Why The Hell Would Anyone Visit Luton?

By James FitzGerald Last edited 19 months ago
Why The Hell Would Anyone Visit Luton?
Welcome to Luton. Now let's get out of here. Image: Shutterstock

Whether by plane, train, or automobile, the town of Luton has for a long time been good at creating swift ways for you to leave it. There’s the international airport, selling 70-minute flights to Amsterdam. There’s the railway station, offering 23-minute rides to London St Pancras. And, until its closure in 2002, there was the Vauxhall plant, which made seven million cars in its lifetime.

But Luton has not done quite as well at expressing positive reasons why you should come to enjoy its own riches. Vauxhall's exit was a hammer blow for manufacturing jobs in a town which once boasted 1,000 hat factories. The media remembers Luton for its riots; its football hooligans. And when the town was voted the UK's crappiest in 2004, the tourist board must have felt like giving up.

Part of Luton's post-industrial centre

Fast-forward a few years, and we'd heard whisperings of a small creative underbelly working to make this part of Bedfordshire great again. Whether preserving some of the town's finest cultural traditions, or trying to start new ones, these people seem to face great odds — but they are nothing if not a determined bunch. So, off we went to ask them: why should anybody go to Luton?

"We often compare ourselves to where Hackney was 20 years ago"

An as-yet unexploited Victorian factory with Dutch-inspired detailing

The first thing that will strike any good, property-envying Londoner about this town is the unbelievable potential of its old industrial buildings. On Brick Lane, each of these would by now have become a miniature cactus shop or a gelateria selling expensive scoops of nitrogen ice cream.

But you ain't in E1 now, boy. In Luton, the pavements are empty and there's not a flat-white to be smelt. For all of Luton's exciting potential, it may appear at first that the only activity is that of a disembodied hand tugging a scraggly curtain at a second-floor window.

For this is the sort of place that only reveals its best side gradually. You probably won't hear about it until 2030. Its haters look no further than the dual carriageway; the council estate. Few of them seek out the back-alley vinyl shop or the comic book store which hint at a renegade spirit.

Luton's hidden artistic depths reveal themselves gradually

We delve deeper, and find local filmmaker and general creative mind Justin Doherty: one of the first to have sensed a potential goldmine here. He's snapped up an airy former warehouse-cum-garage near the railway station and turned it into a cheerful jazz spot he calls The Bear Club.      

Don't be so shocked. "Luton is the perfect place for a jazz club," Justin explains. "It's a working-class industrial town. Jazz in the British sense is seen as quite middle-class nowadays, but if you think about the social origins of the music in America, Luton is very appropriate."

As it happens, the Bear has appealed to all sorts. Tucked away inside you're as likely to find a jazz nut loyal to 33 Records (based in Luton, it's one of the oldest independent jazz labels around) as a young couple smooching on their first date.

The Bear Club. Courtesy of Justin Doherty

"When you have years and years of people saying to you, 'Luton's a shithole’, it does weigh on you," Justin reflects. "And often the people living here start to feel that way too. But there’s so much going for Luton. I couldn’t have lived my life with such embrace from local people anywhere else."

Luton is closer to London than some bits of London are to other bits of London: even if 'London' Luton Airport is a little optimistically-titled. But nothing costs London prices, and Justin will not be the last entrepreneur to benefit from the lower financial risks of starting a project here.

While his nightspot might seem to be something of voice in the wilderness at the moment, it's the authorities' hope that their latest regeneration work will see even more jazzy-types setting up shop.

"We often compare ourselves to where Hackney was 20 years ago," muses Karen Perkins, the town's cultural director. "There, we saw what happened when arts and culture moved in to a place."

Luton's cultural director, Karen Perkins

Karen has been busy reviving Luton's 'hat district': refurbishing the multi-purpose Hat Factory venue, and providing new spaces for artists to ensure the town has a future cultural scene to complement its heritage offerings. Among those are a cute Victorian museum called Wardown House and, at Stockwood Discovery Centre, the largest collection of horse-drawn carriages in Europe. Who knew?

"My passion for Luton is that it is completely unexpected," says Karen. “It completely goes against everything that the mass media portrays Luton as. It's vibrant, it's energetic, it's challenging.

"Sometimes people here are a bit protective against criticism. They’ll say, 'I'm proud to be Luton; anyone who doesn't like us can go away'. It's kind of like a Millwall football chant. But what I've seen in the last few years is a real opening-up of those doors and people being invited in a lot more."

Rafique plies us with Asian confectionery at Ambala

"There are some people who muck about and cause problems, but it's a friendly place"

Soon, we find ourselves grazing on barfi, a fudge-like Asian sweet, and hearing about life in one of Luton's most interesting wards. Behind the counter in confectionery shop Ambala is Rafique. "People may not come here from all over the world," he tells us, "but all over the country, yes."

The Bury Park suburb is perhaps best known as the home of Kenilworth Road — the current stadium of Luton's historic football club — but it's also a heartland of the town's Asian population.

Luton is a place where white British people are reported to be in a minority. From the perspective of a liberal, multicultural metropolis, the pros of this are pockets of rich diversity likened by some to London's very own Green Lanes. But the town has also been a marching ground for the far-right, who claim to speak for those who feel alienated by immigration and social change.

Whether you like it or not, this part of town is somewhere people are actually out and about, talking to one another. There's a similar vibe to be found in Luton's messy yet endearing indoor market.

'Indian tapas'

For Rafique, Bury Park is not perfect. "There are some rough people here who muck about and cause problems," he tells us. But it's got all the qualities of an area that many people have called home for generations. "I was born in Bangladesh and came here at age one. It's a very friendly area."

