I didn't spend all day in Corby, I also took the bus and spent the afternoon in Kettering. For those of you who aren't familiar with the geography of North Northamptonshire, Kettering is five miles further south, a bit larger and fundamentally older. You'll find it where the A14 meets the A43, or more likely see the outskirts as you're speeding past. Touristwise it has one key attraction (which I enjoyed returning to after a 25 year break), but otherwise feel free to give it as much of a miss as Corby. [Visit Kettering][8 photos]
This is Market Square in Kettering. It isn't square and it doesn't have a market - they moved that elsewhere and footfall plummeted - but it is still a popular spot for alfresco congregation. It got seriously spruced up in 2009 with stepped seating, a slim crescent canopy and allegedly an arc of fountains (except these weren't switched on midweek so I can't confirm). The church in the background with the crocketed spire is St Peter and St Paul's which is mostly medieval and boasts a couple of angelic wall paintings (except it was locked so again I can't confirm). I had similar luck when visiting the town's Cultural Quarter, which lies immediately beyond.
I had been looking forward to visiting the Manor House Museum, Kettering's low key repository of local history, because it's the town centre's chief tourist offering. Unfortunately it was closed awaiting cultural upgrade, as was the Alfred East Art Gallery nextdoor, the town centre's only other tourist offering. All that was left was the public library, an unexpectedly depressing space with sealed-off shelves, whose leaflet racks were also unlikely to inspire. All three are due to be connected later in the year by Cornerstone, the glassy hub they're currently building out back which'll offer coffee, start-up space and workshoppery. I hope Kettering approves... but for those of us who only intend to visit the once and it was all closed, I think I blew it.
Kettering grew big on boots and shoes, churning out sturdy footwear in direct competition with Northampton down the road. That's all pretty much gone now, although Loake still make brogues and Oxfords in their Wood Street factory and Clarks sell imports from Somerset in Newlands mall. The High Street's been pedestrianised and goes from old inns at one end to modern malls at the other. My photo above shows the modern bit with the Rotary clock to give you a misleading idea about the town centre. The Horsemarket, for example, makes a much nicer bus station than the average bayed shed, and the Cornmarket can be hired out for parties. I think what struck me most about Kettering is how perfectly ordinary it was, nothing too amazing, nothing too grim, just a Midlands market town doing its thing.
What I failed to do was follow the Kettering Civic Society's Blue Plaque Heritage Trail. I saw one for the town's first mayor and another for the town's first nonconformist chapel and assumed they were all that dull, but missed the plaques for comic strip illustrator Frank Bellamy, artist Thomas Gotch and artist Sir Alfred East. Only when I got back to the station at the end of my trip did I find the best one, a tribute to author H E Bates pinned up on platform three. He attended the local grammar school and used to meet his first girlfriend here before they travelled home their separate ways. In his autobiography he wrote "if there were any justice whatever in the history of railways and twentieth-century novelists there should be a plaque on the door of the first-class waiting-room on Platform 3 at Kettering station saying H E Bates loved here', and hurrah there now is.
But the big attraction in Kettering has to be Wicksteed Park, the 101 year-old unthemed theme park. This covers 147 acres on the edge of town and was designed by industrialist Charles Wicksteed who owned a local engineering works. Originally he wanted the land to be housing for his workers, but when the authorities started building homes following WW1 he switched to creating a leisure facility on the site instead. His park had a boating lake and a huge playground - still does - then a pavilion, rose garden, theatre, aviary and miniature railway - ditto. Crowds flocked in and have continued to do so since, if not in quite such massive numbers. The pandemic alas sent the business into administration, crippled in four months flat by visitorlessness, but last year a charitable trust took over and everything's up and running again.
The joy of Wicksteed Park is that entry is free, only the rides cost. That's particularly useful for the local population off-season, and indeed midweek in early May when the main attractions aren't up and running. I got to wander all over from the carousel to the campsite and the minigolf to the Splash Zone. The locomotives were locked away in the station sheds awaiting weekend circuits. The picnic zone by the waterside was amok with geese protecting their new offspring (and their droppings meant you had to be very careful where you trod). The water chute is thought to be the first ever built and looks it, although the narrow steps you clamber up beforehand look much more recent. Thank goodness the park was open because I'm not sure what I'd have done with my three hours in Kettering otherwise.
I particularly enjoyed the nostalgia of returning after 25 years away. Last time I remember I had to pay for everyone's tickets by cheque in the pavilion, so that's moved on. I remember being particularly rubbish on the go karts. I remember gossiping in the rose garden while others took another turn on the dodgems. I remember whizzing round the rollercoaster twice, relieved it was quite basic and not of Thorpe Park proportions. And I still have a hopelessly blurry photo of me on the Ladybird, the really tame mini coaster, which somebody present inexplicably framed and presented to me a few months later. The whole place had the feel of a charming prewar throwback even then, and still does, and is all the better for it.