This article originally appeared on VICE UK
According to the Guardian, the town of Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, is now the cheapest place for London's legions of commuters to live. A study of commuter towns by Lloyds Bank showed that the average home price in Wellingborough was £160,245 [$250,000], compared to £722,000 [$1,127,000] in central London.
The town is an hour's commute from King's Cross station, and beats nearby Kettering, Peterborough, Swindon, and Luton when it comes to offering relatively cheap places to crawl back to on a stinking train in order to get six torturous hours of sleep each night.
But is it only the low prices that make Wellingborough an attractive proposition to metropolitan ex-pats, or does the town have something else up its sleeve? What else can this place, an apparent haven for exiled desk heads, offer to new denizens? And, more importantly, what can those new denizens offer Wellingborough?
After following a short, tree-lined street to the town center, I came across a shopping mall where a "Roaming Reptile Show" was taking place, crowded with kids excited by snakes and spiders and the like. One of the children crudely asked the handler if he ever kills any of the snakes. As you can probably tell from the photo above, he looked quite confused and upset by this.
Adjacent to the reptile show was a face-painting stall. This small corner of the mall was quite sweet, filled with children clapping and smiling and laughing. But the rest of the L-shaped alley of empty shops was—to me, a newcomer unaware of any of their potentially endearing traits—incredibly depressing.
I'd thought that, seeing as it's summer, the mall might be full of teens mucking about; skateboarding, smoking, spitting balled up bits of paper through McDonald's straws at the elderly. Instead, it was grey and depressing, like Albert Fish.
There are an inordinate amount of tattoo shops in Wellingborough, including this one. It was the busiest shop on the high street other than Bargain Booze.
I'm not trying to paint Wellingborough as some kind of nightmarish hole here, a lifeless town where good people are trying their very best to be happy in the face of the crushing bleakness of their surroundings; it just genuinely appeared—the day I visited, at least—to be quite a lot like that.
I walked up the street from Bargain Booze and spotted a shop called Creepy Crawlies. It was an exotic pet shop, and inside was the proprietor, Amy, and yet more snakes. I asked Amy if she'd noticed a recent influx of commuters to the area.
"The roads are certainly busy with people coming in from wherever they've been working," she said. "They live here because it's cheaper."
They must go out a bit at night, though, right? They don't just hole up in their rooms straight after work? "To be honest, there's not a huge amount to do in Wellingborough," said Amy. "That's why you find a lot of people leave here to go to different [areas of] nightlife. For example, in Northampton, after 10 PM you can still buy fruit and vegetables in certain places. But this place just shuts down."
There was another man in the store who agreed about the lack of nightlife. I asked him what he did; he said he didn't work and that he just hung out in Creepy Crawlies a lot of the time.
Up the road we came across a pub called The Rising Sun, so I decided to whet my whistle. The pub, in all honesty, was excellent. It was a real sports pub, a place you could imagine future darts pros cutting their teeth. It was quiet, which I later found out was because they have a stricter door policy than Berghain.
After a game of pool, I got talking to two men called Nicky and Richard. Richard was a cab driver in London, and Nicky was a cab driver in Wellingborough. They both lived locally and considered The Rising Sun to be their local.
While Nicky manages to keep his head above water locally, the trade and distance for Richard as a black cab driver has been devastating.
"I moved up here eight or nine years ago," he said. "I'm a London cab driver, and I've gone backwards and forwards trying to commute, trying to do nights, trying to do days. It's just that little bit too far. I would work at Heathrow, sleep in the cab for a few days, then come back here. And that very fact, that I had to commute—specifically because the train's far too expensive as well—destroyed my family, destroyed my marriage, destroyed everything. So if there was work you could do round here, or if there was any alternative, I would be doing it by now, I promise you that. But I still have to drive the cab in London because there's no alternative."
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He told me that the disappearance of industry in the area has torn a hole in the community: "All the textiles have gone, all the shoe-making factories have gone. Have a look round—you'll see more closed factories in this town than any other."
The commuters, of course, aren't bringing anything to the area. If anything, they just raise the prices of rented accommodation, then fuck off somewhere else when they're done sleeping. They don't go out, they don't use the area's facilities and they don't eat in its restaurants.
"They're moving into the area, and some of the houses they're in—you know, bless them—but they're nice houses, and it's not Wellingborough money buying it," said Nicky. "I'm not saying everything's being taken up by commuters, but a large amount of it is. You can see them."
Places like Wellingborough are becoming London's bunkhouses. As more and more people are priced out of the capital, these towns—quiet rows of houses devoid of industry or entertainment—are being bought up and used by people who just want a place to sleep. Not a luxury, by any means, but a phenomenon that isn't really affecting Wellingborough adversely or positively.
Wellingborough has been a dead town for longer than the London housing crisis has existed. The last cinema in the area shut down ten years ago, Nicky told me. Restaurants are closing, reopening, closing, and reopening again. It's an endless, morose cycle that the people of the area are expected to emancipate themselves from, but of course can't, because it's nigh on impossible. They are stuck there—some of them by choice, of course, but others out of economic necessity.
"I'm looking forward to the summer so much, just for the fact that when the beautiful weather's out, you just drive round the streets and you see more and more people smiling, for no reason at all," said Nicky. "They just are. They're smiling 'cos of the weather—probably don't even know they're smiling. That's not to say they ain't got no problems, or they ain't the same person they was in the winter. See, there's not a lot that goes on in this town."
Wellingborough is less of a town, more of a question: How do you solve a problem like this? These places – places with no industry, no jobs, no nothing – how do you fix these rusty, leaking pipes?
Pricing existing residents out of their area, bringing nothing with you when you come and leaving nothing but inflated rent prices behind, doesn't really seem to be the answer. But when has that ever made any difference?