Where tourists seldom tread, part 7: five more UK towns with secret histories

<span>Photograph: CandyAppleRed Signimage/Alamy</span>
Photograph: CandyAppleRed Signimage/Alamy

part one | part two | part three | part four | part five | part six

There’s Crap Towns. There’s UK Grim. There’s John Betjeman. And then there’s James Cleverly, the Lewisham-born MP for Braintree. British towns get punched from above, below and the side – even from inside: if you serially humiliate people, they’ll begin to loathe where they come from in a twisted lunge for self-esteem. What riles when a politician slags off a place he doesn’t know or care about is the lack of self-awareness: anything and everything that is wrong with provincial Britain is a result of decisions taken by politicians over decades. Austerity, though, was the biggest, heaviest wrecking ball since deindustrialisation. These five “seldoms” are towns that have seen plenty of demolition and all have been derided, mocked, ignored, caricatured and dumped at the bottom of specious rankings. Seen through a thoughtful, engaged, flaneur-minded filter, however, they are wondrous, poetic, musical places.


The cultural establishment has been unkind to Slough. Betjeman’s famous poem hollered: “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! / It isn’t fit for humans now, / There isn’t grass to graze a cow. / Swarm over, Death!” The poet laureate later regretted penning it. Orwell’s bitter, snobbish, repressed protagonist in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, rues a trip to Slough, and the tea his girlfriend Rosemary insists on having there: “They went to a large, dreary, draughty hotel near the station. Tea, with little wilting sandwiches and rock cakes like balls of putty, was two shillings a head.” A song by punk band Gallows inspired by Betjeman ranted, “If this town had a name it would be defeat.” David Brent also quotes the poem.

Ricky Gervais used Slough to propel him to LA. The opening credits of The Office focus on Slough’s grey architecture and roads. Its nightlife is derided in several episodes. Did it all begin with the town’s name? It was spelled variously as Slo, Sloo, Le Slowe and plain Slow in pre-modern times, and the word – denoting a swamp – features in The Pilgrim’s Progress associated with Despondency. Slough used to be in Bucks, but is now in Berks. No doubt the latter would like to move it on, perhaps to Greater London.

Sadly, Crossbow House, where the fictional paper company Wernham Hogg was based in The Office, was razed in 2013

In June 1918, part of west Slough was bought by the government to form a motor repair depot for army vehicles. The war ended while it was being built – shoddily – partly by PoWs. Subsequently, the site was opened with the aim of refitting military trucks, cars and motorcycles for civilian use. This failed and was replaced by a trading estate – the largest in Europe with a single owner, covering more than 180 hectares (450 acres). The customer directory today lists 216 companies, including car dealerships, fishing tackle retailers, tyre suppliers, self-storage units, a nursery, DJ-ing gear rental, skin-care services and an antiques emporium; all human life is here. Mars’s HQ is one of the big names; in 1932, the Mars Bar was invented in Slough. Sadly, Crossbow House, where the fictional paper company Wernham Hogg was based in The Office, was razed in 2013. A Premier Inn stands on the site. Whenever I type a sentence about demolition it is followed by that line: a Premier Inn stands on the site.

While Manchester embraced the massive Trafford Park industrial estate as part of its worker-bee DNA, Slough has always been uneasy about its unsightly commercial sprawl. Why can’t every town look like Windsor? When Eton College resisted efforts to build a railway station, the project was shifted to Slough – which led to Slough station becoming, temporarily, the “royal station”. The grand-looking second empire-style booking hall is Grade II-listed. Of course, there is unlimited heritage and tourism fodder in the vicinity of Slough – on all sides are castles, country estates, Michelin-starred tasting menus, and bohemian mansions where London’s arty and political elites once chattered. Slough is a merciful release from all the National Trust prettiness and class voyeurism. I love the fact that you can see Slough’s power station from Eton and Windsor. Some people would like to think the home counties are all pageant, toppers and race days. Slough is a hardcore commercial hub – a swamp of reality and reinforced concrete.

It’s thought the name may have derived from the various sloughs in the area caused by rainwater flowing from the Chilterns to the Thames. Or it may refer to sloe bushes growing in the vicinity. Slough is also necrotic tissue, and I can’t help feeling that a reputation for decay and deadness holds this town back. It’s time for Slough to slough off its sloughiness.
Things to see: Black Park country park, Slough Museum


Once known as the Queen of the North, Stockton was the departure point in 1825 for the world’s first public passenger railway. Next year will see bicentennial celebrations take place here and all along the Stockton and Darlington Railway line, especially at Shildon – the “world’s first railway town” and site of the Locomotion museum. Earthworks for the S&DR in Preston Park at Stockton were included in last year’s additions to Historic England’s scheduled monuments list. I know, earthworks are not exactly the Mallard or the Ribblehead Viaduct, but there’s no brass without muck.

