV to talk about ghosts. He takes tourists under the city streets on Ghost Walks. He has published a book entitled What Is a Ghost? and he is convinced Derby is the most haunted city in England and he may well be right, if what a haunting requires is the will to be haunted.

"York claimed for years that they could account for 140 sightings," he says. "But, after I'd concluded my audit, I found we had 150!" The ghosts are flocking to his call.

This is clearly a good thing. Mr Felix spent his own money in the 1990s establishing a Heritage Centre "to get people to stop here rather than pass on through", like ghosts. He now works with the city council tourist office for the same end. As is often the way with local historians, he's a raconteur of marvellous energy.

As the coffee level in the bucket drops, so the rate of historical revelation increases. Derby was a key Danelaw town, equally divided 'twixt Saxon and Viking on either side of the river. In 1204, King John granted the burghers the exclusive right to dye wool within a 15-mile radius of the city centre. (How far off is Nottingham? Right! Sixteen miles. One in the eye for the noisy neighbours.) More interestingly, Derby was a hotbed of Nonconformity: the great dissenter George Fox, founder of the Religious Society of Friends, was imprisoned here in 1650 for blasphemous "Quaking".

Then, in the world's first case of industrial spying, water-powered silk manufacture came to Derby in 1717 from Piedmont: the "stolen" mill still stands close to the city's peculiar cathedral, looking remarkably Italian. In fact, Derby was the first place ever to use the word "manufacture". And on Richard sails, a landlocked galleon of enthusiasm, pitching and yawing on an uncontainable urge to tell. "I've been accused of gilding the lily," he says, smirking. "But I don't care."

So what's Derby like? Mr Felix lures me into the tunnels under the Guildhall, where he regularly conducts his Ghost Walks. We descend through a trapdoor in a pub and shuffle by the light of a single torch beam down fusty brick corridors choking with the fetor of sin. But he knows this ruse can't work for ever and that at some point we will have to emerge.

And sure enough, there's a sandwich board outside the carriage gate adorned with an arrow pointing back the way we came. It says: "Chip Shop Open. Most items 50p. Chips £1."

As you might expect of a railway city, Derby feels Victorian. It has a striking "Railway Village" next to the station, where Victorian rail workers were housed in redbrick utility. Less Victorianly, it also has its own Westfield shopping development, its scarlet brand-calligraphy flying above the city skyline like a pennant. But it's the "strands" and "gates" of the Cathedral Quarter that you gravitate towards to shop, refuel and admire the view, such as it is. There you'll find the cathedral with its long-throated 16th-century perpendicular tower mismatched to a broad 18th-century main body. There you will also find the Museum and Art Gallery, which houses the best collection anywhere of the works of the occasionally great Joseph Wright of Derby. Then there's the 38-room Cathedral Quarter Hotel, with its Opulence restaurant, which has somehow parlayed into the four-square marble fastness of the old Victorian police station.

Ugly? Derby? No, not in the least. It has its unattractive features, such as the Assembly Rooms in the market square and the shopping mall. And there is undoubtedly something less than pretty going on between the city and its larger, "glitzier" neighbour, Nottingham. (Just mention the N-word and you find yourself blinking in a spume of pantomime hisses.) But who doesn't have unattractive features? What you come away from Derby with is a sense of a place getting on with being itself in an amiable, unassuming, non-needy manner, as befits England's most central city. The crossroads of history, if you prefer.

The Council Tourist Office clearly thinks there's work to be done, though. Its charming emissaries grill me for information about other council enterprises and take it on the chin when I suggest, nervously, that Derby has an image problem – to the extent that it doesn't have an image at all.

"Which is why," they say, showing all their lovely teeth, "we're doing what we're doing!"

"Well, what you need," I reply, even more nervously, "is some building. Something more attractive than the Quad in Market Place. Some fabulous construct that says 'Derby' in the same way that that gallery in Walsall says 'Walsall' and the thing in Gateshead says 'Gateshead'. You know: destination architecture."

At which point they close their mouths and nod politely, as if I've said something not at all foolish.

And so I learn about the city's year-round festival programme. I hear about its fabulous pubs: Derby has just been named a "must see" destination in Lonely Planet magazine, partly on the strength of its eminent crawlability. Then they whisk me off to Derby Gaol, another of Richard Felix's establishments, where the cell doors are scratched with the hieroglyphs of those about to face the gallows.

We then go to the jewel in Derby's crown. The Roundhouse is right next to the station, though you wouldn't notice it beyond the steel fencing across the tracks, not unless you had a developed eye for 19th-century railway turning sheds. A turning shed is what it sounds like. A huge round building designed specifically to rotate rolling stock on the spot during maintenance and repair. Here, at last, is what marketing people call "wow factor". But what makes this project really interesting is that it amounts to something new. The turning shed now functions as the "social hub" of Derby College, an FE institution of some 4,000 full-time students, which spreads its wings elegantly into the rest of the old engineering campus: the Engine House, the Carriage Shop and, between them, the Kirtley Building, a brand-new architectural link-passage which makes use of chameleon glass and go-faster stripes. Wow factor meets whizz aesthetic meets sound social principle.

Over a Camra-approved ale, the Council Emissaries, Richard Felix and I fall to a new pub game. It's called What Derby Needs Next, and we play hard. Derby does not need any more gibbets. Or pubs. Or shopping centres. And it wouldn't hurt for the Assembly Rooms to be flattened and replaced by something useful that does not sear the optical nerve.

But what would really be great would be a project which builds on something that's already here, in the spirit of Derby College's Roundhouse. How about the Silk Mill? It stands by the river with its handsome Piedmontese tower doing not all that much apart from creating a more elegant echo of the bonkers cathedral across the green. Why not get the architects in? Build on it. Turn it into something, using glass and steel and light and space; something which says "Derby" that will be remembered. You could put the Joseph Wright collection in there, armillary sphere and all ... a permanent exhibition. Brilliant.

The Emissaries and I agree that this would be the perfect way to spend a few squillion quid which Derby doesn't have. But Richard has a better idea.

"Why not re-create the entire factory as a working model?" he says. "Machines and all? Historically accurate. Exactly as it would have been in 1717. Rebuild the wheel. Silk-milling reborn in Derby! People can come and learn how to work the machines and throw their own piece of silk and then take it home. Then buy more stuff in a gift shop...."

But the Emissaries and I shout him down. There are already more than enough ghosts knocking about town.

Compact Facts

Where to stay

The Hallmark (01332 345894; hallmarkhotels.co.uk/derby) offers B&B in a double from £83 per room per night.

Further information

Derby Tourist Information Centre (01332 255802; visitderby.co.uk).

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