Well worth protecting

The loss of Northampton's historic buildings is a subject close to the hearts of many people, yet recent decades have seen the neglect and demolition of a host of the town's heritage properties.

But members of a new group known as the Northampton Heritage Action Group (NHAG) are now hoping to stop the damage by drawing up an official register of historically important buildings and open spaces.

The idea is that this list of properties would then be passed to Northampton Borough Council and made accessible to the public, in a bid to help prevent the destruction of any more important heritage buildings.

NHAG was kickstarted earlier this year when history enthusiasts were left appalled by the demolition of both St Mark's Church in Green Street and the nearby Malthouse, a 19th century former brewery malting in St Peter's Way.

And, in recent weeks, the news of still more old buildings under threat have hit the headlines, notably in the Chronicle & Echo's report about a fight to save the former Sunlight Laundry in Grafton Street from being knocked down.

This week, NHAG members Val Knowles and Kate Wills gave the Chron a brief tour around Northampton town centre to point out some of the historical treasures which they hope will be highlighted on their register of sites.

Mrs Knowles, NHAG secretary, said: "Personally I don't want to see any more of Northampton destroyed. We feel the heart has been knocked out of Northampton in the '60s and '70s and it is continuing."

Mrs Wills said the level of destruction and the appointment of a Government quango – the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation (WNDC) – to oversee planning matters had meant that local people have the sense that certain developments will inevitably be carried out.

She said: "There is a lot of fatalism among the town's folk that everything is a done deal, but a lot of Northamptonians feel very passionate about it."

Although some may say there is little left of historical Northampton to protect, my tour with Mrs Knowles and Mrs Wills revealed the historical gems of Northampton which could slip by unnoticed.

Starting at Hawkins Factory, in St Michael's Road, The Mounts, we examined the sad-looking, boarded up exterior of one of the town's best known former boot and shoe industry sites.

The site sparked safety fears in September when renovators found major structural damage within the building. Now listed, the plan has begun to transform the building into apartments.

Mrs Wills said she would like to see this being made into flats or, failing that, a new museum to house items from the town's shoe-making past. This, she commented, would free up the Guildhall Road museum to tell the rest of the town's story.

"Hawkins was one of the most prominent shoe manufacturers in Northampton and I believe one of their main products was Army boots. They serviced the army in both world wars," she added.

Our tour then took us to a nuns' burial ground, the resting place of former staff members at the demolished Notre Dame School. Just a row of unnamed crosses now runs along a stretch of grass in Notre Dame Mews in the town centre.

Moving on to Kingswell Street, the women identified the current Lowdown building as an important landmark. The building is the site of the former Beckett and Sargeant Charity School of 1862.

Mrs Knowles said: "It was a charity school run by Miss Beckett and Miss Sargeant who provided education before state provision was granted.

This was one of the many charitable efforts to give girls a grounding in reading and writing."

A wander down Castilian Street took us to the old Memorial Hall.

This turreted, fairytale castle-style building is believed to have been built in 1919.

Kate commented: "This was built by the Taylor family in memory of their son, who fell in the Great War. As well as being a building of great character, it is also a war memorial."

The building was handed over to the YWCA.

These buildings are just a few that the NHAG members hope will make it onto their heritage list to be preserved and protected in the future.

Mrs Wills said: "We would like to present the list to the borough council and local libraries and make it available to the public.

We would also welcome suggestions from anyone who is interested in Northampton."

She added: "There ought to be some sort of central way in which we can flag up works that are planned, otherwise we might only know about things when it is too late."

The NHAG members also expressed fears over the powers of the unelected WNDC over heritage buildings.

Problems seem to be emerging from the creation of a modern expanding town – which is expected to attract thousands of new residents in the future – and its identity as a traditional market town.

Mrs Knowles said: "I have got a saying, that if you care for the past and conserve what you have got, you will have a future."

The NHAG believes that historically important buildings and open spaces should be used and saved.

Mrs Wills added: "What is notable is the old buildings were based on a sense of optimism and grandeur.

There was a local pride but there is no pride in building nowadays. We build for functionality and a balance sheet."