Heritage tourism should be about crisis and decay as well as conservation. As Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley write in Edgelands, their psycho-geographical field guide, “England … offers the world’s most mature post-industrial terrain.”
We were first to turn the engines on, and the lights out. It’s a pity we don’t make more out of our working-class ghost past. In many countries, regions are packaged to curious visitors through trails typically themed around wine or a foodstuff or a path taken by invading forces or someone notable. Where is the UK’s textile trail, its cider-making highway, its salt road and its coal circuit? The towns below, scintillating on their own terms, also serve as access points to the hidden histories of contemporary Britain.
Britain is full of places familiar to most only by name. Accrington’s is memorable because it sounds abrupt, cod-northern. Even football non-fans know of Accrington Stanley because of a TV milk advert that played on the idea that the club, and by association Accrington, was obscure to the point of improbable.
Yet it’s a solid enough place, with a trio of buildings at its heart that hint at a golden age. The neoclassical town hall opened in 1858 as assembly rooms for Victorian networkers and was known as the Peel Institution – after calico-printing magnate Parsley Peel, grandfather of prime minister Robert Peel. Next door is the Market Hall, built in the same austere ashlar, but with an upbeat Renaissance-style facade. On the pedestrianised piazza are stone plaques celebrating the “Famous From Accrington”. Ron Hill was a “Runner and Textile Innovator”, who won marathon gold medals at the European Championships in 1969 and the 1970 Commonwealth Games. He ran every day of his life from 20 December 1964 until 31 January 2017, clocking up 52 years and 39 days and 162,442.5 miles.
Around the corner is the town’s third noble edifice: a Carnegie library, with a beautiful art nouveau stained-glass window by Liverpool artist Henry Gustave Hiller over a sweeping staircase. On a wall on the ground floor I found a display of photographs and memorabilia celebrating the centennial of Hill’s running club, Clayton-le-Moors Harriers. There he was again, alongside funeral notices from 2021.
Tall chimneys loomed, and seemed to spy, as I walked up and down sloping rows of terrace houses. Some were gritstone, others redbrick. Accrington makes Nori bricks, the hardest in the world – Nori is iron backwards – used in the foundations of Blackpool Tower and the Empire State building. The alleyways and shingle paths with their rain-puddles reminded me of the 70s, when I was a child, and unenclosed wasteland was liberating. Some streets are cobbled – the classical composer Harrison Birtwistle, who grew up here, said clogs clattering on cobblestones were the first sounds he heard.
The most handsome street, a boulevard really, is Avenue Parade, which climbs west to Peel Park and a wooded area called The Coppice. I didn’t get far up when I met dozens of runners coming down. Many wore the Clayton-le-Moors Harriers white and orange vest. The scene of mud, sweat and cheers was like something from another era. It is a raw, honest, quite beautiful thing, the human body pitted against hills. In industrial Accrington, fell running was a scarper from factories and foundries, mills and mines, shop jobs and small rooms, to the vistas and cleaner, clearer air. Every runner was a celebrant, a memorial.
Named after King Canute, on a river named Lily, the model for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, and for Shanghai in Spielberg’s film of JG Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, Knutsford is mind-blowingly interesting.
It was a place I tried to arrive at time and again as a teenager on night walks; it signified deep Cheshire, a verdant, vague nowhere, but also, at 19 miles from home, a stride too far.
I suffer from a small, niggling Cestrian conflict, rooted in childhood: I was born in a Lancashire village called Burtonwood on the Cheshire border. In 1974, Merseyside was created, and Burtonwood – and me – were hoofed out of Lancashire into Cheshire. I was bussed to a secondary school in the new county. I was being asked to swap coal mining for salt mining, pit villages for twee hamlets, a rich past for a bland present.
Knutsford – along with Altrincham, Macclesfield, Nantwich and Tarporley – sounded like middle-class places trying to be working-class ones. We read Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen in the first year; it was medieval, mythic, gritless and fey beside Joby, The Goalkeeper’s Revenge, The Iron Man. I knew it was written and set somewhere down there, and forever more Cheshire would be an ill-defined, effete realm.
Layers of erotic confusion were added when I snogged Cheshire girls on A-level English residential courses, including one who lived in nearby Sandbach (another placename that sounds at once hard and mard), who I met on a Canterbury Tales intensive week. I never reached her house. Amor didn’t vincit omnia, after all.
When I finally made it to Knutsford, almost 40 years late, it was as I’d imagined. Quaint and a bit blingy, it has plenty of buildings of architectural note: Tudor-period timber-frames, Georgian townhouses, a Gothic revival church, an artisan mannerist house given over to offices, an old dye works repurposed as cute cottages. Wide streets are made narrower by muscular SUVs and supercars, as befits a town on the edge of Cheshire’s Golden Triangle (footballers’ McMansions are firmly inside).