One day English counties will demand London museums ‘decolonise’ their looted provincial hoards and return the treasures

Most industrial towns trace their pre-modern history though castles, burgesses, farming, shipbuilding and the like. Stockton had all these, but it also had, some time earlier, hippopotamuses. In 1958, a fossilised molar tooth was found about nine metres (30ft) down in gravel, four miles north-west of the town. It’s the most northerly example of the animal ever found. Nobody seems to know the exact location of the find, or who unearthed it, or why they were digging. Frustratingly, no one knows where it is now. Some think the Natural History Museum in London, the undisputed world capital of plunder, nabbed it, or perhaps it was the British Museum. One day English counties will demand London museums “decolonise” their looted provincial hoards and return the treasures to their rightful owners and appreciators.

Stockton’s considerable architectural heritage is viewable on a short walk. The council’s map is a classic council’s map – awful – and a map and site produced by a quango called The Hub is almost as bad. So here’s a basic one we have made for you, taking in Finkle Street’s terraces, the town hall, Shambles market hall, the Georgian theatre, the glorious art deco Globe theatre, the burnt-out Gothic church on Trinity Green, several old yards (Green Dragon Yard, Hambletonian Yard, Ship Inn Yard) and Stockton parish church – one of seven Grade-I listed church sites in the area.

Yes, the historical fabric of Stockton is breathtaking, especially when there’s a fierce easterly to turn the sky to shimmering blue. The town is laid out on the burgage system – with narrow plots of what were once farmland now occupied by buildings – but making up for the alleys, yards and hemmed-in aspects, it has the widest high street in the UK (disputed by Marlborough). It also gave the national high street a great entrepreneur, and not just any entrepreneur, but a far-sighted, foreign, hard-grafting, canny entrepreneur. Michael Marks was born in Slonim in the Russian empire (now Belarus) and took a ship (probably a returning collier) to Stockton to escape the pogroms. He worked as a pedlar on the market before moving to Leeds, which had a sizeable Jewish community. He met Thomas Spencer and, in 1884, they founded M&S. The firm opened a shop at 3 Bishop Street in 1901. There’s no blue plaque. There’s not even a Marks now – the local branch closed in 2018. St Michael has truly been martyred.
Things to see: Preston Park Museum, Ropner Park, North York Moors and Cleveland Way


How do you approach the West Midlands? I don’t mean by car or train – though the latter’s linearity gives a reassuring sense of order and direction when entering the UK’s most formless sprawl. I mean, mentally. Let’s narrow it down a bit and focus on the Black Country – but no one can agree where that begins and ends. All we know is that polite references to Worcestershire and Staffordshire and any other shire that once aspired to be in the Domesday Book are whimsical here. Do maps help? I wouldn’t recommend Google’s. For Walsall, the app suggested only two sites: Morrisons and Angels of Walsall, a lingerie and sex toy emporium.

How about music? I was never a smelly or a headbanger, but one of Bowie’s least typical early songs is a filler on The Man Who Sold the World called Black Country Rock. It’s a heavy, bluesy number, shunned by purists, loved by musos, and a nod to the honest, rocking, big-guitar sound of Brum and environs. From here we can find two interesting directions. One is the banging and clanging and general sonorousness of the small workshops that underpinned the Industrial Revolution in these parts – as contrasted with the mega-mills and mass production-oriented mines of the north. Boulton and Watt steam engines, made at Smethwick, were not much used locally. This simple fact explains the famous sprawl. It also, arguably, makes West Midlanders more independent-minded and self-sufficient than the factory fodder of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

We tend to decode towns through maps, guidebooks, texts, photographs. Walsall is best approached aurally

But the other direction is sexier. Walsall’s origins as a settlement lie in the middle ages, when “loriners”, or saddlers’ ironmongers, fashioned equestrian items such as stirrups, bits, buckles, spurs and harness mounts. They were the first to exploit local ores, including high-grade iron, coal, charcoal and limestone. Leathercutters – especially bridle makers – tapped the obvious synergies by setting up their own businesses in the area. This trade grew steadily and boomed in the 19th century. At its peak, around 1900, Walsall was home to 6,830 saddle and harness makers.

