In which I compare the experience of the Arndale Centre to the banqueting flypast in the Venerable Bede.

While April may be the cruellest month, I can’t say that I see much tenderness in supply this March. Mornings like today are the hardest of all. It’s cold, grey, raining: in short, an entirely typical day in the year-long omniseason that we like to call the British Weather. Those of you who know me in person may recall that I periodically bust out a theory of the British temperament – a certain stoicism, world-weariness, a sense that things will not much change (cf. the French, striking endlessly in revolt at the insults of politicians) – that I cannot say is caused by, but which seems at least to resonate with the character of our temperate, if inclement, weather. We British, we are used to being disappointed.

Is it any worse to spend such a day here in Luton?

I don’t imagine that the weather is much better in London today, or Brighton.  All is uniformly bleak. But these days, I must say, are the hardest for me in Luton, when I encounter a town sometimes described as ‘the northern town of the south’, all terraced houses (in themselves rather charming) and what remains of Luton’s ‘traditional’ industry of car-making (there are not many hat-makers among us these days, but there are some).

I live in Round Green, about a mile north of the train station, marking the boundary with High Town. Responding to an earlier comment on this blog, I had used the term ‘psychogeography’ to describe the way that our personal maps mark out a different terrain to the ones suggested by geographical maps. As someone who doesn’t drive, for instance, I rarely see the many, apparently charming villages of south Bedfordshire and north Hertfordshire, but London, while so much further away, feels easily at hand. In a similar way, my personal map of Luton is heavily marked by one route that I take almost every day, to go wherever I need within the town or beyond. From my house, the most direct route – into town, to the train station, to the shops, to the gym,  to my new favourite café, and formerly, to my place of work – is via High Town Road as far as the train station and by necessity via the Arndale Centre for much anywhere beyond.

So let’s talk briefly about the Arndale, or, less authentically, ‘The Mall Luton’, as the PR people would have it (it is universally called ‘the Arndale’ by anyone who lives here). Built in 1972, it was one of the first, then ‘futuristic’, shopping centres that came up in the late 60s and early 70s. Many out-of-towners assume that the Arndale was named after the Manchester shopping centre of the same name, but I am informed, perhaps unreliably, that the Luton Arndale was originally the ‘largest covered shopping centre in Europe’, and only later ousted from this position by the Arndale in Manchester. That seems difficult to believe now.

An image of the  Arndale in the 1970s

An image of the Arndale in the 1970s, taken from http://goo.gl/3myLq [photographer unknown].

While I wasn’t around in 1972, I do remember the Arndale when I first lived in the town as a child, in around 1984. I especially remember its Flamingos:

arndale flamingos

The Arndale Flamingos of the 1980s [photographer unknown].

I am no local historian, but I understand that a part of Luton’s town centre was simply demolished to make way for this boxy monstrosity; the names of former roads retained with grim irony to mark out its strip-lit corridors. While I am clearly no fan of the Arndale, it has its uses, and in recent months we have at last seen the faint possibility that some of the more ‘upmarket’ chain stores are beginning to see potential in this town of over 200k residents: the opening of a branch of H&M, and – remarkably – a new Apple reseller called ‘Stormfront’, which seems, well, an unfortunate choice of name, to say the least.

The thing about the Arndale that I want to highlight today is that it is almost unavoidable if you need to walk from one side of the town to the other. There are ways round, but they make my route longer. On a day like today, the experience of going suddenly from the bleak and the wet into the ever-bright noise and bustle of the Arndale, and then out again, recalls the existential path of a single sparrow (rather than a flamingo) through the banqueting hall described by the Venerable Bede:

“It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counsellors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window of the hall and out through another. While he is inside, the bird is safe from the winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So man appears on earth for a little while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.”

So there: the words of a 7th century English monk brought to bear not unfruitfully on the Luton Arndale. Never let it be said that this blog is not a site of great cultural depth.

