A Helluva Town

This week saw the occasion of my 9-monthly visit to the dentist (stay with me), during which a twenty-year run of treatment-free appointments (other than the standard scale and polish) was regrettably ended.

My dentist is situated in the town of Hucknall, which lies some seven miles northwest of Nottingham. I moved away from the Hucknall area many years ago, but decided, largely for nostalgic reasons, to keep attending the practice there.

One advantage of this situation is that it gives me the excuse (not that I usually need much of one) to embark on a bit of wandering away from my usual haunts – as payback for the psychological distress undergone in order to keep my gnashers in decent shape.

Having survived the aforementioned procedure and paid the eminently reasonable NHS charge therefor, I emerged into bright sunshine, riding the crest of the wave of elation that always accompanies me upon such occasions, to commence my foray into the town centre.

Although it’s been somewhat down on its luck in recent times, Hucknall retains more than a hint of its former character from the time when it was a thriving market town and coal mining community. It’s more of a commuter base now, but has a proud past and a promising future.

I decided to walk along the High Street towards St Mary Magdalene Church, in order to pay my respects to the poet Lord Byron, who was laid to rest there (well, most of him was – his lungs and larynx were left in the church of San Spiridon in Missolonghi in Greece, from where they were subsequently stolen).

The church contains a number of memorials, artefacts and information boards relating to Byron. His coffin is in a family vault, along with those of his daughter, Ada Lovelace, his mother, Catherine and several other family members.

After an exploration of the interior, and as I stood contemplating the remarkable fact of this world-renowned individual’s presence in such an unassuming place, the melancholy strains of ‘My Heart Will Go On’ (instrumental version) signalled the impending commencement of a service.

Leaving the church, I walked back along the High Street, pausing to admire two other buildings of interest – the first by Watson Fothergill (1884; built as a coffee tavern for the temperance movement and currently occupied, at least in part, by the amusingly-named takeaway outlet Hank Marvin’s – no alcohol in evidence), the second the former Byron Cinema by Alfred J Thraves.

The Byron opened in 1936 and closed as a cinema in 2006, the stalls area having been a bingo club since 1967. The former balcony is being restored by local enthusiasts who hope to reopen it for the showing of films. The bingo club interior, incidentally, featured in the Shane Meadows film Once Upon a Time in the Midlands, although the exterior shot in that film is of the Capitol Cinema in Radford (now a church), which was preferred to the slightly austere frontage of the Byron itself.

Byron and his daughter Ada are not the only famous folk with whom Hucknall is connected. Bare-knuckle boxer Ben Caunt (rival of Nottingham’s William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson), architect Thomas Cecil Howitt (whose works include the Council House and the under-appreciated Newton Building), cricketers George and John Gunn, footballer Sam Weller Widdowson (credited with the invention of football shin pads) and light music composer Eric Coates were all born here. Caunt’s grave can be found in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene, while Coates has not one, but two plaques on a house at the top of Duke Street, where he lived for part of his life. He is known for such works as The Dam Busters March and By the Sleepy Lagoon, the latter still used as the theme music to Desert Island Discs.

After walking past the Coates house, I visited Titchfield Park, scene of many playground adventures in my formative years, back in the days when much of the equipment was genuinely scary and you bloody well knew it if you fell off.

Heading back towards the train station/tram stop, I passed the impressive mining memorial and, finally, an invigorating stretch of neglected, liminal space featuring a shopping trolley in a small stream.

Hucknall was once a place to be reckoned with (it had, for example, not one, but three railway stations). Amidst the banal accoutrements of modern day life lies a wealth of historical interest. It’s a tough town, but not without its charm if you look in the right places. A visit is recommended.