Where tourists rarely walk, part 2: five major UK cities excluded from guidebooks | UK bank holidays

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Cumbernauld

In the 1996 essay Tierra del Fuego – New York, French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard juxtaposes Ushuaia with Manhattan. “After the ends of the earth, the center of the earth,” he writes. “But each gives the impression of being on another planet.” The United Kingdom’s forgotten cities have an analogous relationship with its famous and overly touristy towns. They copy big city retail concepts, but fail. They imitate tourist honeypots but cannot deliver the goods. Many less-loved places are botched simulacra of London, yet exist in opposition to it – for the capital’s prosperity is rooted in their shattered dreams, dashed hopes, depleted retail businesses and vanished services. Scotland is the Tierra del Fuego of the United Kingdom and has many Ushuaias. Ayr, Stranraer, Thurso and Montrose are all referred to as “ends of the earth”. But Cumbernauld, even more than these, found himself the butt of nasty jokes, devious fake prices and general bashing for half a century.

Cumbernauld’s “Alien’s Head” building is about to be demolished. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

As a new city, it has never had the ironic allure of Milton Keynes, yet its megastructure has a brash musculature that knocks out the competition.

Designed in the 1950s, it rightly lays claim to being the UK’s first shopping center and “the world’s first multi-level covered town centre”, but is slated for demolition. Called the Alien’s Head by some, it divides the city even more than the motorway, the M80, which pierces its heart, and was built “between 1972 and 2011”. The tourist offices invite us to take a stroll through the leafy grounds of Palacerigg or the museum, which in turn points visitors to the Antonine Wall – the turf fortification built by the Romans between the Firth of Forth and the Firth of Clyde. But it is not necessary to take the bait.

If you want to wrap yourself in the central belt – both Scotland’s most populated region and, for outsiders, the most forgotten, most traveled and least clichéd of the land of Burns’ “haggis” – take a walk – you in the cold concrete and cracked sidewalks of Cumbernauld.

Grantham

St Wulfram's Church, Grantham.
St Wulfram’s Church, Grantham. Photography: Travelib Prime/Alamy

Lincolnshire is best defined by misses and absences. It has none of the barge beauty of East Anglia. It’s too east to be in the East Midlands, too south to be north. It is ostensibly flat, the grandeur of Lincoln Cathedral being due in large part to the surrounding flatness. Grantham, too, is handsome. On the Great North Road and East Coast Main Line, it is nevertheless utterly ignorant, belonging to that strip of satisfying and functional English towns (Aldershot, Colne, Kenilworth, Wokingham, etc.) that the travel industries and recreation avoided. But in the never-ending post-Thatcher era, all Britons should make a reflective visit to Grantham, just as China’s ‘red tourists’ take the Mao Trail. For here is a museum displaying the Prime Minister’s lumpy bed, school hockey stick and copy of Handel’s Messiah score, the Victorian Guildhall where his father was mayor in the 1940s, and his place of born at the corner of Broad Street and North Parade. It was, famously, his father Alf Roberts’ grocery store, but later became a restaurant (the menu included Chicken Supreme Margaret) and is now “a chiropractic clinic and holistic retreat” where you can have hot needles stuck into you while lying exactly where young Maggie dreamed of monetarism, layoffs, and hot dates with Adam Smith.

Stroll through the airy center of town, with its solid buildings and the statue of Isaac Newton, and you’ll sense that Thatcher probably envisioned Grantham as a model to be replicated across the country. Does the town love its most famous girl? The plate on the wall of the old grocery store is really very small. A 10-foot plinth on St. Peter’s Hill awaits a statue of the Iron Lady commissioned three years ago. In February 2021, local sculptor Mark Robla gifted the city with a plaster head of Maggie on a spike made from office chairs, sticking out of a handbag. The official effigy is expected to be unveiled later this year. Stanley in the Falklands has exhibited a bust of its savior since 2015.

Leigh

Leigh Library at the Turnpike Center.
Leigh Library at the Turnpike Center. Photograph: Tom Morris/Alamy

Hard to locate in the mega-sprawl of Greater Manchester and, when found, still lost in time, Leigh exudes the particular sadness of once-proud mining towns. In 1828 the first passenger railway in Lancashire (note, Liverpool, Manchester) was laid between Bolton and Leigh; the town has had no trains since Beeching removed the last track in 1969. Leigh was politically annexed by Wigan in the 1974 borders debacle. The once mighty textile industry frayed decades ago (the glorious Spinners Mill is on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register). Not even rugby league is a source of comfort: the Leigh Centurions have never managed to extend their stay in the Super League beyond a season. At first glance the Bradshawgate pedestrian street looks like your usual post-Amazon high street, all low-end/empty shops in shabby post-war shrouds, but look up and you’ll see remnants of the late 1900s. Victorian and Edwardian Leigh by local architectural hero James Caldwell Prestwich ( 1852-1940).

