diamond geezer

 Sunday, February 13, 2011

Day Out: Northampton
It's one of the largest towns in Britain that isn't a city. Its a county town on the edge of the East Midlands. It made its fortune from the shoe industry. It boasted one of the country's most important castles (now buried beneath the railway station). It's only an hour from London by train. And it's absolutely not somewhere you might think to go for a February day out. So I did.

Visiting... Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
Some county town museums are a bit pants. This one's mostly shoes, and all the better for it. The entire downstairs is given over to displays of footwear, and also to the art of cobbling for which the town is duly famous. Somebody's been very very busy collecting shoes of all shapes and types, from medieval leather wraps to 1970s disco wedges. Some are small and dainty, others large and clompy (there's even a massive pair of Doc Martens as originally worn by Elton John, circa Pinball Wizard). There are more ladies' than men's, just as the shoe rack might be in your house, but also a special red-lined cupboard of fetish boots for the gentleman who can't quite make up his mind. A gallery at the back reminds visitors that shoemaking required considerable human skill across a wide range of hard-to-mechanise processes. Much of the labour intensive work has long since drifted abroad, but Church's still handmake Oxfords and brogues in their factory up St James Road. For those with more contemporary tastes, the museum's currently hosting a special exhibition devoted to the history of training shoes. The story kicks off with green Dunlops and those black plimsolls we all wore in 70s gym lessons, but focuses mainly on the top international manufacturers and their rubber-soled creations. Sneaker obsessives will have read all the facts before, but will no doubt lust after all the retro trainers boxed up from the first time around. Adidas Superstars, Air Jordans, New Balance 600-and-somethings... your Heritage Lottery money helped to assemble this lot, and it's attracting a younger audience than normal. Upstairs, yes, a history of Northampton and a lot of old porcelain. But it's the shoes you'll remember.
(Sport to Street - 15 January to 3 July 2011, admission free)

Visiting... Greyfriars Bus Station
Whoever designed this cavernous 1970s bus station must have hated Northampton. It regularly tops lists of the most hated buildings in Britain, and it's very easy to see why. A Brutalist hybrid of bus station, office block and carpark, it sits astride the ringroad like two conjoined aircraft hangars [photo]. The waiting area's sandwiched between two very long undercover bus lanes, so to get inside you'll have to enter from underneath along a dystopian subway [photo]. Long, off-white and featureless, you can imagine it might have featured in A Clockwork Orange if only the film hadn't been shot quite so early. Once in the heart of the beast you first enter a concrete vault of dismal proportions, where there's one of the least enticing cafeterias you'll ever set eyes upon. A few small tables spaced out beneath striplights, a red-tiled kitchen area which'll do you a £3 breakfast until 1pm, and a ragbag of customers who look ready to give up on life. Head up the escalators into the bus station proper and things don't really improve. The building's so long that no daylight seeps inside, just the occasional bus headlamp flashing past. Rows of wooden benches stretch off into the far distance, where a population of lost souls sits and waits until their chosen service comes to spirit them away. If the economy improves, there are plans to demolish the whole of Greyfriars bus station and build a shopping mall in its place. Normally I'd baulk at the idea but here, sorry Northampton, bring it on.

Visiting... The National Lift Tower
Well, you've got to test a lift somewhere, haven't you? And they used to be tested here, in this 127m-high tower on a Northampton trading estate [photo] [photo]. To give you some idea of scale, that's about five metres taller than the spire of Salisbury Cathedral, which is what's made the tower a true landmark for many miles around. It belonged to the Express Lift Company, who knocked it up over a few weeks in the summer of 1980 and then brought the Queen round to open it. There are six shafts inside, none of them from the very top to the very bottom, but enabling a wide range of elevator mechanisms to be duly assessed. All went well until the company was taken over by Otis Elevators, who swiftly closed down all operations in 1997. A hasty Grade-II listing prevented the tower from being demolished, and the surrounding land's since been redeveloped as a fairly ordinary housing estate [photo]. That's good if you want to get up close because there's now public access to the base, or at least to the modern roundabout surrounding it [photo]. It must be odd living in the shadow of such a tall and slender tower, but the folk I saw out mending their cars and lugging the shopping home seemed barely to notice it. Good news - the building's operational again. It's been snapped up by a private company who now operate it as a research, development and lift testing facility. If all goes to plan they'd also like to install a scenic elevator on the outside of the tower and turn it into a tourist attraction, although I'd say the business case for that sounds somewhat shaky. In the meantime there's an abseil planned for the May bank holiday weekend, should you have an impeccable head for heights and a desire to see all of Northampton laid out beneath you.

And also...
Northampton Guildhall - an ostentatious Gothic pile built on the site of the old Town Hall [photo]
Market Square - a historic shopping area that's not as fine and dandy as it once was
Carlsberg Brewery - a photogenic (but smelly) collection of pipes and silos on the banks of the Nene [photo]
That other place you absolutely have to visit in Northampton (of which more tomorrow)

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