Where tourists seldom tread, part 8: five more towns with hidden treasures

Where tourists seldom tread, part 8: five more towns with hidden treasures

Port Talbot

Port Talbot recently returned to the spotlight, when Tata Steel announced electrification and layoffs last month and the BBC broadcast Michael Sheen’s television series The Way this week. Politicians and foreign companies can shut down entire towns with impressive equanimity when the factories they are mothballing and the lives they are destroying are invisible. Port Talbot, however, would seem hard to ignore. As you approach on the M4, which undulates gamely on stilts across the skyline, the view of the vast Tata Steel plant is bracing. The hills on the inland side are squat, solid-looking lumps but greenish and pleasant enough. The sea glints on the far side of the works. You may catch sight of beautiful Aberavon Beach. Whitish steam – and a 50th of the UK’s CO2 emissions – curls up into grey estuarial cloud.

Like all fenced-in plants, Tata Steel’s is mysterious. Unless you’re a worker or on official business, you can’t go in to ogle the torpedo-shaped trains, giants’ ladles and tuyeres (smelting nozzles), or survey the piles of iron ore, limestone, coke and coal that are alchemised into cars and ships and surgical scalpels and hip flasks. You can’t hang out at places with names like Monolithic Refractories, Margam Knuckle Yard or Middle Mother Ditch. Geeks have been allowed to tour the site in the past, but that was during a lull in the bad news cycle.

Baglan Bay, next door, augurs a possible future for Port Talbot (and all mono-industrial towns): a decaying void of ghostly fields, dead turbine halls and gutted offices where petrochemicals were manufactured for four decades and, subsequently, a gas-fired power station operated – for just 17 years between 2003 and 2020. It is technically off limits to ruin-ramblers, but brave psychogeographers of abandonment do occasionally go in and report their findings.

A great monastic complex once stood on this exposed coast. Margam Abbey was founded in the 12th century by the Cistercians, an order that was spreading with imperialistic vigour from its base in Cîteaux, near Dijon. Gerald of Wales was entertained there and praised the abbot, Conan, for his peerless acts of charity. Henry VIII dissolved what was a thriving commercial operation, and the estate was handed over to the Rice Mansel family and their heirs right up until 1941.

Baglan and Margam were welded to Aberafan to create Port Talbot – after Harrow-educated Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, an MP for 60 years as well as an industrialist pushed bills through parliament to expand his commercial interests. Sheep, coal and iron ore – Wales’s unholy trinity – drove the local economy. Port Talbot was a maritime powerhouse long before Cardiff rose to prominence.

Since construction in the 1960s, the areas beneath the M4 have been taken back by both nature and residents. This section is a popular cycling and horse riding path. From the series Bypassed by Nick St Oegger. Photograph: Nick St.Oegger

When the M4 came, the model village of Groes, planned and built in the 1830s by renowned architect Edward Haycock, was razed to the ground. The local historical society describes the tidy settlements as “Cotswolds-like”. Poet Gwyn Williams (1904-1990), who was born in Beverley Street, wrote: “We have the scarred valleys to thank them for, where veins of coal and ore were scraped off eastwards; they have drowned valleys for the thirst of their factories; we have dark ranked conifers massed where sheep once grazed the sweet upland grass … And now the Vandals set about to erase (and slavish Glamorgan seems to accept it) this lovely village where my mother was born.” The only bit of the village to be salvaged was the Beulah Calvinistic Methodist chapel, which was dismantled and rebuilt in Tollgate Park in Margam. The word “Groes”, no longer anchored to anything, still appears on OS maps. Photographer Nic St Oegger’s series of images of the town, titled Bypassed, captures the overriding influence of the elevated M4 as a physical structure. The residents of hundreds of British towns feel bypassed, but few experience it so brutally.

Port Talbot was born out of a series of industrial strategies. Local workers and trade unions say it is at risk of dying from the lack of one. In an old film reel showing chancellor of the exchequer Hugh Gaitskell opening the new steelworks at Margam on 17 July 1951, chairman EH Lever points out that new plants and technology “can alter completely the pattern of life over wide areas” and that “there are always some who see in such developments an element of tragedy as well as of hope”. But it’s not really about perceptions, is it?