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14 thoughts on “In which I compare the experience of the Arndale Centre to the banqueting flypast in the Venerable Bede.

  1. There used to be some great toy shops in the Arndale – Taylor & McKenna was the best (with a downstairs bit too!) then there was Jannaware’s in the indoor market and another toy shop where the Salvation Army store is now, but nobody else apart from me seems to remember it!

      • The answer is that it was originally called The Rabbit and then, much later, The Wabbit until fairly recently. It is on Luton Borough Council’s Draft Local List of historic buildings, so this information is on the excellent Luton Heritage Forum website (www.lutonheritageforum.org): ‘The original name The Rabbit, was derived from the name of this area, Coney Hall, and was trading as a public house by 1845. It is generally considered that the pub was built on the site of the eighteenth century Coney Hall. A coney was an early name for a rabbit. The house underwent a rebuild in 1908 but there is no known photograph of the original building’.

        Further information about the name and its film star connections from the Luton Hat Trail leaflet:(www.lutonculture.com/uploads/documents/1334922099_HatTrailwithPhotos2011.pdf): ‘The English Rose public house was originally called The Rabbit (renamed The Wabbit in 1983). It was named after the former hamlet here of Coney Hall. In the early 19th century Coney Hall consisted of two rows of terraced cottages facing each other across the road to Bedford. In about 1845 two end cottages were converted to a pub, and in 1908 these were replaced by the present building. The remaining cottages were demolished in the 1960s and the site became the pub garden. In the 1950s the landlord’s son, David Hamilton married the film star Diana Dors, who regularly helped out behind the bar. The pub was renamed the English Rose in memory of Princess Diana’.

      • Thank you very much for this, David. I make no claims to having any facility for historical knowledge of Luton (or indeed, of anything much!) prior to my own experiences of Luton beginning in around 1984, so this is very helpful. I remember hearing about the Diana Dors connection to Luton, but hadn’t connected it to the English Rose, nor was I aware that the English Rose was renamed in honour of Princess Diana! Learning about these rich layers of culture and history really helps to nuance one’s lived experience of Luton, which at times seems to comprise conversations that consist of ‘Is that planned good new thing happening yet?’/’No, not yet.’

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  6. In the 70s I thought the Arndale was the most magical place on Earth, it was full of delights for a small boy and was also large and mysterious (where does that corridor go? What’s down there?) but warm and welcoming as well. Nowadays it has some natural light and is sans cigarette smoke but it’s also a soulless down at heel place. It’s avenues have been opened up to street stalls which interrupt the pedestrian flow and clog its main arteries with cheap crap. There is a perfectly serviceable market for cheap n cheerful stuff and the stalls should be con fined to it. In fact these days the market is by far the best bit: actually reflective the soul and ethnic make up if the town.
    I have a fantasy of collating a book on the Arndale, pictures from its archives and telling its story through people’s memories but unfortunately I suspect on me and about 4 other people would be interested….still I’d love to know if the old Littlewoods Cafe is still in situ, abandoned and in darkness behind that stud wall upstairs in what’s now Primark.

    • Thanks for these comments, Geoff! My childhood memories of the Arndale date from the early/mid-80s and it’s strange to compare the faint visual impressions that come back to me (which are all suffused with a deep yellowy tinge: whether that’s a product of my memory or the place really was that badly-lit, I can’t be sure) with the place it is today. I continue to be deeply annoyed by the breathtaking arrogance shown the mall’s management company to insist on it being called something corporate and bland that entirely disregards the people who’ve lived with it, as ‘the Arndale’, for so many years.

      • Your memory is correct, the round bulbous lights on stalks which were attached to the brown vacuum forms plastic seats were yellow as were the overhead lights. I’m sure the nicotine stains had something to do with it as well! I’m glad to have supplemented your memories a little bit. I’m slowly building up a photographic archive of the Arndale in its heyday. No idea why, I just enjoy it!

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