The market town of Northampton (pop. 194,000) is the the county town of Northamptonshire, and the largest district in England not to be a unitary authority. Northampton claims to have Britain's largest market square, which dates back to 1235.
There are no major sights in Northampton, but the town is pleasant enough for hang out in one of its three modern indoor shopping centres. There are also three cinemas in the centre (Vue, UGC and Forum Cinema).
Northampton's history goes back to Roman times, but didn't really develop as a significant town until the 11th century, when the Normans built town walls (razed in the 17th century) and a castle (also razed by Charles II, it was located where the railway station now stands).
In 13th century, it also had the largest Jewish population (centered around Gold Street), before 300 of them were executed in 1277 for clipping the King's coin.
In 1460, as the Wars of the Roses was raging, Henry VI was captured by the Yorkist at the the decisive Battle of Northampton.
The town burnt to the ground in 1675 and was re-built as a spacious and well-planned town. In the 18th century Northampton became a major centre of shoemaking and other leather-related goods. The prosperity of the town was greatly aided by demand for footwear caused by the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the 19th century.
In 1801, Northampton was still a small town of barely 7,000 inhabitants. Its connection to the Grand Union Canal in 1815 and the coming of the Railways in the 1830s accelerated the town's growth, and in 1861, its population had boomed to 33,000.
The main attraction is the Church of The Holy Sepulchre, founded in 1100 by Earl of Northampton, Simon de Senlis, who had just returned from the first crusade (see Godfrey of Bouillon), thence its name. It is the largest and best preserved of the country's only four round churches.
The heavily buttressed St Peter's Church is the second oldest edifice in town, constructed in 1150, and restored in the 19th century. It is one of the most architecturally interesting Norman edifice in England. William Smith (1769-1839), the "Father of English Geology", is buried here.
The prize for the nicest façade in town would go to the Guildhall. Its name and architectural style mistakenly hint at a medieval origin. However, this superb Neo-gothic edifice is actually Victorian. It was constructed between 1861 and 1864, and extended in the 1990's. Originally built as a court room, it now houses the Northampton Borough Council.
The Central Museum & Art Gallery (open 10am-5pm, admission free) is mostly dedicated to the town's history of shoemaking, but also has some British and Oriental decorative arts and Italina paintings from the 15th to the 18th centuries.
Housed in a 15th century manor house, the Abington Museum (open 1pm-5pm, admission free) has an ecclectic array of 19th-century objects and costumes.
Two rare Saxon churches survive in the periphery of Northampton. The first one is All Saints' Church in Brixworth, 9 km (6 miles) to the north. It dates from the 7th century, and is the third oldest surviving Saxon-era church after St Martin's in Canterbury and St Peter's in Bradwell, Essex. It is the largest and least altered English church from the Anglo-Saxon period, and possibly the biggest 7th century building north of the Alps.
The other church is All Saints in Earls Barton, 11 km (7 miles) to the east of the city. Rebuilt in 970 CE after its predecessor was razed by Danish raids, it is considered as one of the finest examples of late Anglo-Saxon architecture. The style carries clear Roman influence, for examples in the doors and windows. The tower's arcading design reminds of timber framing patterns used in older wooden churches. The upper section of the bell tower has arched five-light windows with baluster shaft mullions found nowhere else in English architecture.
How to get there
Northampton can conveniently be accessed by train from London Euston (45min to 1h15min, £18.50) or Birmingham (1h, £9.40)
National Express has buses to London (2h, £11.75), Nottingham (2h30min, £11.75) and Birmingham (1h30min, £6).
Short-distance bus No X7 goes to Leicester (1h20min, £6), and bus X38 to Oxford (1h30min, £6).