Things to see: Beulah chapel, South Wales Miners’ Museum

Rochdale

‘The first statue of a woman to be erected in Greater Manchester in more than a century’ … A bronze of Gracie Fields in Rochdale. Photograph: Mark Waugh/Alamy

Lancashire’s dales are not capitalised like the ones to the east. But arriving by train into the dale of the Roch, you have a sense of looming hills on either side and of a quasi-rural remoteness from Manchester. Mill chimneys point to the past, but the embanked line opens up vistas of industrial units: a casualwear factory, a driveways and patios business, the processing plant for Krispy Kremes. Rochdale’s station is like a TGV stop in one respect only: it’s nowhere near the centre. The railway line and first station were opened in 1839. By the time this one was built, 50 years on, the town had grown in size and importance.

A 15-minute walk into town allows you to survey the small sprawl. An Asian supermarket, a Byzantine church, an African supermarket, tram lines, a Polish supermarket, a tattooist’s, a barber’s. Grandish upper facades, humble frontages. A waterside warehouse. A mural that looks like a carpet decorated with bolls.

Woollen cloth and yarn were traded here from the 16th century, and tough fabrics like baize, rough kersey and softer flannel continued to be produced as the Industrial Revolution fired up. Water- and, later, steam-powered mills used raw cotton from American slave plantations to turn Rochdale into a major node of Lancashire textile production. There were quarries nearby for building materials, and plenty of impoverished upland farmworkers to staff the looms and spinning machines. The Rochdale canal, the earliest trans-Pennine waterway, transported textiles, coal and raw materials north to Manchester and Sowerby Bridge, from where they could be shipped onward to ocean and sea.

The town’s built environment is a walk-round museum. There is a dilapidated Grade II-listed domestic workshop at 17 Milnrow Road. A cloth merchant built 17 Yorkshire Street; it was later used as an ironmonger’s and a bank. Drake Street has handsome middle-class houses. On Spotland Road, Pioneer Street and Equitable Street are rows of terraces built by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in the 1860s, about 20 years after the organisation was founded. I had always assumed the original members were Gradgrinds, but the friendly women at the museum on Toad Lane assured me they were bona fide working class: weavers, shoemakers, woodworkers, a slubber (twiner of threads), a hawker (rag and bone man). The 13 men in an 1865 photograph of the Pioneers are wearing borrowed suits, and the table before them is papier-mache. The heroic co-operators – who spurned debt and lucre, ran library services and evening classes, and accepted women when trade unions barred them – made me think darkly of The Apprentice. The flagged Riverside Quarter, with its River Island, New Look, Superdrug, Costa Coffee, Starbucks and Bean, made me reflect in the other direction: Victorian shops, independent, artisanal, locally managed.

Rochdale Pioneers Museum, where the modern co-operative movement was founded in 1844. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian

The lifesize bronze of Gracie Fields on the central square inevitably suggests wartime and empire, though she was the Scarlett Johansson of her day’s film industry as well as the Taylor Swift of the airwaves; and she told jokes. When it was unveiled in 2016 it was the first statue of a woman to be erected in Greater Manchester in more than a century. Pushing against rousing choruses of Fields hits such as Wish Me Luck and Sing As We Go are waves of synth emanating from a warehouse on the corner of Kenion Street and Baron Street, formerly Cargo Studios, where Joy Division recorded Atmosphere. Autechre, Lisa Stansfield and Don Estelle were also of the parish. AI is mashing all this up somewhere in hell.

There is a persistent myth that Hitler, while hatching plans to invade England, was planning to spare Blackpool Beach (because he was a fun guy really) and Rochdale town hall (because he had a thing for Gothic bombast). But there is no corroboration of the rumour. The magnificent municipal building, still undergoing a five-year, £20m restoration – and opening to the public on 3 March – is a mad whirl of styles and colours. The Great Hall, with hammerbeam roof and churchy windows, is a simulacrum of Westminster Hall. The entrance lobby echoes the interior of Córdoba’s Mezquita. The mayor’s dining room is a feast of floral painted paper, gleaming after a century of nicotine was removed using cotton buds. The mythic martlet bird is a regular motif – a “guest of summer”, as Banquo says in Macbeth. Fleeting, footless, divine. Outside I see a dead starling. There are peregrines nesting on the clock tower. Which bird shall Rochdale be? The town hall, now a community asset rather than a palace for huffing and (cigar) puffing politicians, could perhaps be a gentler, truer, kinder embodiment of John Bright’s “mother of parliaments”.

