Yesterday I went on another field trip - this time to Coalville.
As the name implies, coalville was built on coal-mining. It’s surrounded by quarries to the south, although many of the mines were closed down by Thatcher and it’s no longer a major industry. The evidence of the pits is still there, and the mining heritage still defines the town’s identity.
Now the mines have been replaced by distribution centres and vast logistics operations.
As we were approaching the town the coach took us past the warehouses.
Here’s the DHL warehouse entrance.
For a town which was built from scratch, it’s remarkably fragmented, there’s just a loose grouping of settlements, and no single defined centre. Administratively it’s the seat of the district council, but it has no town council of its own; instead the town is torn between several parish councils.
We went through Hugglescote on the way in.
Here’s the mosaic artist Lynda Baugh talking about the founding myth of Hugglescote.
Coalville sits on the Leicester-Burton railway line, but there’s no train station. The old station building was turned first into a pub, then into a childcare centre.
Trains just pass through the town without stopping. Nobody seemed too bothered about that and it puzzles me. The station building is there, the infrastructure is there, the tracks go right by the Amazon warehouse too.
It’s easy to see why the area makes sense for logistics, it’s cheap land, roughly in the centre of the country, near East Midlands International Airport, within easy reach of the A42 and the M1 motorway. But it’s limited to road freight only, just trucks.
There are the remains of old tracks in the town. These would have branched off to Snibston colliery (now a golf course).
Nearby the current railway is Coalville market. There is a plan to shut it down and relocate the merchants to a new outdoor market in Marlborough square.
The market inspires different opinions. The business manager believes it to be unprofitable and has difficulty filling stall spaces, meanwhile the community groups want it opened up as a general space for community use.
The building was also purpose-built, and it’s chilly inside. Some people said this was a deliberate design decision to keep the vegetables fresh, and others were put off by this cold, unpleasant building, they thought it was just badly insulated.
We also visited the indoor market in Ashby-de-la-Zouch.
Here is Georgia looking at a stall selling coffee beans.
The smell of the beans was strong, sweet coffee aroma wafted around the market. It’s an obvious sales tactic, but it’s also something unique to the experience of a small market. Modern supermarkets are sanitised, they try their hardest not to smell of anything except mild disinfectant.
There was a stall selling perfume, and they had this delicately balanced mound of boxes and bottles.
Georgia wondered whether what would happen if you needed a bottle from the bottom, like playing a very risky game of jenga.
Nearby there were some creepy wig mannequins.
Overall, the market seemed non-gentrified (un-gentrified?). There were stalls selling:
- garden tools/DIY material
- fishing rods
- socks/underwear (not sexy underwear, practical stuff)
- picture frames
- old vinyl records
- phone cases
- second-hand furniture
The furniture area at the back used to be a dance hall.
I spoke to the guy on the phone repair stall. He said he’d been there three months, and he was getting by - “we pay the rent.” He mentioned that he’d studied computing at university. I found that really curious - if you’ve got a computing degree, you’d definitely earn more as a junior software engineer than as a phone repair guy. I told Georgia, who suggested it might be down to labour market distortions.
Also in Ashby we went past this public artwork, related the National Forest. The poles are like trees.
Some students described the sculpture as looking like ‘bent lampposts.’ The art is also controversial as it was put up without much involvement from the local community, it cost £50,000 and some people felt that money could have been better spent on other things.
Here is Lynda Baugh again, talking about how her mosaics sometimes get vandalised.
We went to meet James Arnold - ‘Director of Place’ at the North West Leicestershire District Council.
He seemed very concerned with image, with ‘improving appearances.’ He spoke in vague terms, and some students complained that he didn’t properly address their questions.
Arnold also mentioned that Coalville’s gone through about seven regeneration plans since 1993. There’s a new housing development planned, and he was keen to talk about the National Forest, how the houses will be surrounded by copious green space. This makes out to be a benign development, the garden city, I’m wary that it also sounds like a recipe for suburban sprawl and isolation.
On the way back we went past this job centre, which was in the same building as the old labour exchange.
I like the continuity because it shows up how the function of a job centre has shifted over time. The old idea of a labour exchange was to connect available workers to open positions, it had a remit as a public service. Meanwhile, Jobcentre Plus was a re-branding effort by New Labour, and now the function of a job centre is to ‘facilitate your job search journey.’ They’ve abandoned any pretence of acting as a mediator between labour and business.
I was also struck by the people with me who didn’t know what a Jobcentre Plus was. They don’t understand what it’s like.
In terms of jobs, Coalville is a typical example of the productivity crisis. There’s plenty of work to go around, but most of it comes with a fixed wage ceiling. Warehouses need workers, and someone has to do it, until those jobs get automated out of existence. As I’ve seen, if you have a degree in computing here, you can scrape a profit on fixing cracked phone screens. And there are social problems, the town was a site of significant BNP activity in the late 2000s.
There’s derelict art-deco cinema on Marlborough square.
One of the locals said they hadn’t ever been inside that building, so it must have been a while since the cinema was active.
The last public artwork we visited was an exhibition of soldier cut-outs in a supermarket.
The silhouettes were decorated by local people, and each one refers to a soldier from around Coalville who participated in the First World War. I don’t have much to say about the soldiers, though I like the idea of reclaiming semi-public spaces for the community.
Put art in the supermarkets!
Hold carnivals in the car parks!