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, compared to £722,000 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 centre, 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 – 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, a bit 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 10PM 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 distances involved in Richard's trade as a black cab driver have 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."
It's hard to see what the commuters are bringing to the area. Their presence raises the price of rented accommodation, and then it seems like they just fuck off somewhere else when they're done sleeping. According to the locals I spoke to, they don't go out, they don't use the area's facilities and they don't eat in its restaurants. Obviously you'd expect those who've been here longer to say that, out of bitterness. But Nicky and Richard didn't seem especially angry at the commuters, just resigned to the situation in which they and the town find themselves.
"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."
Places like Wellingborough are becoming London's commuter bunkhouses. As more and more people are priced out of the capital, these towns – quiet rows of houses seemingly devoid of industry or communal entertainment – are being bought up and used by people who just want a place to sleep.
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 the economics involved make it nigh on impossible. They are stuck there – some by choice, of course, but others out of 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."
No doubt some people will take issue with the way I've reported on Wellingborough, and I'm sure for many it's an idyll, a haven, a place to be proud of and fight for. I could never expect to get a full and comprehensive picture of this pocket of England from a day's worth of time there though, and so to me Wellingborough isn't a town to attack, more of a question to ponder: How do you solve a problem like Wellingborough? What happens to suburban towns when no one there wants to live in them?
Pricing existing residents out of their area, bringing nothing with you when you come and leaving nothing behind but inflated rent prices, doesn't really seem to be the answer. But when has that ever made any difference?