The grand, mostly red-brick buildings need saving, but Prestwich’s Leigh Friendly Co-operative Building is bold and confident, while its Baroque Town Hall, with an ornamental cupola and stained glass windows depicting the industries of the city, is a masterpiece. Inside the entrance is a museum where you will learn that the people of Leigh are known as “lobby gobblers”, referring to a stew made by putting whatever is available in a pot, and to distinguish them from Wigan’s “pie eaters”; that indigenous heroes include Ian McKellen and Georgie Fame; and that Tom Burke, a miner born in 1890, had an unlikely career as an opera singer, met Puccini, performed alongside Nellie Melba at Covent Garden and was nicknamed the ‘Lancashire Caruso’.

Opposite City Hall is the brutalist Turnpike Centre, AKA Leigh Library, built in 1971 by architectural firm JC Prestwich & Sons, no less. The large geometric relief, cast in concrete, is by William Mitchell, who provided abstract ornaments for Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral and Birmingham’s Quayside Tower. Leigh has a branch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal and a link to the Bridgewater Canal. Follow the latter towpath to the Lancashire Mine Museum at Astley Green, the resting place of the last remaining winding machines and headgear from the Lancashire coalfield. Another highly valued mining legacy is Pennington Flash, a small lagoon formed by subsidence; bream, perch, roach, rudd, tench, pike and a few large carp haunt its seedy bottoms. Non-fishermen can stretch their legs in the surrounding natural park.

Guilford

An empty street in Guilford, Surrey
Photography: PA Images/Alamy

A Welsh hotelier once told me that the key to selling premium accommodation was to nail the “Gee-you” market. I had no idea what he was talking about until he explained to me that he was referring to the GU zip code. ‘Over half of our customers are from or near Guildford,’ he said. “They have the money and they are close to the highway.” Invert the socio-economy and descend on a city referred to by many as a boring dormitory as death. Guildford has the kind of stuff you’d expect: castle, museum, high street, SUVs. But most surprising are Hinemihi, a wooden Maori meeting house shipped here from New Zealand’s North Island in 1892, and the remains of one of Western Europe’s oldest synagogues – built in 1180 and buried under the ground of Waterstones. The dark and austere neo-Gothic cathedral was featured in the 1976 film The Omen.

Guildford is superbly well connected, with three main lines converging here, express services to London (32 minutes, stopping once at Woking), buses to Heathrow and a train to Gatwick. Before the pandemic, there was a direct train to Newcastle. The 153-mile North Downs Way, which has its eastern end at nearby Farnham, passes through Guildford on the old Pilgrim’s Way. As GU-ers would expect, the AONB slopes of the Surrey Hills are always gentle and many are covered in Chardonnay vines.

runcorn

Silver Jubilee Bridge, Runcorn
Photograph: Mark Waugh/Alamy

For millions of Lancastrians, Cestrians, Mancunians and suburban Scousers, Runcorn is a symbol of sunshine, freedom and hope. Since its erection in 1961, Runcorn Bridge (later officially renamed the Silver Jubilee Bridge) was the only way to cross the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal into North Wales. From there the journey to Colwyn Bay, Rhyl and Llandudno was a hazy, happy and heady blur, with even the traffic jams on the old A55. The Parallel Rail Bridge, a dull, spanless affair, offers comparable success to the carless one. Since 2017, the vast Mersey Footbridge has given the estuary location its own Golden Gate. Cynics might say all this transit talk is what Runcorn deserves, but it’s time for beach travelers to stop and take a look around Runcorn. For there, in the shadow of the bridge, lie the remains of the Old New Town, envisioned by Arthur Ling in 1964, with cutting-edge neighborhoods like Castlefields, hailed at the time as “the future of sustainable life”. , and the modernist Southgate Estate, with its portholes, designed by James Stirling.

The demolition razed much of the utopian dream, but the memory lingers in the maze of Bauhaus-esque cul-de-sacs and terraces. The dedicated 12-mile Busway, with its ‘stations’ and elevated section at Shopping City (designed by Fred Roche of Milton Keynes fame), can be visited with buses numbers 1 and 2. Runcorn burgermeisters chose so far to only list ancient sites like Norton Priory (Grade 1) – famous for its statue of St Christopher – and 18th century Bridgewater House (the Duke’s pad when the canal linking Runcorn, Manchester and Leigh was in construction). Although they are venerable monuments, the last vestiges of the new city also deserve some protection. Paths along the canals and Weaver Navigation provide escape routes out of Runcorn, but urban geographers will prefer to cross the bridge, watching the beloved swirl of sandbar and stream birds, the weather and the waves , which make Runcorn Gap an ever-changing place. Turner’s masterpiece, before diving into Widnes, the chemical capital of Lancashire.

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