It's no surprise there's a culinary mash-up or two to be had in Luton. Lunch is 'Indian tapas' at Papa J's, which calls itself the first restaurant of its kind, pre-dating Dishoom in London. A cynic might say you can call anything tapas if you put it on a little plate, but we find the place pleasantly earnest.

"Luton is on the brink of an absolute rebirth"

Less talked-about than Luton’s Asian community is its Caribbean community, but it's to this latter group that the town owes much of its present fame. The one-day carnival each May is described as the largest of its kind in the country, and has been running since the 1970s.

"Luton is on the brink of an absolute rebirth," enthuses the artistic director Clary Salandy, who points to the event’s 25,000 attendees and good vibes as evidence of Luton's strong integration. She says the spectacle is a rebuke to far-right troublemakers from 'outside of Luton'.

Luton Carnival. Courtesy of Clary Salandy

What's more, she says, it beats your annual Notting Hill piss-up. "It’s not crowded like London; you won't get all the police like you get in London. It’s a completely different kind of event. One might call the Notting Hill Carnival an adult form of entertainment, whereas Luton is family entertainment.”

For those craving a few hours of papier mâché, or simply the chance to become embalmed in a sticky mess of PVA glue and feathers, it's possible to attend a workshop in costume-making or float-building in the weeks leading up to the carnival. These are courtesy of the national carnival arts centre, which calls this part of Bedfordshire its home. We’ll say it again: who knew?

"You can't trade on what a place used to be like," insists Clary. "You need to come and find out what it's like now. And there have been huge changes here. Yes, London has so many attractions - but they're kind of set. How many years has The Lion King been in the West End for?"

"All it takes is one car accident, one injury, one heart attack, and this is ended"

One of the last of the Mohicans: Alan Davies

There have been changes in Luton alright, but not to everyone's liking. This much we learn from Alan Davies, one of the last of the metaphorical Mohicans in the near-extinct Bedfordshire hat industry.

"This town used to be rammed with people who could create stuff," he says, puffing mounds of dust off his shoulders when we meet in his factory. "Luton created itself off the back of the hat trade and the motor trade. But it's lost its skillset. Now, it's not known for anything apart from an airport."

His firm, Boon & Lane, has manufactured bespoke wooden and aluminium hatmaking blocks ('moulds' if you like) from the same site for over 50 years. Business was booming as recently as the 1980s thanks to the hat-wearing influence wielded by Princess Diana — a former client.

Whether with brazing torch or with chisel, every last thing in here is done by hand tools. These four crumbling walls are an extraordinary embodiment of British craftsmanship.

Globalisation and the rogue practices of department-store buying teams gradually decimated the nation's hatmakers. But thanks to a tiny vanguard of blockmakers, fabricmakers, and milliners, Luton remains somewhere it's possible for you to witness every last stage of the hat industry. For now.

"It's very fragile," warns Alan. "There's only two of us left in this building doing what we do. All it takes is one car accident, one injury, one heart attack, and this is ended."

"Back in the 1920s, there were Bolsheviks living here. It's always been the sort of Islington of Luton"

Hat-maker Philip Wright in his factory

Philip Wright is another of those still flying the flag for British-made headwear. This self-styled 'mad hatter' comes from a centuries-old bloodline of milliners, and he claims to be unique among Luton's surviving hat-makers because he's the only one who actually wears a hat.

"Luton as an industrial town has always attracted the bohemian," he says, putting his eccentricities into context. "This area for example — High Town — back in the 1920s, there were Bolsheviks living here. It's always been the sort of Islington of Luton. It hasn't quite aspired to Upper Street yet."

The rambling warren of buildings in which he and his four staff work can be visited by appointment, and if you ask nicely, the team might even make you a hat to order while you wait. Wow.

Philip likes to offer a highly personal service in an age of mass hat-wearing ignorance. "The high street has basically got shit now because they don't employ sales advisors," he grumbles. "They hang these hats up like drying kippers and people will put them on wrong."  

If his straight-talking gets him in trouble now and then (as it did when he clashed with Princess Anne's dresser), then so much better for the repertoire of stories Philip likes to regale customers with.

Hat-making, he insists, is a labour of love and certainly not a profitable business. He issues a sobering warning that we are witnessing the 'final demise' of the British hat trade.

Mural in the old hat-making district
Inside Philip Wright's showroom

Visit Luton to see a place in a delicate state of flux. Go and see its mad hatter, eat Asian sweets, and get merry in its jazz bar. Reflect on its lost past, but urge it in a healthy new direction that resists the steady blandification of wall-to-wall Pret A Manger and Nando's.

'London' Luton Airport will soon be on the Oyster system, and it’s only a matter of time before the EDL protestors are marched out of town by waves of estate agents and the pushchairs of cityfolk craving slightly bigger kitchens and a whole room for drying their washing in.

When that day of reckoning comes, maybe — just maybe — the web designer sitting in the former brick warehouse will close his laptop for a moment and imagine a lost town of 1,000 hat factories. Oil-smeared folk building the last ever Vauxhall here. Luton's Muslims enduring hate-speech; Luton's football fans enduring relegation after relegation. Whole lives lived in a town which built itself then came to despise itself, before changing immeasurably.

Luton — that place which makes it so easy for you to leave — has not arrived yet. Nor will it for a while. But there is change afoot, and for now at least, every bit of its current imperfect self is still there to be seen.

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Last Updated 01 February 2019