“It’s an architectural wonder. Every town should have one.”
Publican Tony Fletcher piles more coal on the fire in the Dewdrop Inn, a “proper” boozer with carpet on the floor and Scotch eggs on the menu.
He’s talking about Ilkeston’s top-rated tourist attraction, and recent winner of TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice award: the NatWest hole-in-the-wall on the high street.
To the casual observer, the town’s famous cashpoint looks like any other. But it’s not the anonymous ATM that gets keyboard warriors excited, rather the hole in the brick wall next to it.
“Carbon dating identifies the structure as Roman and ancient text recounts that the place was used for pilgrimage and ritual sacrifice,” writes Nathwiggum in the most recent of many rave reviews.
All nonsense of course. The structure is from the 1970s, and while nobody can say for certain how the hole came to be, one theory persists.
“As far as I know, it’s so you can see if there’s anyone hiding behind the wall while you’re getting cash out,” a local man, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me outside NatWest.
Depending on who you talk to, the cashpoint’s status as Ilkeston’s top-rated attraction is either a prime example of local humour, or a reflection of a once-thriving town’s demise. Or both.
“It’s very forlorn here,” laments Kathryn Gill, who I collar near the cashpoint. “I’ve lived here all my life. I’m 61. Years ago, it was thriving. We’ve got no industry now. We had pits, had textiles, had factories, now it’s gone. And the shops have closed, everything’s online.”
Ilkeston high street has all the familiar markers of a forgotten manufacturing town: crumbling Victorian facades, empty shops, bargain stores, hooded youths on e-scooters, crumpled old folk on mobility scooters. In an ironic twist, even the ATM is out of action during my visit.
It was never meant to be this way. Ilkeston was supposed to be “the next Buxton”, but its natural springs ran dry in the mid-1800s, some claim after miners sunk a pit shaft nearby.
More calculated was Ilkeston’s severance from the rails. It lost all three of its stations in the 1950s and 1960s (a new one finally opened in 2017), partly a result of the Beeching cuts. Its coal pits closed soon after, the factories followed, then its lace-making industry unravelled. Only Cluny Lace, which made the lace on Princess Diana’s and Kate Middleton’s wedding dresses, survives.
But don’t write off Ilkeston just yet, says De Patterson, who runs Purplehaze’s Parlour, a pagan-goth shop on the high street, with his wife Steph.
“Ilkeston is not without its challenges,” he admits. “It’s a working-class town that’s been neglected. But we’re fighting back.”
Selling crystals, incense and merch for the local footy team, Ilkeston Town, the parlour is one of a handful of new independents in town, says Steph. A cocktail bar and dog groomers are among the others.
“We love it here,” coos De. “It’s friendly, it’s got great pubs and a community spirit.” And a famous cashpoint. “Well, it gets the name out.”
De sends me away with a copy of Ilkeston Life, a community-run newspaper giving voice to a town that lost its local rag, the Ilkeston Advertiser, during Covid. There’s a story about an alleged murder on the cover and a lighter piece inside about a local man who balanced 350 wine glasses on his head – and broke only a world record.
I walk up the high street in the drizzle to the pretty market square where traders are packing up. I pass pubs, an independent cinema and a church, before swinging by the Erewash Museum, named after the Erewash Valley, which it overlooks. DH Lawrence country.
It’s a charming museum housed inside a fine Georgian building and filled with genuinely interesting exhibitions about local history. From the top floor you can see the iron lattice Bennerley Viaduct, a local landmark, in the distance.
At the museum, I meet Sophie Tilley, artistic director at the Studio Players community theatre, which was founded by her grandmother and attended by the actor Robert Lindsay, a local lad.
Tilley grimaces at the mention of the cashpoint. “It’s woven itself into local folklore,” she sighs. But her friend, Aelish Riley, thinks it’s “hilarious”. “It’s typical of Ilkeston humour,” she says, citing a roundabout filled with gnomes (“Gnome Island”) as another local quirk.
Both agree that Ilkeston has plenty going for it, despite what TripAdvisor suggests. The town, they say, hosts one of England’s oldest fairs, which was granted a charter by Henry VIII, and a new music festival. There’s even a “beach” at the museum in summer, plus community events galore.
“If you know where to look, there’s plenty going on,” says Tilley. “There are so many people who care about this town. I always challenge people’s negativity about it. I say: ‘When was the last time you visited the market or went to the cinema or found out what’s going on at the museum?’ It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Other towns with curious attractions that went viral
A perspex tunnel between Sainsbury’s supermarket and a car park was briefly the Cornish town’s top-rated attraction (it has now slipped to number four). “A fantastic shelter from attacking seagulls,” gushed one online reviewer. TripAdvisor bosses were unamused and suspended new reviews for the walkway.
A 19ft rusty pole, believed to be a sewer vent and overlooking a sheep field, has become an unlikely sensation in Gloucestershire. So much so that a local cider was named after it.
Prince Andrew’s car crash Newsnight interview, in which he denied having sex with a 17-year-old, revealed that he’d dined in Woking’s Pizza Express. Cue a slew of online reviews, including: “Wonderful staff, great food, no sweat! But I have no recollection of ever being there, so I don’t know why I just said that.”