Things to see: Cotton Famine Road; Rochdale Pioneers Museum; Whitworth Heritage Museum

Wick

‘North-east Scotland is flatter, sunnier, drier and less touristy than the mythologised north-west’ … Wick, Caithness. Photograph: Gill Kennett/Alamy

Herrings and whisky are two of my favourite things, separately and together. In mid-19th-century Wick, the combination led to social carnage and moral outrage. The Rev Charles Thomson observed: “The herring fishing has increased wealth, but also wickedness. No care is taken of the 10,000 young strangers of both sexes, crowded together with the inhabitants during the six weeks of the fishing season … There is a great consumption of spirits, there being 22 public houses in Wick and 23 in Pulteneytown.”

Wick, at the time, was the busiest herring port in Europe. As many as 1,000 vessels were moored there. It has been estimated that more than 800 gallons of whisky – or 5,000 bottles – were being consumed every week. Local men piled into the pubs, and when skippers arrived with their wages they would have a celebratory drink. Rounds were de rigueur. Some went home with just coppers left in their pockets.

What to do? The town’s temperance-minded grandees arranged a referendum. Cannily, they enfranchised the wives. Following speeches, public meetings and newspaper columns by both “wets” and “drys”, polling day arrived and a turnout of 77% was recorded: 62% voted no licence. Only bona fide travellers could henceforth legally purchase alcohol in Wick, and only as an accompaniment to a meal.

Prohibition was in force from 1922 to 1947, 12 years longer than in the US, and illicit alcohol was produced in at least two clandestine stills. Underground drinking dens, or shebeens, sprang up around the town, including one daringly sited in a respectable restaurant, where a silver teapot was used to dispense whisky to knowing customers.

The bars around Wick today still have a clandestine air. They are painted in garish or hospital hues. Windows are small and infrequent. The famous red T of Tennent’s Lager smacks of the USSR or 1984. None serves rollmops.

North-east Scotland is flatter, sunnier, drier and less touristy than the mythologised north-west, with its isles and lochs, stags and Christmas trees. Whether you take the A9 or ride on the Far North railway line, you get an ever growing sense of widening skies and horizons.

Wick is built from dark grey stone, sometimes plastered in light grey pebbledash called harling. It looks tough, like a frontier town, crowding the slopes around the harbour built by Thomas Telford in the first decade of the 19th century. He designed Pulteneytown, arguably the first housing estate purpose-built to service an industry. North of the river in Wick proper, the high street has been murdered. The herring were fished out long ago, and windfarms only employ a few people. There is no cinema. It could feel sad, but the surrounding countryside is dramatic and diverting; fulmars nest on the cliffs around the old castle; great slabs of rock double as a summer lido; and headlands open up views of distant shores. A sign informs the wanderer: London 490 miles, Bergen 350 miles. Wick is Vík. The local DNA has been tested: it is proudly Nordic.

The Old Pulteney Whisky Distillery in Wick. Photograph: Alamy

The heritage museum, spread over several terrace houses, is an enthralling home for Wick’s storied past, and all the artefacts that made life on the edge livable. It’s a wonderfully varied collection, with reconstructions of every room in a home circa 1900, lighthouse bulbs, wedding and funeral garments, military uniforms, old bone-shaker bikes, replicas of a cooperage and smiddy (blacksmith’s), and a fishing boat. There’s a superb and vast array of photographs from the herring heyday, including crisp images of fishermen and gutter lasses, who prepared the herrings or “silver darlings”, and the dockside heaving with hundreds of thousands of barrels full of salted fish.

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When the weather blows in, as it is wont to do, there is refuge in Mackays Hotel, a flatiron-type edifice on Ebenezer Place – apparently, the shortest street in the world. It’s one of those warm, welcoming, traditional hotels where a traveller can find a home from home. Its location, at a five-road crossing, is said to be mentioned in Treasure Island; Robert Louis Stevenson came here as a young man when his father was attempting to construct a breakwater. A crumbled wall-end records his failure.

The Old Pulteney distillery – opened in 1826 and shuttered during the prohibition years – is in the old new town – whose bricks it has further darkened with a yeasty fungus – and has seen all of Wick’s booms and busts. In a crowded market, it has prospered as the maritime whisky, and its promotional poetry promises a voyage “from subtle coastal chords to more defined salty notes”. The tour is a rich, tasty, revealing experience. You pass through heat and cold, mizzle and damp, and the wall-to-wall casks in the ancient warehouse inevitably evoke those old fishy barrels. Herring gulls live here year round and have been adopted by the distillers, and named. Fraser and Smokey Joe cackled as I dipped and sipped and diluted, and scented and swilled the notes of sherry, bourbon, sea and sand, wind and memory.

