An autumn morning on the mound of Northampton Castle. Dripping trees along Black Lion Hill and Chalk Lane, mist hanging like lace across the Nene valley, in the heart of the old, dark weird England. It feels like it could be the 14th century rather than the 21st, if that is, it wasn’t for the National Lift Tower thrusting rudely and concretely 120 ft towards the sky just on the horizon. And even that has a strangely heraldic and Excalibur-ish feel to it, even if it was only built in 1978 by Express Lifts, later Otis lifts for the testing of, yes, lifts. It’s a Grade 2 listed building though which is perhaps why the plans for the 100 seat theatre and café came to naught in what the late Terry Wogan called the ‘Northamptonshire Lighthouse’. Do the people of this quiet shire look out for it as a beacon of home like Geordies look out for the Angel Of The North?
The castle’s not there any more by the way. There’s just a funny little bump with a railing round it. They didn’t list buildings back in the wild old days, so every trace of it is gone, even though it’s mentioned in Shakespeare’s King John and turbulent priest Thomas A Becket was tried here. In 1662 the king knocked it down pretty much on a whim. Then the Victorians built a railway station over it. That’s gone too now. So it goes.
The plaque on Black Lion Hill tells me that it was the last parliament to be held in Northampton in 1381 – back in the days when Parliament was a travelling show –that the hated Poll Tax was introduced. It led to the peasants revolt and was revived you may recall to similarly negative popular feedback by Mrs. Thatcher’s goverennt in the 199os. As Santayana said, those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. And as Einstein said, doing the same thing over again and expecting different results is a good working definition of madness. The plaque also states that in 1349 when the Black death came to Northampton the town was ‘decimated’ when ‘half the town succumbed to it’ Trying very hard not to be the sort of person who points out that this is not what ‘decimates’ really means (a Pedants revolt perhaps) I remember instead that this is just the morning for some of the gloomy Goth music that has long been this areas signature sound, as exemplified by those sons of Northampton, the very sucked-in cheeky Bauhaus
The villages fall away with the miles. Olney looks fun but is strictly speaking not on the route. There’s Yardley Hastings (..”and just starting on 4Extra, a classic edition of All Pals At The Parsonage from 1955 with Yardley Hastings as the short-sighted rector…”) with its superbly incongruous and quite contentiously reviewed Belgian Fries outlet and then there’s Turvey with its water mill and abbey. In between is lovely Lavendon where the marchers stopped for lunch, were ‘papped’ in one of the few photos of the march and where I found the only plaque anywhere outside Jarrow commemorating the Crusade
I cross a river where some sleepy swans dawdle beneath a bridge. To paraphrase Carol Churchill, light shines in Buckinghamshire and the low blue bar of hill on the horizon is the Chilterns I realise. No traffic passes. The only sound is the rasp of carrion crows across flat, churned, empty fields and for a haunted second, the thought that this was the bloody crucible of the civil war returns. A different kind of civil war from the one whose smouldering fall-out has been obsessing England as I’ve moved slowly down it these past three and a half weeks
At different times in our history, we have been very happy to allow the free movement of people to our shores when we have needed them, be it German mining engineers to the Lake District of the Elizabethan era, Nigerian cleaners to our midnight office blocks or Polish receptionists to the Malamaisons of the land. Brexit and the reasons behind the seismic vote of summer 2016 is more complicated and knotty than either than the honking right or the smug left would have you believe I think, and I’ll leave it to the book to share with you what I learned and saw and heard as I trudged England this autumn. But let’s just say for now that the reason you can get great coffee and pizza….
…..and come across so many Italian surnames in Bedford is that after the second World War the British government drew upon the defeated male workers of Italy to feed the labour shortage in industries like Bedford’s huge brickworks. Separated from their families and housed in a converted prisoner-of-war camp, many did not complete their four year stint. “They were like slaves really” says the barman as he hands me my grappa in the little backstreet Club Italia down a dark and quiet stretch of Alexandra Road. But many did stay. They bought houses, and set up home in tem with their families. Bedford’s Italian community is 15.000 strong now and you can read more about them in the finished book.
Also I’ll talk more about Bedfords non-comformist religious streak, seen most strikingly in the works of local lad John Bunyan, locked up in Bedford gaol for 12 years where he wrote Pilgrim’s Progress and where every day his blind daughter Mary walked down to with food for him, a touching detail. And then there’s the Panacea Society, an all women commune who believed one of them was Shiloh, the new Christ, whose campaign for the locked box of the mystical writings of Joanna Southcott to be opened gripped Britain in the 20s, and who believed that the back garden of their house in Bedford was the site of the original garden of Eden. Much, much more on this in the book of course….
I know you like me to keep you apprised of any adventures I have viz a viz in regional cuisine so, yes, I did have a Bedfordshire Clanger, the curious dichotomous pastry containing a savoury filling at one end and a sweet at the other, thus offering the agricultural worker in the fields of yesteryear both an entrée and a dessert ( the pampered fops). I’m not going to say much here about my experience of this particlular Bedfordshire Clanger, bought in a chi-chi bakery from an unsmiling lady, beyond that I couldn’t tell which end was which as both seemed filled with wallpaper paste mixed with oats
I’m sorry, Bedfordshire. I remain impervious to your clanger. But I did take a sneaky liking to your town. Parts of it, like the riverside embankment, were as delicious as Bath. Other parts made my home town look like Bath which is no mean feat of philistine planning. When the BBC made secret wartime broadcasts from here, they referred to it obliquely for security reasons as “Somewhere In England”. I love that phrase. I’ll write a book with that title somewhere down the line I think
To conclude this brief post, I really wanted to find a clip from a terrifying puppet version of Pilgrims Progress that I glimpsed on telly in the early 70s and that has never fully left me (I’m pretty sure I saw it on Ask Aspel after people had complained that it was traumatizing their kids) But I couldn’t find it. Instead I’ll leave you with a lovely song called Pilgrim’s Progress from Procul Harum’s A Salty Dog that I used to listen to in my mate Nigel’s bedroom in the late 70s. On reflection I was probably only 7 or 8 years older then than I was when those puppets had freaked me out aged nine or so. But a lot changes between then and seventeen, even if you would not necessarily call it progress, and as my journey toward the grubby and not so celestial city moved to its end, this song made me feel weirdly homesick for the kid I used to be.