MargaretThatcher was Britain's first woman Prime Minister and, for better or worse, shaped the country we live in today. She was born in Grantham in 1925 and famously grew up in a grocer's shop, barely a quarter of a mile from the East Coast mainline. I've often looked down across the town and wondered where precisely this epicentre of political change might be, so on this occasion I got off the train and went to have a look.
This is Alfred Roberts' former shop on the corner of North Parade and Broad Street. It's just to the north of the town centre, and in October 1925 would have faced out onto the busy Great North Road. The family lived upstairs in cramped accommodation with no running water, making use of an outside toilet and (unplumbed) bath accessed across the yard. Margaret's father ran the grocery counter and operated the bacon slicer, her mother served customers in the sub post-office, and she and her elder sister Muriel helped out when they could. It was the epitome of a small business making its profit from sheer hard work.
It's not a grocer's shop any more. Grantham Chiropractic Clinic opened here in 1994 and have since rebranded as Living Health following a shift towards holistic natural therapies. Downstairs is now their reception, a welcoming spot where waiting customers can peruse leaflets and featured products, currently with an attractive autumnal window display featuring golden leaves and two squirrels. Upstairs has been transformed into twin treatment suites, so if you've ever fancied a massage or five point acupuncture in the Iron Lady's bedroom that fantasy can be comfortably realised. I'm not sure what she'd have made of her childhood home's shift from selling goods to selling services, but she'd no doubt be pleased that the external fabric of the building remains recognisably in place with a small black commemorative plaque above the front door.
The corner shop is one of the lowlier homes on North Parade, an attractive example of late 18th century linear ribbon development. Margaret's near neighbours lived in three storey red brick houses, some of which now sell for half a million which is exceptional for Grantham. The buildings and the pavement are kept separate from what would once have been a manure-strewn main road by means of a steep grass verge with occasional steps. Immediately across the street is the church of St Mary the Immaculate with its clocktower and cupola, which now has the '1 North Parade' address the Roberts once enjoyed.
What has changed dramatically since the 1930s is the road junction outside the shop, which now the corner of a busy gyratory. Pedestrians are not the priority so get to wait in ever increasing numbers as all the requisite vehicle sequences play out, which would be great for customer footfall if only the shop still sold drinks or sweets. Just beyond the Roberts' back yard is a single bus stop, no doubt only used by those under the age of 30 or who have been a failure in life. And immediately across Barrowby Road is the edge of an enormous Asda car park, not to mention a substantial Lidl - competitors whose joint presence helps explain why a grocers is no longer viable in this location.
When not working in the shop, life for the Roberts revolved around Finkin StreetMethodist Church where Alfred was a lay preacher. As a strict Wesleyan he ensured the family attended church up to four times every Sunday, where Margaret would have sat through hundreds of her father's sermons stressing social responsibility and the Protestant work ethic. The church's stumpy twin towers dominate the backstreets off Castlegate, while a fake falcon perches above the south door to help keep pigeons at bay. Grantham's Conservative Club is located close by, in a building too modern to have been frequented by the Roberts, although I very much doubt its current social offering of snooker, musical events, Luncheon Club and bingo would have appealed.
Margaret's first school was Huntingtower Road Primary which had opened in 1914. It was by no means the nearest to home, being the other side of the town centre and on the opposite side of the railway, but was selected because of a more religious slant to its curriculum. No trace of the original building exists because it's been entirely rebuilt as a colourful jagged fortress and is now known as Huntingtower Academy. The former Education Secretary might well be pleased. Margaret went on to Kesteven and Grantham Girls' Grammar School where she was bookish, hard-working and rose to become Head Girl, if not generally liked by her peers. A scholarship to study Chemistry at Oxford followed, catapulting her out of Grantham and eventually into all our lives.
The town remembers its most famous daughter in its museum (closed 2011 due to cuts, reopened by volunteers, it's what she would have wanted). A large display at the rear of the ground floor covers her early life and rise to power in some detail, with a nod to younger visitors who might need to be reminded how important she was. Exhibits include her bed from North Parade, the Aquascutum suit she wore to Cold War talks in Moscow in 1987 and some assorted silverware donated to the museum after her death. A nice touch is the selection of three 1979 election manifestos laid out in a facsimile living room very much of the time, alongside an invitation to cast your vote again with the benefit of hindsight. The gift shop will satisfy any ardent Thatchophile in need of mugs, bags or aprons.
But Grantham isn'tostentatiouslyproud of its pioneering woman Prime Minister, perhaps in recognition that she very much divides opinion. Other than a few fingerposts pointing towards her birthplace and the tiny plaque above her front door there's nothing, unlike local son Sir Isaac Newton who's plastered absolutely everywhere. Plans are afoot to give a public home to a bronzestatue originally intended for Parliament Square, but the unveiling has been repeatedly delayed and sparked arow earlier this year over the intended cost of the ceremony. Even when it does appear it'll be atop a 3m plinth to avoid vandalism, not that this'll stop the more determined protestor, of whom there will be many. Know the town, know the Iron Lady a little better.