Saturday, September 28th 2013
Tigger had arranged to meet a friend in Northampton and while we were there, to visit a famous house. We did also manage to see a little of the town and take a few photos, as is our wont. We had already made a flying visit to Northampton on a previous occasion, when Tigger went on a courier run there. That occasion had a fraught quality to it ( see Northampton just in time) but today’s visit was calmer.
We took a bus to Euston, bought breakfast at the Camden Food Co outlet there and then caught the 8:49 Birmingham train that calls at Northampton.
On disembarking at Northampton, we found that as building work was in progress at the station, we had to leave via a temporary staircase. This is the tallest I have seen at any station, its height being necessary in order to avoid the overhead power cables.
The above picture gives some idea of the height of the bridge. At the bottom, we encountered a lady with a large, heavy suitcase, looking despairingly up the stairs. Tigger was able to direct her the the lift, much to this passenger’s relief. There is a lift at each end of the bridge, and these lifts travel inside the hollow supporting legs of the staircase but their presence was not obvious as their doors are behind the bridge. Better signage needed!
Just outside the station, one encounters this picturesque little gateway. If you think it looks a tad lonely, then you are right, because it is a remnant of a much grander building. Let the information plate beside it tell the story:
THIS POSTERN GATE OR SIDE ENTRANCE IS ALL THAT REMAINS OF A ONCE IMPRESSIVE ROYAL RESIDENCE, NORTHAMPTON CASTLE. MEDIEVAL KINGS HELD PARLIAMENTS HERE. IN 1164 THE TRIAL OF THOMAS BECKET, ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY, TOOK PLACE IN THE CASTLE. AFTER THE CIVIL WAR IT WAS MADE UNINHABITABLE ON THE ORDERS OF CHARLES II. FOLLOWING CENTURIES OF NEGLECT THE SITE WAS CLEARED IN 1879 TO MAKE WAY FOR NORTHAMPTON RAILWAY STATION. THE POSTERN GATE WAS DISMANTLED AND REBUILT HERE IN THE EARLY 1880s AS A MONUMENT TO THE CASTLE.
The postern gate is but one small indication of Northampton’s historical past. Today, the town’s name is associated with the manufacture of shoes, an industry and tradition of which it is rightly proud, but this is simply one part of a story that contains much else of interest. For example, this rather robust church, built in 1170 by Simon de St Liz or Senliz, first Norman Earl of Northampton, actually stands on the site of an early Anglo-Saxon church, thought to be that of the original settlement of Hamtun.
Both ham and tun mean “town” in Anglo-Saxon, though tun can also indicate a farm. Perhaps Hamtun was a settlement that grew from a farm or lord’s estate. The name seems to be a fairly common one and therefore it came to be felt necessary to add to it the word “north” (eventually giving the modern name of Northampton) to distinguish it from other Hamtuns, not least a prominent one in the south now called Southampton.
In 1675, the Great Fire of Northampton destroyed much of the town, leaving little but remnants of what went before. In terms of the devastation caused, it has been compared with London’s Great Fire of 1666. Hazelrigg House, above, is a rare survivor of that disaster, though it too lost part of its fabric. Described variously as an example of Elizabethan or Tudor architecture, it was built by one Robert Hesilrige, an important figure on the Parliamentary side in the Civil War. On the restoration of the monarchy, Hesilrige escaped execution because he had refrained from signing the death warrant of Charles I, but he nonetheless ended his days in the Tower of London on the orders of a Charles II. A persistent rumour has it that Oliver Cromwell spent the night here prior to the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. This is unlikely, however, given that the house is thought to have been built only in 1662.
Northampton has buildings of many different ages, including very modern ones. There is also a Victorian legacy to be seen and though many of its emporia have been divided up or “repurposed”, enough remains to give a hint of their original grandeur.
I was intrigued by this building, also in Gold Street. At first sight, the woodwork might tempt you to think that it incorporates medieval fabric but, from what little I have been able to find out, it was built in the 1880s. Over the entrance, in a clam-shell frame, is a carved coat of arms of Northampton, showing two heraldic lions supporting Northampton Castle and, below this, the town’s motto CASTELLO FORTIOR CONCORDIA, “Peace is stronger than a fortress”.
Northampton’s parish church, All Saints, was built in 1680 but contains bits of its more ancient predecessor, destroyed in the fire of 1675. The names of two Henries, both residents of Northampton, have been linked with its design. According to some, the architect was Henry Bell and, according to others, Henry Jones. I am unable to resolve the question myself. The church is famed for its choir, which has been in existence since medieval times and for performances of music. Part of it is given over to a large cafe called The Bistro. We might have tarried here and sampled its wares but were due to meet Tigger’s friend elsewhere.
The town’s market originally took place in the churchyard of All Saints but in 1235, Henry III ordered its removal here, where it has remained, providing a place for market stalls and funfairs. It currently operates on every day except Mondays.
We were meeting Tigger’s friend at Costa Coffee, near which we found this large bronze sculpture, known as The Northampton Sculpture. Showing two children, a boy and a girl, cavorting on a giant shoemaker’s last, it celebrates the shoemaking industry of Northampton.
Our next stop was in a street called simply Derngate, at number 78. This small late Georgian terrace house might, on the face of it, seem fairly ordinary if not banal. However, the impassive exterior gives no clue to what lies within, though the stylishly quirky design of the front door might indicate something a little unusual. In fact, 78 Derngate is the famous house I mentioned at the beginning. I would be happy to show you pictures of the interior but photography, alas, is not allowed and a verbal account would only bore. Briefly, then, 78 was bought by boiler manufacturer Tom Lowke for his son, Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke, as the marital home for the latter and his bride, who took up residence in 1917. Bassett-Lowke set up in business as a model-maker and, loving all things modern and stylish, commissioned the famous architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design the interior, transforming a rather small and pokey house into a remarkable and perhaps startling gem of contemporary design. Bassett-Lowke went on to build his own house in the 1920s and number 78 then passed into the possession of a succession of owners who modified it in various ways. It has now been bought and carefully restored by English Heritage as a monument to Mackintosh and as an important exemplar in the evolution of architecture and design.