Things to see: John o’Groats, the Flow Country bog system, 8 Doors Distillery, Thurso

Croydon

‘Little Manhattan’ … High-rises in Croydon, including the purple and red Saffron Square development. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Croydon is still a place London residents refer to dismissively if not outright derisively when they want to emphasise their metropolitan credentials. I say “still” as other more or less peripheral towns and boroughs – Peckham, Lewisham, Kingston – have magically migrated from embarrassing to enlightened in recent decades. Perhaps Croydon is drifting centre-wards too: films are made there, with the town standing in for New York and eastern Europe, and even as itself in Andrew Haigh’s All Of Us Strangers.

But Croydon owns a deep past that might resist the frivolous putative future. Neolithic hut floors, hut circles and hearths have been discovered. Ancient Greek coins and Teutonic pottery have been unearthed. Named for crocuses, it was a centre of saffron cultivation. It was a sizable settlement at the time of the Domesday Book, its Surrey Street marketup and running by the late 13th century. Then came a long ecclesiastical summer when the Tudor Croydon Palace was the archbishop of Canterbury’s summer residence and operational headquarters for managing the episcopal estates of Surrey, Middlesex and Hertfordshire; monarchs dropped in like postal workers. Today the building houses a private girls’ school. Six archbishops are buried in the graveyard of the Grade I-listed parish church, Croydon Minster. Sheldon Street, Laud Street and Cranmer Road honour the prelates. A later summer residence was Addington Palace, a huge Palladian manor house that’s now a wedding venue surrounded by a golf course.

Croydon was a spa town in the 19th century. In 1831, Decimus Burton designed a spa and pleasure garden off what is now Spa Hill. The Royal Beulah Spa and Gardens, which extended across 25 acres, was visited by Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. During a tour in 1838, Johann Strauss I blew 10,000 people’s minds with the wild new swinging sound of the waltz. The waters of the natural saline spring were said to be purer than those found at Bath and Wells, and saltier than Cheltenham’s. The site hosted grand fetes and galas, balloon ascents, military bands, archery, a camera obscura and circus acts. One famous visiting tightrope walker and impresario, Pablo Fanque, is namechecked in the Beatles’ Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite!. The spa’s appeal faded when the Crystal Palace was re-erected nearby in 1854. Only the Tivoli Lodge, at the former entrance, has survived.

In December 1919, only months after reopening the skies to civil aircraft, the Air Ministry decided to close Hounslow airfield and move London’s customs airport to the better facilities and location at Croydon. Two sites on either side of Plough Lane – a former RAF station located to the west, Waddon Aerodrome located to the east – were given over to newly founded airlines, which used converted first world war bombers to connect London to the continent. Croydon to Paris Le Bourget became the world’s busiest air route. By the 1940s, the grass runways and lack of room for further expansion made the airport unsuitable for new, larger airliners. In 1959, it was closed. Croydon no doubt misses the glamour of aviation, though few would swap their town for Gatwick. They are terrestrially very well connected, with dozens of train stations in the borough and intersecting lines, and the town sits at the heart of a tram service. East Croydon station is busier than Liverpool Lime Street and Edinburgh Waverley. South Croydon bus garage is a throbbing hub. The 15-mile 68 used to be one of London’s great bus routes – I was a regular user in the mid-1980s – in a region lacking Tube lines.

‘Croydon has never stopped regenerating’ … Boxpark. Photograph: Andrew Sparkes/Alamy

A more complicated iteration of Croydon’s cosmopolitanism is its role in the British immigration disaster story. Twenty-storey Lunar House and its sister tower, Apollo House, are the headquarters of the UK Visas and Immigration department. Nearby Electric House, an easier-on-the-eye moderne edifice on a corner, used to be home to the Border Agency. Despite the upbeat names, the three conspired to manufacture long queues of desperate asylum seekers, many from repressive, totalitarian nations. The buildings are interesting if you don’t need to go inside them. Croydon has been called “Little Manhattan”, the title of a recent exhibition at the local museum. There’s a short film and a handy summary here.

Ecclesiastical, healthful, airborne, Kafkaesque: Croydon has never stopped regenerating. Some £5.25bn is being spent on projects such as Boxpark Croydon (a copycat of a Shoreditch scheme), the London Square commuter block, College Road (Europe’s tallest modular tower), Carbuncle Cup-nominated Saffron Square and new restaurant and cultural “quarters”. One day Kate Moss will say something nice about her home town and then it really will all be over.