With the arrival of the motorcar, leather workers switched to travelling bags, hat boxes and wallets. Horse riding as a hobby has rebooted the saddlery sector in recent years. According to The Field magazine, Walsall “has more saddlers and leather goods makers than any other place in northern Europe”. The art of manufacturing wearables extended to humans: Walsall became an industrialised clothing centre. On the back of the loriners’ long contribution to local commerce, there was a thriving metalworks sector, producing nails, pots, pans and locks. Foundries opened to produce rivet iron, pig iron and steel plates and bars for heavy industry.

Banging, Bowie, horses’ bits, saucepans. How can they be related? Because, over on the Beechdale housing estate, the dreams of young men like Judas Priest’s Rob Halford and Slade’s Noddy Holder were filled with the noise and soot and a different kind of leather – studded, black, zip-filled, tasselled, shiny. Slade were softer and poppier, but Judas Priest were the ultimate Walsall leather-clad metalheads. As Halford sings on Deal with the Devil, his origin-story song: “Forged in the Black Country / Under blood red skies / We all had our dream to realise”.

If all this sounds too 1973, the antidote is Walsall’s New Art Gallery, a Riba Stirling prize-nominated building that hosts shows, residencies and courses. These riff on the big subjects that matter to contemporary Walsallians: class, belonging, identity, queer and trans culture, disability, the South Asian diaspora, west African connections, eco-activism and local creativity. The gallery also hosts the Kathleen Garman collection, a mini-Tate of European masterpieces and sculptures by her husband, Jacob Epstein. So transfiguring is this space – threatened with closure in 2016 – that you wish it could spill its contents out into the wider world.

Until then, take your headphones. We tend to decode towns through maps, guidebooks, texts, photographs. Walsall is best approached aurally. Service industries are quiet and sinister, as are closed shops and dereliction. For your day out in the Tohuwabohu of the 21st-century Black Country, here’s a short playlist.
Things to see: Walsall Leather Museum, Walsall Arboretum, ruins of Great Barr Hall


It’s always about perspective, isn’t it? When I was growing up in the heavily industrialised, pit-pocked part of Cheshire that used to be Lancashire – north of Warrington – Macclesfield was considered posh, rural, exotic and eternally unknowable. Provincial townies go to cities, not to each other’s towns in the same county. But maybe I wasn’t far wrong with my arcadian imaginings. Deborah Curtis, author and widow of Joy Division frontman Ian, described growing up there as: “Idyllic, I think. We spent all our time building dams across the brook, bottle-feeding lambs. It was completely removed from Manchester.”

Yet, post-Curtis, Madchester and the monochrome “gritty” romanticism of Anton Corbijn’s 2007 film Control, Macclesfield has been inserted into a national narrative that wants to connect songs like Atmosphere and Day of the Lords with the origins of the band’s lead singer (though not so much its cheery drummer). A glance at any issue of NME or Sounds circa 1976-1986 will reveal that stylish gloom was a fashion statement and a photographic cliche during that era.

It was also hip to hate folk and shun history, or else Curtis and co might have performed songs about, say, the Cheshire archers – yeomen bowmen from the Macclesfield Hundred who served as bodyguards to Richard II – or treacle, in reference to an unverifiable but very ancient drama during which a horse-drawn cart overturned and spilt its load of treacle on to a cobbled street, causing poor Maxonians to rush out and scoop it up. Lest anyone forget or downplay this event, there’s a monthly 160-stall Treacle Market spread around Market Place, the Old Butter Market and St Michael’s churchyard. Perhaps the locals confused the syrupy gift with the healing associations of so-called treacle wells. Local author Alan Garner punned on this in his 2021 Booker-shortlisted novel, Treacle Walker.

Macclesfield is sometimes called Treacle Town. But its preferred nickname is Silk Town – posh, you see. As in many Manchester satellites, textiles powered the local economy in the 18th and 19th centuries. London was the sole legal entry-point for silk, mainly produced in Italy, and many merchants relocated from the capital to Macclesfield. Mills were built so the silk could be thrown (twisted by hand) and, later, spun, for local weavers to make ribbons, shawls, handkerchiefs and, above all, buttons. An excellent 44-stop town walk (download to see the full map) takes in a silk-maker’s cottage at the top of a 108-step stairway, Paradise Mill and the Silk Museum – formerly a school of art, where designers were trained up for the silk trade. In his 2003 novel Thursbitch, Garner draws on Macclesfield’s heritage to ask this question: “What if silk brought with it all the stories of the Silk Road?”

Local landmarks for a country walk include Shutlingsloe – a spiky summit known as the Matterhorn of Cheshire

The silk industry eventually crashed. In 1839, John Ryle, superintendent of a Macclesfield throwing mill, emigrated to the US and built a huge mill in Paterson, New Jersey. Maxonians rich and poor – perhaps as many as 15,000 – followed in his wake, turning the American town into “Silk City”. Those left behind were more likely to find work at the Hovis Mill, beside the canal, making bread rather than buttons.