Up the road from 78 Derngate, in Castilian Street, appears this odd construction, known formerly as the Memorial Hall and more recently as the premises of a wine bar called Borjia. The castle-like design is said to have been intended to fit in with other older buildings that were once found in the neighbourhood but today its stands out as an oddity. It was apparently commissioned between 1920 and 1930 by a Mr and Mrs D.P. Taylor to serve as a memorial to their son, Second-Lieutenant Ralph Paton Taylor, who died aged 20 in the Battle of the Somme in June 1916. One can still read the inscription above the door: “TO THE MEMORY OF THE DEAD FOR THE GOOD OF THOSE FOR WHOM THEY DIED”. While I understand that in our crowded modern world, accommodation is at a premium and all buildings need to be used, especially in towns, I think it’s a pity that this one, constructed by grieving parents in memory of a young son killed in war, has not been put to more appropriate use.
Now hunting for lunch, we worked our way back towards the town centre and found ourselves in St Giles Square and in front of the splendid Guildhall that in Northampton fulfils the role of town hall. Today, part of the building was shrouded, presumably because cleaning or renovation is taking place, but the rest was exposed to view. The central part, with the clock tower, was the first to be built. Designed by Edward William Goodwin, it was constructed from 1861 to 1864.
The next stage, completed in 1889-92 to a design by Matthew Holding was the west wing, currently under wraps. It was carefully done in the style of the neo-Gothic original. The third stage was the construction of the eastern extension in 1992, designed so as to be in harmony with the existing parts. Though the difference is obvious (for one thing the newness of the later part stands out), I think it is successful and that the council deserves credit for this, when other councils have not scrupled to add an ugly modern glass and metal “fish tank” to a Gothic original.
Across the road is a much smaller building, though one not lacking in interest to someone interested in history and architecture. I have not been able to find out anything about this charming little structure other that what was emblazoned upon it above the door by its builders: “COUNTY POLICE OFFICE 1873”. How long it was used for this purpose and when the police moved out into more commodious accommodations, I do not know.
After lunch, we paid a visit to Northampton Museum. We came here on our previous visit, too, but as it has temporary exhibitions in addition to its permanent collection, further visits are worthwhile. The central element of the collection is shoemaking in Northampton and the evolution of footwear, but today there was an exhibition on Mods – clothing, culture and, of course, scooters from the Mod era – and another entitled The Pre Raphaelites and the Middlemores. Photography is allowed everywhere in the museum except in the Pre Raphaelites, the only place where (this time, at least) I would have been tempted!
Libraries always catch my eye, of course, and the Northampton Central Library is eye-catching indeed. A library was housed in the Mechanics’ Institute in 1832 but ran into difficulties, its stock being used to form the beginnings of a public library in the 1870. This was first housed in the Guildhall and finally moved into its current handsome premises in 1910. The exterior is decorated with statues of the great and good, among whom I have chosen Dryden as my close-up.
Coming upon a rather large building in Fish Street, you may wonder, as I did, why said building carries over its portal the motto “Let Glasgow Flourish”, much as I approve of the sentiment. The reason is that this building was used from 1900 by Malcolm Inglis & Company of Glasgow, a leather and hides importer. Over the door is a beautiful relief incorporating the arms and motto of the city of Glasgow and, above this, some no doubt allegorical figures, one of which I show: a reclining lady holding one of the company’s ships in her hand. The building is now an apartment block with retail on the ground floor.
Close by the Market Square is another survival of the Great Fire, a building known as the Welsh House. It was originally built in about 1595 by a Dr Prytherch who recorded and celebrated his Welsh heritage by installing a plaque on the front of the building which includes a motto in the Welsh language: “HEB DYW HEB DYM DYWA DIGON” (“Without God, without everything; with God, enough”). The house has suffered alterations during its long life and the façade was rebuilt to the original design in 1975.
Northampton’s famous sculpture, entitled Discovery, celebrates the discovery of the double-helix structure of the human DNA molecule, announced in a 1953 paper in Nature, by Francis Crick and James D. Watson. Watson was American but Crick was born near here and went to school at Northampton Grammar School, so the theme of the monument is “local boy makes good”. Does this monument say “discovery” to you? If doesn’t to me, but I don’t suppose my grumpy cavils about modern art are given any weight. Love it or hate it, the sculpture is now part of the environment and in a sense an icon of Northampton.
As we made our way back to the station, clouds gathered and partially cloaked the sun. The sun was approaching the horizon, though not yet setting, and its light was shining through holes in the clouds in horizontal beams like those of a searchlight or a lighthouse, creating a dramatic effect.
From Euston Station we took a bus to King’s Cross, looking for supper. The structure added onto King’s Cross station, containing shops and providing extra room for travellers, has finally been done away with, revealing the front of the station once more as its designer, Lewis Cubbit, intended it to be. The station is now graced by a wide courtyard, making for a pleasanter environment and easier movement.
The old station concourse once served for both departures and arrivals and had become uncomfortably overcrowded. A new departures hall has been built, cleverly and beautifully designed to leave the centre clear of supporting columns. The white superstructure, illuminated by coloured lights, creates a breathtaking display but without interfering with the activities of the station. Neatly arranged to one side and out of the way, there are shops and restaurants on the ground floor and on an upper level gallery. Here we supped on Wasabi curry out of cardboard containers before taking the short bus ride home.