(I began writing this last Sunday, before the judgement about compensation for those affected by waste from the British Steel plant was announced. It might now be less necessary to explain where and what Corby is. I haven’t altered what I wrote).
At a loose end this afternoon, I decide to visit Corby.
For those who don’t know, Corby used to be a small village in Northamptonshire, until – in the thirties – a large steelworks was established there and there followed an influx of – mainly Scottish – workers that transformed it into a fairly substantial industrial town. In the fifties it became a New Town and there was more immigration, again mainly from Scotland.
In the late seventies/early eighties the steelworks shut down and the town almost went down with it. Recently it’s been subject to sustained attempts at regeneration : adverts on the tube in London encourage people to move there – as (apparently) does Stephen Fry, in some capacity.
I’ve never been there. My Kettering-based family have generally portrayed it to me as a kind of Wild West boomtown, where you’d expect to walk down the High Street on a Friday night and see drunks being flung out through the swing doors. An uncle who drove a bus on the Kettering to Corby route has an anecdote where he parks his bus for a tea break and finds, when he returns, that the wheels have been stolen.
I’m curious to go there because they’ve recently reopened the disused train line from Kettering to Corby. This is obviously a good thing, and I’m curious to see where the journey takes me. I think I’m expecting to be moving through open countryside, attractive vistas and villages visible along the route. This merely demonstrates the sentimental dreamworld I inhabit.
The journey takes nine minutes. It takes us two or three minutes to get out of the new augmented Kettering (past the horrors of the Prologis Business Park). The next two or three we’re in what seems to be a deep cutting with high trees at the either side. Emerging I spot some houses to the left of us – perhaps a village? – but no, we’re already in Corby. I think there are only three of us on the train, by the way.
Emerging from the station (functional) a signpost points to the Old Village Shopping District (or something like that) to the right, the Town Centre to the left. I head to the right.
You can make out what’s left of the old village – a thatched cottage, some older houses, the church. There are shops, including a Polski smakand a place selling fo0d supplements – mainly, I think, creatine – the concentrated protein that makes you puff up look like a bullfrog if you eat enough of it. A distinguished looking old house – probably the old rectory – is boarded up, labelled as a “construction site”, though what’s being constructed isn’t clear. A small war memorial, with almost as many dead in the second as the first war.
One gravestone in the little churchyard catches my eye –
In memory of John Eno
who died August 17 1861
aged 26 years
I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me
Interesting because of the name (which I’ve rarely come across except in relation to Brian of the same name – believe it’s of Huguenot origin) and the rather elegant and enigmatic epitaph, which I – sentimentally – imagine to have been written by his young widow.
Then head back to the Town Centre. On the way I pass a couple of stereotypes – a young man impressing his girlfriend by turning a can of Lynx deoderant into a flamethrower by lighting the spray with a cigarette lighter, and a youth in a Rangers shirt slaloming his way out of a dodgy-looking pub.
I know nowhere looks its best on a rainy Sunday afternoon, but the town centre (effectively the shopping centre) is pretty raw. Picture the average “clone town” high street, remove anything built before the sixties and the more “aspirational” chains and you’re there. Can’t see a bookshop, record shop, not even a W.H. Smiths. Even the Corby Cafe – voted 3rd best cafe in Britain in 2006 by the Daily Mirror – is shut. I eat lunch in McDonalds. There is a taxi rank outside, doing excellent business, and two teenage girls talk about getting a taxi home.
There is more to the town than this, though. A monument to Workers killed at work, erected by the GMB, where you might expect a war memorial. The Willows Arts Centre is closing down (to be replaced somewhere else) and rehearsals are going on in the foyer for some kind of farewell performance. It’s packed. A new swimming pool has just opened (rather absurdly branded as East Midlands International Pool – are they expecting people to fly in to use it?) – and the queue is out the door and down the street. Go past the pool and (for about 5 minutes) you’re in a thick dark section of the old Rockingham Forest. Come out of that into a park with a boating lake – rough hewn, and I see no boats – but maybe pretty when the sun shines. The whole place has a kind of Soviet frontier-town ambience about it, but – and I could be imagining this – also some sense of a rather old-fashioned kind of solidarity and a hankering after community.
All of this I think I could cope with, but what makes me realise that I wouldn’t last five minutes here is what I see when I decide to take the bus back to Kettering. Mile after mile of newbuilt housing estates. Some offices – accountants and so on – but not a shop to be seen. I now realise why the taxis were doing such good business. A non-driver like myself couldn’t survive here – I’d starve to death. Wikipedia says that Corby has “a car-friendly layout with many areas of open space and woodland“, and now I see what they mean.
And on the on the housing goes. It seems to reach almost as far as my poor old ancestral hunting ground of Geddington and there is only the briefest flash of open country before we’re back at the wretched ProLogis Business Park.
Eventually, I suppose the two will meet up, and Geddington will go the same way as Corby Old Village.
If you’re thinking of moving there, incidentally, don’t let me put you off. Just make sure you know how to drive.