Things to see: Historic Croydon Airport visitor centre, Museum of Croydon

Kettering

‘Quite impressive’ … St Peter and St Paul church’s seen from Market Place, Kettering. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

Streamed telly and streams of tourists seem to go together, fused by social media and its extraordinary capacity for hype, especially when wielded by PR firms. Kettering is too demure a town to shout about its qualities, but marketing agencies have sought to hijack the filming of Saltburn at Drayton House and parts of Ridley Scott’s Napoleon at Boughton House. A press release claimed that since Saltburn: “Google searches for ‘Holidays in Northamptonshire’ have experienced an 11,000% increase over the past month, with fans desperate to visit the location where filming took place.” If one person searched in December, and 110 did so in January, there’s your boom.

The antidote to all this commotion is JL Carr, the quietly brilliant writer who worked as a teacher in South Dakota, travelled to Japan, China, Malaya and Burma and flew reconnaissance missions in west Africa in the second world war, before taking up the post of headmaster of Highfields primary school, Kettering, in 1951. Biography as bathos, but Carr was a wise man. After giving up teaching he devoted his time to publishing and writing. The events in his best-known novel, A Month in the Country, unfold in his native North Riding of Yorkshire, but the story was prompted when the diocese of Peterborough allowed the medieval church of St Faith’s at Newton in the Willows – four miles north of Kettering – to succumb to “official and privatesacking. What local vandals didn’t deface other churches pilfered, and archaeologists had also damaged the structure. Carr, anxious to save the little church that spurred his story, successfully campaigned to prevent further destruction, and the Grade II*-listed church was used as a field centre until 2018. Sadly, plans have been filed to turn it into a private home, despite concerns expressed by Historic England.

Newton was once the backdrop to a much bloodier row: on 8 June 1607, starving diggers and levellers rose up to resist enclosure of common land by local landowners, especially the Treshams of Rushton, a notorious Roman Catholic family. As many as 50 protesters were killed, their leaders hung, drawn and quartered. Was this bloody repression on the mind of William Knibb, the Kettering-born printer turned Baptist missionary who played a pivotal role in the abolition of slavery? Knibb travelled to Jamaica to fill a teaching post left vacant when his brother, Thomas, died following a tropical fever. He was horrified by the treatment of enslaved people. Floggings were routine and administered amid back-breaking work. He taught free and enslaved children, and campaigned to make public the 20 lashes suffered by Sam Swiney, a black man condemned to work in shackles for preaching without a licence. When the governor was made aware of the case, the magistrates who had passed the sentence were sacked and Swiney was freed. Knibb was imprisoned for anti-slave rhetoric but continued to campaign in Jamaica and Britain. In 1988 he became the first white man to be awarded Jamaica’s Order of Merit; other recipients include Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Mary Seacole and Fidel Castro. A Baptist church stands in Kettering Free Village, Jamaica. Following the Black Lives Matter marches and the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, there were calls for Kettering to erect a monument to commemorate William Knibb.

A scene from Saltburn, shot at Drayton House, near Kettering. Photograph: AP

Kettering isn’t particularly famous for anything else. It was a nonconformism hotspot, but there were many of those. St Peter and St Paul’s lofty spire, with its jutting crockets – to snag on clouds/heaven – is quite impressive. The town once produced shoes and boots for high street retailers (Dolcis, FHW and Timpson), but was always a few steps behind Northampton.

But perhaps its appeal lies in its innocuousness. There is a generic quality to the place, perfectly encapsulated by a town-centre monument: a short clock tower representing 100 years of the Rotary Club. That wheel symbol seems to sap character. Which brings me back to Carr. He is responsible for spreading the news that his adopted town – close to the middle-bottom of the lower Midlands – was the least literary spot in the land. His own output and small but vocal fanbase somewhat disprove this notion, but living in an uncelebrated, quiet place, Carr found time to think and write and ignore literary fashions. When the narrator in A Month in the Country reflects on leaving a magical place many years before, he asks himself: “If I’d stayed there, would I always have been happy? No, I suppose not. People move away, grow older, die, and the bright belief that there will be another marvellous thing around each corner fades. It is now or never; we must snatch at happiness as it flies.” These short few sentences ripple with ambivalence. If all our imagined elsewheres, including the places we were born and raised, are potentially sorrowful quests, home might as well be Kettering.

Things to see: Rushton Triangular Lodge

Visit to Wick assisted by Visit Scotland, with train travel provided by Caledonian Sleeper

This article was amended on 22 February 2024. An earlier version said that Wick did not have a large supermarket; this has been removed.

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