diamond geezer

 Saturday, May 07, 2022

Gadabout: CORBY

Corby is a former steel town in former Northamptonshire. If you think of Leicester/Peterborough/Northampton as a big triangle it's roughly in the middle. It has an old bit, a lot of newer bits and several even newer bits. It's nowhere any tourist need visit, indeed the local website Love Corby is more a plea to residents to stay. But that just made me more curious as to what on earth it might be like, so I went and now I know. Let's see if I can get the flavour across. [7 photos]

You'll probably arrive in Corby, assuming you arrive at all, at its fairly-newish station. They had to build it from scratch because Dr Beeching extinguished the previous one and for several decades Corby was known as the largest town in Britain without a rail service. To save money they only restored one platform and initially only sent one train a day, but since 2009 it's received an hourly service from St Pancras. Facilities are not exhilarating but there is the obligatory cafe, plus a crucial taxi rank because the town centre isn't conveniently close and you could be waiting some time for a bus.

Central Corby screams 1950s new town. Architect William Holford lined Corporation Street with a long unbroken parade of shops and added a bell tower with a starry clockface at one end. What's left of the market - mostly vaping, fruit and veg - occupies a few stalls down the middle. It's busy enough but the shopping offer reads like a catalogue of lowbrow UK retail, prioritising Primark, Peacocks, TK Maxx, New Look, Poundland, Iceland, Farmfoods, Superdrug, Home Bargains, B&M, Shoezone, Brighthouse and Wilko. The town centre gets no better than H&M and River Island, at least for now.

As the town grew they bolted-on extra courts, squares and parallel parades, which in 2022 looks economically unwise. Willow Place was built with good intentions but is now a wind-whipped void followed by everyone traipsing from the car park. Particularly baffling was the decision to stick key facilities upstairs including the town's former library, now an uninviting arts centre facing a crumbling concrete courtyard. At least you can still get to it. The staircase up to the balcony where they hid the public toilets has been condemned, so these can only be accessed via a journey in a stinky lift.

Public buildings got a lot more futuristic in the late 2000s with the erection of an Olympic-sized swimming pool and the Corby Cube. Let's spend £35m on building a new HQ, councillors said, and incorporate a register office, a public library and two theatres for good measure. Unfortunately the cube ended up £12m over budget, and leaked, and had inappropriate fire safety measures in office areas, and repairs took six years to complete. Revenge was finally wrought when Corby Borough Council was abolished in 2021 (due to financial anomalies at county level), and the Corby Cube is now the administrative HQ of North Northamptonshire.

About a mile away, on the other side of the railway, is Corby Old Village. Every new town has a prior settlement at its heart, even Milton Keynes, and Corby is no exception. Here we find the original high street lined by mellow sandstone cottages, but not very many of them, and a shopping offer based mostly on bodycare and pampering. Here too is the Corby Heritage Centre, the closest the town comes to a museum, should it ever open which, given conflicting evidence, maybe it no longer does. A much more exciting heritage prospect is the once-in-a-generation village get-together that just happens to be happening next month - the Corby Pole Fair. [historical video]

Corby Pole Fair dates back to 1862 and has taken place every 20 years since. It commemorates the awarding of a royal charter by Elizabeth I in 1568 (which doesn't end in a 2 but let's not quibble) and this year is scheduled for Jubilee Friday 3rd June. On the big day the original charter is read out at the three entrances to the village, floral gateways are erected and visitors have to pay £1 entrance fee or risk ending up in the stocks. This year there's also puppetry, jousting, a funfair, anachronistic Vikings, street food, a ceilidh and (naturally) a greasy pole-climbing contest. Essentially the whole of Corby piles in and has a ball, then spends 19 years telling their children about it until they're finally old enough to experience the event for themselves. Four weeks and counting.
Target Audience Plug: Corby & District Model Railway Society are opening up the Corby West Glebe Miniature Railway in Quarry Close on Pole Fair Day, and might even let you climb aboard their Pacer.

Corby's steel works were located just beyond the village on a massive site over one mile long. They were founded in 1934 to process local ironstone and are solely responsible for the population burst that turned Corby from a village into a town. Many workers came from north of the border, leading to Corby being nicknamed Little Scotland, and the local Asda is apparently still over-stocked with Irn-Bru. But in the first month of Mrs Thatcher's term a decision was made to close the steelworks down leading to a massive 11,000 job losses, and designating Corby an Enterprise zone ten years later only partly pulled things back.

I walked Steel Road, a bleak mile out east with plenty of room on either side for industrial sprawl. Vast sheds house logistics hubs, automotive services, bakeries and several things with chimneys. One of these is even still a steel works, although these days it's Tata Steel welding metal strips into thin-wall welded tubes so nothing gamechanging. Here and there are towers and pylons left over from the glory days, and the odd bus stop to drop off workers at the starts of shifts, and on the very far side the isolated housing estate of Priors Hall Park which is ideal for locational masochists. If you're a Corby local you may be impressed I went all the way to Priors Hall Park, but more likely entirely baffled.

And then I got the bus back, taking advantage of a massive cut in fares last week whereby an all-day ticket across Corby and Kettering is now just £4.20. The number 2 took me on a meandering tour of the real Corby, which is acre after acre of residential swirl, initially the postwar avenues to the north of the town centre and then much more recent estates to the south. Here the dominant style is little detached boxes up multiple cul-de-sacs with more than adequate parking, and academies with huge playing fields, and sweeps of preserved hedgerow to walk the dog along, and the occasional water feature that used to be a quarry. It turns out this is what on earth Corby might be like, because I went and now I know.

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