Twenty five years ago I visited a town in Poland called Starachowice. Since WW2 it had been a town that produced trucks – Star Trucks – and almost nothing else. When I visited, in the early 90s, the factory had closed and unemployment was through the roof. The town felt lost, abandoned, the populace shocked and confused. Even today, the town receives special economic privileges, still reeling from the loss of its industrial heart.

It’s not just in planned economies that towns specialise, and ultimately pay the price. Northampton, which I visited this week, was a town of cobblers, and something about it put me in mind of Starachowice.

How or why a town organically comes to specialise in a particular industry without Communist central control, I don’t know, but Northampton made shoes and boots, enjoying a boom that lasted from the Napoleonic Wars until demand died away between the world wars. And even though its main industry pretty much died away decades ago, there is a feeling about some parts of the town – not all, but definitely some – that it’s still a bit lost to itself, somehow not entirely sure what it’s for now, like an old soldier sat in the corner of the pub, ignored because nobody wants to hear his stories anymore.

Echoes of Northampton’s past as a town of shoemakers abound in the tangle of streets where I’m staying this week, from the abandoned factories, like Waukerz Boot Factory- an oddly punk name in 19th century stonework…


…to the house names…


…to this tile, randomly stuck halfway up a wall – a small, oddly formal piece of street art proudly, obliquely, reminding passersby that although most Doc Martens are now made in China, Vintage 1460s are still made in Northampton…


… to the rotting premises of G. T. Hawkins Ltd, by appointment to Her Majesty The Queen, Riding Footwear Manufacturers. By the door is a sign reading ‘Vacancies for’ with slots underneath to slide in cards reading ‘Cobbler’ or ‘Tanner’ etc. Evidence that perhaps Hawkins outlived most competitors. Last cobbler standing.