A Pleasant Overnighter
"There ARE Worse Places!"
Arriving on a Saturday evening to catch a flight (what other reason would I have for visiting?) on the Sunday I hadn't expected much from Luton Town. Given the reviews here, and elsewhere, the best I'd hoped for was that the hotel would be OK - I could have a few beers and a meal in-house then an early night to be up fresh and sharp the following morning.
Well the hotel certainly was OK. But before writing Luton off completely I took an early evening wander around the town centre.
On a cold, damp, January evening all the main square seemed to offer was a vast, neon-signed, JD Wetherspoons. Outside its main entrance were a group of street guys touting for spare change.
The first couple of side-streets I ventured up yielded, between them: a scruffy-looking pub, a couple of garish "2-for-1" pizza take-aways and the inevitable kebab shops. I hadn't had a beer and so the kebabs had yet to commence working their charms.
Taking the next side-street I encountered an amusement arcade on one corner with a mini-cab office on the other.
Oh!Oh! It was definitely time to consider Plan A - "a few beers and a meal in-house".
However, a few more steps up Wellington Street put Plan A straight onto the back-burner. A clutch of smart-looking Thai restaurants appeared on the left competing with a similar number of "Indian" places on the "Arcade Side". A little further up the road the Curried Goat on the chalkboard menu of the Carribean Cafe (eat-in or take-away) beckoned.
I'm now spoilt for choice. This sort of competition on one street usually bodes well: prices are kept down whilst quality tends not to be compromised. Then I noticed a sign proclaiming: "Lebanese & Polish Cuisine" over a welcoming, fully-glazed, see-through, frontage. The combo intrigued and so that was my decision made - Plan A was now Plan Z! (Nowt like a bit of "see-through frontage" to assist the process ;))
That was dinner sorted - but first - "Beer Time"...
"A Little About Luton"
Apart from sleeping and the time spent getting to, and hanging at, the airport I probably had a total of about 5 hours in the town. Most of these were dedicated to sustenance and so my impressions of the town are limited to a January Saturday night in the cold and dark and a wander around on a bright, but chilly, Sunday morning.
Despite it's proximity to London (about 40 minutes by train, 30 miles via the M1) it didn't feel like a commuter town in the same way as, say, the Essex towns of a similar size and location do. There wasn't the brashness of the "big city wanabees" found elsewhere but rather a sense of self-contained community.
In its Victorian heyday Luton's main employer was its hat-making industry, hence the local football club's monicker - "The Hatters". The 20th Century saw the decline of millinery to be replace by the machinery of the Vauxhall car company.
The Vauxhall car plant, which had employed 30,000 people at its peak, closed in 2002 with the loss of about 2,000 jobs which was pretty much to be the death knell for Luton manufacturing.
Since the turn of the Millenium the development of local service industries, in particular the Mall/Arndale shopping centre and the airport, has somewhat offset these losses and whilst not exactly a boom-town I got the feeling that there is a growing degree of confidence.
Maybe my impressions are due to my own particular benchmark. The "peformance indicators" that I use to establish a town's success are simple:
Firstly, there should be proper local pubs in the town centre, not just the interchangable mediocrity of the chain places. Secondly, these pubs should be welcoming and the regulars chatty without either being "in-yer-face" nor being a bunch of moaners.
Two simple tests and the Castle here passed both with flying colours. It says a lot about a town centre when the pub people are happy to support their individualistic pubs, rather than save a few quid by using the Weatherspoons.
This was the first time I'd flown out of Luton (Jan 2010) and, as with the town, I hadn't had high expectations from its airport.
The two main London airports, Gatwick and Heathrow, have always been functional transit stations whilst Stansted I've always viewed as a port of last resort.
I'd expected Luton to be just another Stansted - the only place where I could get a flight at the right price on the right day.
The airport, which I'll now happily address by its full title: "London Luton Airport", was a pleasure to fly from.
It's easily accessible by public transport, both from London and from Luton. Landside and airside have plenty of facilities. Check-in and security are generally efficient and even friendly with it - the guy at presecurity was really apologetic when he found that his machine wouldn't register my on-line boarding pass and that I would have to go back downstairs to the check-in desk. Going through security the guy assisting was equally apologetic for the queues - "HA!" I replied, "This is nothing compared to my experiences elsewhere."
Yep, I liked London Luton Airport and it has now joined my little list of favourites. Next time I find myself flying from there I'll also definitely give myself time for a visit to the town proper.