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Northampton's Guild Hall is by far the town's most attractive building. It's a cracker; a Neo - Gothic pile that wows the town centre like Ayres Rock does the Outback. It's a striking building and in pristine condition, mainly because it's the town hall and all the bigwigs are housed there and so keep it spic and span to reflect their authority. If a pigeon sh*ts on it the scaffold is up ten minutes later to clear it away. If you ask them inside for somewhere to live and you're not Polish or an immigrant then forget it.
Its need to be seen recently garnered criticism as, whilst one in every two street lights were being turned off to save money across the county, the Guild Hall was lit up like Las Vegas to proudly illuminate it some more at night, a consistent waste with all council buildings, and indeed retail and office space for some reason. That energy bill must be huge for business. Turn the bloody lights off!
Built in the 1860s by young architect Edward William Godwin it's now used by the council to not only conduct their normal business of paying council tax and rents etc and storing records and for weddings and civic events... The council chamber is as grand as you would expect with all the regalia and both types of showy masonry decorating the chamber. It did have a courthouse but that bit now council halls for meetings and events. It has an extensive basement where the birth, deaths and marriage certificates are kept and there are rusting jail cells. There is also a secret stairway to a hidden room in the attic where few people have been, accept me, of course. I did a temp job there and had a peep in my lunch hour. Alas, there were no piles of 'unregistered' expenses forms for the greedy councilors or Fox Molder up there with his X-files but just boxes of office stationary and shelf fittings. A cool place to hide though. Another mysteries hiding place are the ancient tunnels and vaults under the town centre, mostly used to link the old crypts of the neighboring Churches, even rumored as far as Delapre Abbey, an absurd claim as the guys would have to tunnel under the River Nene. Its rumoured/myth/nonesense that Sir Thomas A Becket fled from the now ruin of Northampton Castle in 1164 to the All Saints church in the town centre along such a tunnel to prepare to flee to France after refusing to sign decrees to cut ties with Rome and curb the power of the Church in general. Northampton Castle was once the countries parliament no less for some 200 years, sharing the job with the capital. But the tunnels are but old cellars say the authorities. I have called in the Time Team to investigate. They have yet to reply.
As the town has grown so has the building, a modern extensions slowly doubling the size in the 1990s, but done in away to maintain its integrity. A memorial to Princess Diana was added in 1989 purely to get her to show up and open it, which she didn't, and another more important one for Northampton MP Spencer Percival, the only serving British Prime Minster to be assassinated. The friend of the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie) was gunned down by a noisy blunderbuss in the House of Commons in May 1812 by a merchant with a grudge, John Bellingham. A Diana memorial plaque went up in 2002 and she didn't attend that either, her dreadful freeloading brother there instead. Other notable Northampton people not to get a plaque of sorts are comic writer Alan Moore, Jeffrey from Rainbow, Des O'Conner and Faye Tozer (pronounced tosser) from Steps (the straight sexy one on the end).
You are not allowed on any sort of tours into the non public bits although they used to do a yearly one though some organization or other. When I was there I was there I was helping to build a filing system for the new Eastern European families and migrants moving to the town. This storage space has since trebled, some 100,000 coming or going in the last ten years. Baring in mind the town has a population of just over 240,00 you can see the stress and strains that ahs on services although yours truly one of the few people who thinks the Poles are great for the town and, indeed, argued the case that Northampton should officially support Poland in the European Championships. My request in the Town Hall meeting did not go down well.
Northampton Guildhall is one of the most attractive buildings in this Midlands town although it's fair to say that there's not a lot of serious competition for that accolade. As a result of another website I write on alerting members to the existence of the National Heritage Open days last summer, I managed to grab the opportunity of seeing inside the building without having to go to the trouble of getting married or needing an appointment with the Mayor. The Guildhall is in fact ONLY open to the public on the one weekend a year when the NHOD scheme is running and many other local buildings such as the old law courts are also only accessible that weekend.
I've lived near Northampton for over four years and to be honest, the Guildhall had long been top of my wish-list for a visit. From the outside it's a strikingly beautiful and noble-looking building made of honey coloured stone with fine arched windows and carved decorations. It was one of the things that most attracted me to the town when we first visited. By pure fluke we parked nearby and as we walked past the town's museum and theatres and were confronted by the Guildhall, we got a rather distorted impression that Northampton must be quite a classy place. Had we approached the town centre from any other angle, I doubt it would have been such a positive impression. The Guildhall also reminds me of two of my other favourite buildings, the Oxford University Museum and Manchester Town Hall, although the Guildhall is on a rather more modest scale than the latter. The similarity is not accidental as all three buildings are neo-gothic in style and similar in age, having been built in the second half of the 19th Century.
The Guildhall was built between 1861 and 1864 and was designed by Edward William Godwin. It is used as a major local government building and run by the local council who use it for community and council business. If you want to get married there - and why not, it's a gorgeous setting - it's licensed for both weddings and civil partnership ceremonies.
I arrived on the Sunday afternoon of the NHOD weekend and found two old restored buses parked outside the building since the NHOD scheme was running free 'Heritage' bus tours around the town. I hurried into the building where nothing was signposted and succeeded in following the murmur of voices until I found the Great Hall where the tour was about to start. This beautiful large room had high vaulted ceilings decorated with paintings and friezes on the walls. Coffee and tea were on offer whilst our guides, who were both Guildhall Wardens, told us about the tour that would follow.
After hearing about the Great Hall we were taken down the 'Mayor's Corridor', a narrow passage leading to the Mayor's parlour and decorated with large photographs of all the town's past mayors. I was quite proud to see our town had a really diverse mix of ex-mayors of all colours and religions and I enjoyed seeing some of the clothing from the early pictures. I was reassured by the guide that a new mayor doesn't need to worry if he or she doesn't agree with wearing fur as all the fur on the robes is in fact artificial.
Our tour around the building included the new council chamber where we were able to sit in the council members' fine old wooden chairs and fiddle with their microphones and voting buttons. We were also shown the old original chamber which soon became much too small for the council but had some beautiful old furniture. We heard about some of the Wardens who had lived and worked there in the past, including one fellow who was so frightened of the building catching fire that he turned down the rather luxurious top floor apartment that went with the job in order to live in the dark basement boiler room with his family, knowing he could escape if he needed to.
The tour of the Guildhall cellars was particularly interesting and the Wardens explained that they have to leave the building through the cellars each night after they have locked up and it can be pretty spooky. We saw the old warden's boiler room as well as several prisoners' holding cells which used to be used when the accused were tried at the courts nearby. The most notorious of these criminals was the murderer Alfred Arthur Rouse who faked his own death when his two wives were about to discover his bigamous activity. He picked up a tramp, killed him and set light to the car in 1930 and we were told he might have succeeded but for some early 'forensic' work which identified that the man in the car couldn't have been Rouse because his underwear was of such poor quality!
In total, the tour took about an hour and I really enjoyed it. So much so that I rushed off to tour All Saints Church and the old law courts the same afternoon. The wardens gave just the right balance of history and humour, anecdotes and officialdom and kept our large and sometimes quite unruly party well entertained. Even though I've now seen the building, I'd certainly be tempted to go back again next year for another look.
It is also a working building, used by councillors, community groups, for conference hire, wedding and civil partnership receptions