The Tatton parliamentary seat was inaugurated in 1983 by Ukipper Neil Hamilton, and later occupied by George Osborne – who edited the Evening Standard at the same time – and Brexiteer Esther McVey. Little wonder Cheshire is sometimes dubbed the “Surrey of the North”. The southernmost branch of family-owned supermarket chain Booths – the “Waitrose of the North” – is in Knutsford.
Does Knutsford mark the start of the north, or the south?
As I said, mind-blowingly interesting, yet the town and its county are among the most shunned by tourists. Not that bypassing is without risks. The stretch of the M6 between junctions 16 and 19, including Knutsford Services, is said to be the most haunted, notably by ghosts of the Royalist Scottish horsemen slaughtered by a thousand pro-Cromwell soldiers in 1651.
Newton Abbot, Devon
The last stop on the Great Western before Totnes – twinned with Narnia – and the verdant contours of the South Hams, Newton Abbot is one of the last redoubts of indigenous Devon. Without seaside or moor-top, it lacks obvious draws for weekender, second-homer or relocator.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel tested his atmospheric railway here – driving the train along via a piston instated into a vacuum pipe – but it lasted only a year or so. Afterwards, Newton Abbot became a major rail-engineering centre, the extensive sidings now occupied by the Brunel Industrial Estate; from the train – I have passed through Newton Abbot dozens of times, visited perhaps five – my eye is always drawn to the large headquarters of International Dance Supplies. I think of ballet shoes, tutus, incongruous things.
There’s none of that nonsense down at The Cider Bar, which dates from Victorian times but has the rustic chairs and tables and pokey, sun-deprived ambience of a medieval inn. Ranked behind the bar are two dozen barrels of scrumpy, flat and astringent, vaguely apple-scented, somewhat sulphurous; some, like Gladiator (8.4%), Westons Vintage (8.2%) or Wiscombe’s Suicider (7% or 8%, sources differ), are provocations to see who can keep them down for seven, eight, 10, 15 pints. A painting on the wall depicts the inn’s Long Bar Cork Club, setting off on a pub crawl aboard a horse-drawn charabanc in 1911. While regulars are usually too deep into their cups to bother turning when someone comes through the door, they will later inform a stranger that the Cider Bar is strictly for locals. I have been made warmly unwelcome a few times. The hostility suits the setting, and farmers have so few meeting places these days.
Newton Abbot was cobbled together from two earlier towns. The two Newtons became one in the 17th century, but markets continue to divide residents. “Unrest over ‘Covent Garden’ revamp” of the old pannier market is a recent headline, with stallholders unhappy about plans to convert the building into a “mixed use space” and four-screen cinema. The 800-year-old livestock market has been threatened with closure many times, but continues to host auctions of “Prime, Cull and Store Cattle, plus Sale of Hoggs, ewes and Couples”. Today, the town is dominated by an Asda superstore, dropped like a retail H-bomb into the heart of Newton Abbot’s maze of one-way roads and confusing junctions. Perhaps the old markets will outlive it and one day someone will struggle to imagine how it might have felt to browse in a sky-less hangar full of garish packets, chilled vegetables, bottles and tins. The centre is the usual humdrum scattering of mid-market stores: Peacocks, Millets, New Look, Sports Direct. Of the independents, Three Wishes Inc Citygoth belongs here most fully, offering crystals, tarot cards and “Nemesis”.
Around the shops is a jumble of terraced streets and estates spread over the river valley. Mackrell’s Almshouses, built from Devon limestone, on the Totnes Road are the most attractive small homes. At the top of Courtenay Park, which covers a hillside to the west of the railway station, are a handful of streets lined with Italianate villas, suggestive of bygone prosperity. Why do solicitors and chartered accountants always get to install offices in the best houses? No doubt the lives of the gracious former residents were made easier by the fast up-trains to the capital. Today, the swiftest go to Exeter and then to Reading, briefly stopping at Taunton or a parkway in a field. The nocturnal Cornish Riviera also makes a stop at Newton Abbot. Well-connectedness hasn’t turned the town into a gateway to anything, and the A38 bypasses the town at some distance. A local green space is called Decoy Country Park, as if it, too, wanted to trick you out of arriving.
In the evening, when you leave the Cider Bar, a whole street of restaurants serves all-you-can-eat curry buffets. A local author has called her book Noticing Newton Abbot. The town is easily missed, hard to fathom. It is no longer split in two, but is a place of fragments and fissures. In Ikaria, they hold rowdy bacchanals called panigiri, where all the islanders meet for music, dance and drinking deep into the night. It creates social bonds and may well play a part in Ikarians’ startling longevity. The bookies and ballet dancers, farmers and goths, commuters and curry-eaters of Newton Abbot need something similar, perhaps at the annual Cheese and Onion Fayre.