To the east of the town lies the Peak District – Buxton is only 10 miles away – reached via a swathe of conifer plantations, reservoirs and moorland known as Macclesfield Forest. Tegg’s Nose is a viewpoint. Other local landmarks (and great names) that connect up for an easy country walk are Shutlingsloe – a spiky summit known as the “Matterhorn of Cheshire” – and Wildboarclough, which, according to legend, was the place where the last wild boar in England was killed. If you’re driving or cycling, the nearby Cat & Fiddle Inn claims to be the site of Britain’s highest distillery.

In 2004, Macclesfield was deemed – by geography thinktank Local Futures Group – the least cultured place in Britain, based on its lack of theatres, cinemas and other cultural facilities. The story was cited all over. The source of it has been taken down, the damage done. What would you prefer in your town – pantos, Marvel films and occasional shows by semi-retired TV “personalities”, or Love Will Tear Us Apart, treacle toffee and silk undies?
Things to see: Jodrell Bank, Silk Museum and Paradise Mill, Macclesfield Canal, Arighi Bianchi furniture shop, Ian Curtis memorial and mural


No man is an island except … you know the rest. The quip was allegedly made, perhaps not for the first time, by Ken Dodd. It’s fitting, as Liverpool has an intimate relationship with this oft-overlooked island: quite literally, as many more people take the ferry from Birkenhead to Belfast than the ones to the Isle of Man. Why do Englanders and Welsh folk, islanders all, blithely ignore their largest lump of sea-encircled undulating greenery? Maybe because the only two things that are routinely reported about it are the TT (Tourist Trophy) race (and its high body count) and the fact that the island is a tax haven and “full of bankers”.

Douglas has a reputation for being stuck in the past. This will – on the evidence of current affairs – probably turn out to be an asset

The governance of the island is eccentric, even for the UK with its mad, bad, sad colonial history. There were Celtic and Norse kings of Mann, with names like Tutagual, Diwg and Ragnall, from the 5th through to the 13th century, at which point the island became a suzerainty of Norway. Like Orcadians, the Manx must get weepily nostalgic on aurora nights. After a brief summer of full independence, the island fell under English rule and from 1405 to 1765 many of the kings, later lords, of Mann were members of the Stanley family – who, as earls of Derby, owned vast lands in Britain and hobnobbed with assorted royals, parliamentarians, bishops and, in more recent times, baboons. As is the way with noble landlords, the Stanleys were infrequent visitors, but James Stanley, the 7th earl and a prominent Royalist, took refuge on the island during the English civil wars. He added to the fortifications at Peel Castle, which, sitting on its own island (once associated with Avalon), served as a safe house, but Douglas, facing east towards England, was militarily important.

In the 19th century, Douglas became the capital and home to the Tynwald, or parliament. As ships became speedier and Liverpool and Lancashire industrialised, Douglas became a busy port and a bathing resort. The Loch Promenade, Villa Marina, Strathallan Crescent, Great Union Camera Obscura, Gaiety Theatre and Opera House – designed by Frank Matcham of London Palladium and Blackpool Tower Ballroom fame – and Sefton Hotel recall the heydays of the seaside town. There’s an excellent downloadable walking leaflet. Three connected Victorian “railways” still operate from April to October. The mile-long Douglas Bay Horse Tramway runs from Villa Marina to Derby Castle, where the Manx Electric Railway takes passengers on to Laxey (17 miles), there to ride on the Snaefell Mountain Railway (5.5 miles) up to the island’s highest point. Before neutering became the norm, a colony of feral Manx cats thrived at the horse-tram stables. They were often observed tackling herring gulls, their longer back legs enabling them to jump fast and far to catch their prey. Manx cats were particularly popular ships’ cats because of a common naval belief that a cat could bring on a storm using magic stored in its tail. No tail, no shipwreck.

Douglas has something of a reputation for being stuck in the past. This will – on the evidence of postmodernity and current affairs – probably turn out to be an asset. But its heritage is not all fusty or dusty. Broadstairs-born architect Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott married Florence Kate Nash, a descendant of the Regency dandy Beau Nash, in 1889. They took their honeymoon on the Isle of Man and stayed for 12 years; Baillie Scott later joked sea sickness on the voyage out made him unable to face another trip across the Irish Sea. He worked at 7 Athol Street and designed his own house on Victoria Road known as the Red House. This and several other buildings in the Arts and Crafts style are still standing.
Things to see: Douglas-to-Peel heritage trail and cycleway, The Manx Museum, Manx Cat Café