What to see
You’ll find accounts of Luton’s attractions below and, with 91 other places, in Towns of Two Halves (order the book now for £8 from email@example.com). For additional information there’s Culture Trust Luton.
Towns of Two Halves extract
When your child says to you: “Dad, why are Luton called the Hatters?” you may find yourself getting bogged down in social history. Don’t worry. Dads at Northampton Town will be talking cobblers in answer to a similar question.
A few of the nicknames attached to football clubs will eventually be historical relics. Some – the Blades in Sheffield, the Brewers of Burton, the Potters in Stoke – will persist. Others – the Chairboys in Wycombe, Glovers in Yeovil, Iron in Scunthorpe – will at least contain recognisable words. But the Hatters, Luton Town, recall a bygone age when people habitually wore things called hats. That civilised practice, like so many others, is widely regarded as a victim of the iconoclastic 1960s.
In the 1930s, Luton businesses produced 70m hats a year. Straw plaiting for bonnets had been established in Beds and Herts in the 17th century. It was work undertaken mainly by women and children, augmenting (and in some cases probably exceeding) the agricultural wages of their husbands and fathers.
The best plaiters, according to JE Cussons’ History of Hertfordshire, were girls of 14-18yrs. They paid a price, however: to keep the straw damp and supple they would draw it between their lips, damaging their mouths and salivary glands. Armpits were a less moist but also less vulnerable alternative.
Luton’s main tug of the forelock to this aspect of its history, the Hat Factory reopened in autumn 2019 after refurbishment. There are also exhibits at the two more general museums in the town.
These are the Stockwood Discovery Centre about a mile to the south of the town centre and Wardown House almost the same distance away to the north.
Wardown is the better bet for straw and hat memorabilia, but Stockwood is probably the place to take young children. Both have large open spaces: Wardown is a mansion in a large park, and Stockwood also includes the outbuildings of a country house and associated parkland, with play areas and themed gardens.
Both also have collections. At Wardown, the upper floor houses the Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiment Museum, adjacent to the Luton Life Gallery. Downstairs is set out as a Victorian house but is not devoid of interest to kids either: there are interactive screen-based exhibits, including in the Billiard Room a wonderful electronic billiard table.
On the walls and in the corners there are some unusual pieces of artwork. Several pieces by the Austrian painter Theodor Kern decorate the walls; Kern’s last home was near Hitchin and he taught at Luton School of Art. There is also a marble bust of the notorious Parisian ‘hostess’ Juliette Recamier that looks exactly like a terracotta by Joseph Chinnard in the J Paul Getty Museum.
The Wardown is free so it seems churlish to quibble. But one or two more notes to tell you what you’re looking at would be helpful – the exception is in the Beds & Herts regimental gallery, which is beautifully and clearly presented. It is also slightly odd that the Luton Life galleries have so little to say about the multi-cultural character of modern Luton. Pictures of Miss Electrolux in years gone by are very quaint, but the story might be brought more closely to the present day.
Stockwood Discovery Centre is also free. It occupies a substantial chunk of Stockwood Park, alongside a golf club, a rugby club and a public park. Stockwood House itself was demolished in 1964 but the stables house collections of rural crafts and activities. New buildings complete the Discovery Centre with collections of carriages, cars and Luton’s last tram.
Gardens of many kinds take up most of the site. The aptly-named Garden Café opens on to a series of large play areas, period gardens and world gardens. The right-hand boundary of this part of the site is a long Bee Gallery followed by a greenhouse in which the formally planted Asian garden thrives among notices warning that many of the plants (like the bees) have sharp pointy bits.
Some of the gardens are period: Elizabethan, 17th century Italian, 18th century Dutch, Victorian etc; and others are thematic: a sensory garden, a winter garden, and (devised by schoolchildren in 2005) a Dig for Victory garden.
Over a brick wall the Improvement Garden, designed by Turner Prize nominee Ian Hamilton Finlay, is a 1990s idea of what a modern public garden might look like: carefully spaced statuary, limitless perspectives, plants that grow into astonishing contortions or can be arranged in fascinating shapes… and you may have it to yourself, to be able to concentrate uninterrupted on your own improvement.
At the end of this greenery are the Discovery Galleries. It’s a feat of discovery to find them, or at least to work out which side of the building you need to approach from. Once there, you enter a courtyard around which a small local history museum moves through the ages to the threshold of the Industrial Revolution. Two collections in particular are worth looking for: Ray Amphlett’s model Living Wagons – gypsy caravans, detailed and colourful; and Terry Duncan’s collection of woodworking tools.
There are more wagons in the Mossman Carriage collection, at the other end of the site and intended for the other end of the social scale. These were carriages for the gentry, with perhaps the exception of a stagecoach built for Carry on Cowboy. This section also includes other vehicles associated particularly with Luton – from the Vauxhall Motors range. (In the town centre itself is another memory of this aspect of Luton’s industrial heritage, the Vauxhall Heritage Centre, but this opens comparatively infrequently.)
A further possibility of exploring the hat-related history of the town lies in the Luton Hat Trails, mapped out on leaflets provided by the town council. There are two tours to choose from:
● Trail 1 covers the Bute Street area. It’s about a half-mile walk to the south of the railway through a district of hat factories and workshops. Some of the buildings were sufficiently distinguished to belong in the Plaiters’ Lea conservation area.
● Trail 2 goes to the High Town and Old Bedford Road area north of the railway. It presents the ‘cottage’ side of the industry (workshops attached to houses). It is about a mile long.
Both trails start and end at The Hat Factory in Bute Street, by the railway station, where refreshments are available. There are also several pubs and restaurants along the way. “What’s a boozer, Dad?”
This is a 2019-updated Luton chapter of Towns of Two Halves, published in 2018. To buy a copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.