Hounslow East, Hounslow Central, Hounslow West. Three stops on the tube where hardly anyone gets off. A few workers get on – bound for London or Heathrow’s aeropolis. When you see planes descending from afar, they are mysterious, silent, a string of lights, queued in their timed slots. Close up, landing, taking off, by the perimeter fence, they are sleek, magnificent in their potency and engineered violence. At Hounslow they are invisible – no one can live looking up all the time – but always coming. A rumble and scream and they are gone. Contrails of toxic gases and, just occasionally, frozen shit; the flash of a shadow on the pavement.
This is a district, a borough, a town, all three identities lost in west London’s super-sprawl. Hounslow is a thoroughly contemporary chaos of rented terraces, shared and squatted, bus stops, bus lanes, bus stations, mid-rise offices, ugly shops and cheap eateries. The pedestrianised high street has generic brand outlets, but bursting from the small units of the A315 are money transfer operators, bureaux de change, exotic mobile firms (Lebara, Lyca), pawnbrokers, bookies, kebab and chicken outlets, barbers, ethnic supermarkets – all suited to a cash-based life of anonymous survival. Hounslow is to London today what the north and the Midlands were in the 19th century: a serf-suburb, a wasteground of cheap labour, precarious residence, unhappy migration, in the shadow of a global jetsetting hub. In 1937, a Vega Gull, bound for the Isle of Man, clipped a tree and crashed into 215 Hounslow Road, north Feltham. The pilot, his sole passenger and Elsie Abbey, who lived in the house, died. Air pollution is today’s disaster, killing 200 Hounslowers every year.
I passed through – used – Hounslow scores of times between 2005 and 2012 when I worked mainly as a travel journalist. The easiest way to get from home to the airport was a bus from Kingston. Even when not going anywhere, I got butterflies whenever I saw a 111, 281, 285 or X26. When I did have to leave the country, I’d alight at Hounslow bus garage to walk the 100 yards to Hounslow East tube. I tried not to look too much at the interchange’s raw shabbiness before entering the air-conditioned phased spaces of the airport terminals. But Hounslow, not Heathrow, mirrored my mental state. I travelled to get away from a chaotic personal life.
Leave the clogged and snarling centre and Hounslow becomes one of the eeriest places in the UK. Residential areas back on to light industrial estates and warehouses. Traffic systems siphon cars and buses into the vast airport precinct. Tube stations stand stranded on islands. The skyline is almost empty, except for planes. Beyond lie reservoirs and Windsor’s greenery. Westward, where the planes ordinarily take off, has been spared the conurbations and mad transit.
In the middle of the mess is Hounslow Heath, where Cromwell stationed his forces and many other armies came and went, practised and prayed. Flat and bald, it served as the baseline for the Ordnance Survey. One day, if flying is banned before west London floods, the heath will segue into Heathrow and birders will gather to catch rare geese alighting on Lake Airstrip from the Terminal 3 hide.
Immingham and Grimsby, Lincolnshire
We live in an era of out-of-control logistics. There are vast box-shaped warehouses splattered all over our motorways. Strangely, there never seem to be lorries plugged into the scores of square holes that – presumably – lead to loading bays. There are no windows. There seem to be no people. Shipping and how this gets to us constitute the most opaque sector in the modern world. They don’t want us to know how it’s all done.
The Port of Immingham is the UK’s largest port by tonnage, handling around 46m tonnes of cargo every year. It’s a massive, diffuse, hard-to-penetrate estate that you need a car or a bike to get around. Ribbons of road, brownfields and unloved green patches separate grain stores, gas and oil terminals, chemical plants, scrap metal dumps, container depots, wharves and armies of gantry cranes – including the world’s largest hydraulic crane, the 365 tonne Mantsinen 300M Hybrilift, which arrived in April. Security gates block access to many sites, but you can skirt and skim the edges of the plants, and the owners, AB Ports, have produced a handy map to aid navigation.
Eight miles south is Grimsby port, which you are free to enter to snort up the piscine perfumes. In the 19th and early 20th century, this was a thriving fishing port and the national centre for smoking cod and haddock. An area known as the Kasbah contains a mix of abandoned and just-about-surviving period buildings (some of them Grade II-listed) that used to house chandlers, rope works, banks, a post office, pubs and a butcher. The strip, which looks like a film set, is scheduled for regeneration but deserve to be preserved as living/dying museum of abandonment. In keeping with the nickname, Grimsby Dock Tower, a hydraulic accumulator or vertical reservoir, looks like a Moroccan minaret – though is, in fact, modelled on Siena’s Torre del Mangia.
Down by the Humber Bridge, at Barton and New Holland, are yet more watery memories; ferries used to cross from these riverside villages and old boats, seaworthy or sunken, are moored along the muddy haven of the former. The bridge is magnificent, of course, but so is the mighty Humber, cutting into England like a cartoon grin or a knife wound, separating Hull from everywhere south. The hinterland is dotted with ancient hamlets, with the extraordinary ruins of Thornton Abbey surprising the driving dériveur on a lonely bend. Abbeys were the logistics hubs of pre-Tudor England, and that gate on Thornton – the largest to survive the Dissolution – functioned as the staffed barrier and CCTV of its day.