Northampton – Historic Sites

Mum&Dadwedding

I was back in England last month, to be with my parents as they celebrated their 65th Wedding Anniversary.

A 65th (Sapphire) Anniversary is quite a rare achievement – only 1% of couples stay married and alive that long – and Mum and Dad received a card from the Queen to mark the occasion (the Queen and Prince Philip celebrated their own 65th a couple of years ago).

Congratulations to my parents and we look forward to their 70th anniversary.

We were staying near the ancient town of Northampton, centrally located in the heart of England.

The town is best known for its shoe industry. In the 1830’s around a third of the male population were engaged in shoe making (hence the nickname of the town’s football team, Cobblers). That industry is virtually all gone now – one or two up-market brands survive such as Church’s, but the old factories are nearly all demolished or converted into flats or offices.

The town has successfully reinvented itself as a services and distribution hub and the southern half of the county currently enjoys the second lowest unemployment rate in Britain.

The town of Northampton is not especially renowned for its historic sites (thought the county of Northamptonshire has many) but a few gems exist and are worth a visit.

St Peter's Church, Northampton

St. Peter’s Church

St. Peter’s is reckoned to be the finest Norman church in the county and erected around 1170 by Simon de St.Liz (Senlis), first Norman Earl of Northampton, on the site of an earlier Saxon church. The fine two-tone banded stonework on the exterior and on the interior arches is a particular feature and reminiscent of Moorish architecture (perhaps an early Crusader brought back the idea from the Middle East). The church marks the location of the original Saxon settlement of Hamtun from which the town developed.

Anglo Saxon Grave Slab, St Peter's Church, Northampton

Displayed inside the church is this fine Anglo-Saxon grave slab, which was possibly the tomb lid of St. Ragener, a soldier who died in 870 fighting the pagan Vikings, for which he was awarded sainthood. Yes, Northampton even has its own saint! The slab depicts the face of the Green Man entwined in foliage and various animals and birds.

When this grave was discovered beneath the floor of the old Saxon church it was said to have helped a crippled woman to walk and performed other miracles. Impressed by this, King Edward the Confessor had a gold and jewel encrusted shrine erected here for the Saint. Sadly no trace of the precious shrine remains.

Hazelrigg House

Hazelrigg House, Northampton

This well preserved example of Elizabethan architecture is located close to St. Peter’s on Marefair. The building is thought to date from around 1570, with later additions. It is one of the few houses to have survived the Great Fire of Northampton in 1675. Folklore has it that Oliver Cromwell stayed here on the eve of the Battle of Naseby in June 1645. The town was known to have sympathies with the Parliamentarian side in the English Civil War and provided several thousand pairs of boots to Oliver Cromwell’s roundhead army, for which the makers never received payment. After restoration of the monarchy King Charles II punished the town by pulling down its castle and walls.

Guildhall

Northampton Guildhall

A much newer landmark is the Guildhall built in 1864 in imposing Victorian Gothic architectural style. They were holding a vintage fair during our visit so we were able to get a peek inside. The main hall is decorated with stain glass windows and portraits of British Kings and Queens (and that man Cromwell again!).

Church of All Saints

All Saints Church, Northampton

In the centre of town is All Saints which was built in 1680 following the Great Fire. Charles II supplied the timber and stone for its construction (perhaps feeling guilty about demolishing the castle?). In gratitude the townsfolk erected a statue of the king above the portico from where he has a good view of McDonalds but, as a snub, he is depicted wearing a Roman skirt tunic, which, together with his long hair, makes him look rather effeminate. Obviously the locals were still smarting over supporting the losing side in the Civil War.

Market Square

Market Square, Northampton

Talking of Romans, it was they who are said to have laid out the town’s market square and used it a marshalling point for distributing supplies to their forces around the region. Even those days the town’s strategic location was recognised as a logistics hub.

Today the Market Square is reputed to be the largest fully enclosed market square in England and many of its surrounding buildings have retained their historic old world charm. There are said to be secret tunnels running underneath the square.

78 Derngate, Northampton

78Derngate

78 Derngate is the name, and address, of an interesting little museum in Northampton showcasing the work of two famous men, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and Wenman Joseph Bassett-Lowke.

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Bassett-Lowke (1877-1953) owned and lived in 78 Derngate which is an elegant Georgian townhouse built in 1820 and now a grade II listed building.

BassetLowke

He was a Northampton man who founded the firm Bassett-Lowke which, from around 1900 to 1965, was probably the most famous model making brand in the world, specialising in model railways, waterline ship models and model engineering equipment of outstanding quality.

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Bassett-Lowke Ltd was the brand but manufacturing was contracted out to firms like Twining Models and Winteringham’s, both Northampton manufacturers now sadly no more.

Bassett-Lowke models were always highly priced and out of reach of the average kid who would be more familiar with makes like Hornby. The firm went bust in 1965 but the brand name was later revived and is now owned by Corgi, who sell their high end model trains under that name at prices like £619 for a single locomotive model.

Of course the original old models are very valuable and highly sought after by collectors. Even Bassett-Lowke’s old mail order catalogues such as those below can sell for upwards of £300, which is more evidence for why you should never throw anything away!

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Besides running his model business, Bassett-Lowke was very interested in design and in 1916 he commissioned the famous architect, artist and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) to completely refashion his Derngate house. The results of this dramatic remodelling can now be seen by the public at 78 Derngate. The charitable trust behind the museum spent around £1.4million on faithfully restoring the property to how it must have looked when Mackintosh completed his work.

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One of the more striking rooms, though not really my cup of tea, is the bedroom with its striped wall and ceiling.  Apparently George Bernard Shaw, who was a friend of Bassett-Lowke and shared his Fabian socialist politics, stayed in this room. When asked whether the decor would affect his sleep he replied no because he slept with his eyes closed. Incidentally, Bassett-Lowke produced a Bernard Shaw figurine as an ‘O’ scale model railway platform accessory.

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Charles Rennie Mackintosh

78 Derngate was Mackintosh’s last major commission and the only house he designed in England though of course many more examples of his work and career can be found in his home town of Glasgow.

Mackintosh must have been a brave man to walk around Glasgow with a tie like that! Perhaps his dress sense was a factor in his decision in later life to move to Port Vendres in southern France, close to the border with Spain. Here he was able to devote more time to his other talents as an artist.

La Rue de Soleil, Port Vendres 1926

More information on 78 Derngate can be obtained from the museum’s website.

78 Derngate, Northampton