There’s more to this Midlands town than its famous ATM

Gavin Haines at the NatWest Hole in Ilkeston, Derbyshire – Gavin Haines

“It is an architectural marvel. “Every city should have one.”

Publican Tony Fletcher piles more coal on the fire at the Dewdrop Inn, a “proper” pub 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: NatWest’s hole in the wall on the high street.

To the casual observer, the city’s famous ATM looks like any other. But it’s not the anonymous ATM that excites keyboard warriors, but the hole in the brick wall next to it.

“Carbon dating identifies the structure as Roman, and an ancient text relates that the site was used for pilgrimages and ritual sacrifices,” Nathwiggum writes in the latest of many glowing reviews.

All nonsense, of course. The structure is from the 1970s, and although no one can say for sure 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 withdraw the money,” a local man, who wishes to remain anonymous, tells me outside NatWest.

Depending on who you talk to, the ATM’s status as Ilkeston’s top-rated attraction is either a prime example of local humor or a reflection of the demise of a once-prosperous town. Or both.

Ilkeston Main StreetIlkeston Main Street

Ilkeston High Street – Gavin Haines

“This is so sad,” laments Kathryn Gill, whom I place near the ATM. “I’ve lived here all my life. I am 61 years old. Years ago, I was thriving. Now we have no industry. We had wells, textiles, factories, and now all that is gone. And the stores have closed, everything is online.”

Ilkeston’s main street has all the familiar features of a forgotten industrial town: crumbling Victorian facades, empty shops, bargain shops, hooded young people on electric scooters, wrinkled old people on mobility scooters. In an ironic twist, even the ATM was out of service during my visit.

It was never meant to be this way. Ilkeston was supposed to be “the next Buxton”, but its natural springs dried up in the mid-19th century, some claim, after miners sank a nearby shaft.

More calculated was the separation of Ilkeston from the rails. It lost its three stations in the 1950s and 1960s (a new one finally opened in 2017), partly as a result of the Beeching cuts. Its coal mines closed soon after, factories followed and then its lace-making industry collapsed. Only Cluny Lace survives, which made the lace for Princess Diana and Kate Middleton’s wedding dresses.

But don’t rule out Ilkeston just yet, says De Patterson, who runs Purplehaze’s Parlor, a gothic pagan shop on the high street, with his wife Steph.

De Patterson, who runs the Purplehaze salon, Ilkeston, DerbyshireDe Patterson, who runs the Purplehaze salon, Ilkeston, Derbyshire

From Patterson, who runs the Purplehaze salon – Gavin Haines

“Ilkeston is not without its challenges,” he admits. “It is a working-class city that has been neglected. But we are fighting back.”

The salon, which sells crystals, incense and merchandise for the local football team, Ilkeston Town, is one of the few new independents in the town, Steph says. Among others, there is a cocktail bar and a dog grooming salon.

“We love it here,” says De. “It’s friendly, has great pubs and a community spirit.” AND a famous cashier. “Well, that brings up the name.”

He bids me farewell with a copy of life in ilkeston, a community-run newspaper giving the city a voice as local journalism withers. 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 single-handedly broke a world record.

I walk down the main street in the drizzle to the pretty market square where the merchants are packing their bags. I pass pubs, an independent cinema and a church, before stopping by the Erewash Museum, named after the Erewash Valley overlooking it. DH Lawrence Country.

It’s a lovely museum housed inside an elegant Georgian building and full of really interesting exhibits on local history. From the top floor you can see the iron latticework of the Bennerley Viaduct, a local landmark, in the distance.

At the museum, I met Sophie Tilley, artistic director of the Studio Players community theater, founded by her grandmother and attended by actor Robert Lindsay, a local boy.

Sophie Tilley and Aelish Riley at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, DerbyshireSophie Tilley and Aelish Riley at the Erewash Museum, Ilkeston, Derbyshire

Sophie Tilley and Aelish Riley at the Erewash Museum – Gavin Haines

Tilley grimaces at the mention of the ATM. “He’s woven into local folklore,” he sighs. But her friend Aelish Riley thinks it’s “hilarious.” “It’s typical Ilkeston humour,” she says, citing a roundabout full of gnomes (“Gnome Island”) as another local quirk.

They both agree that Ilkeston has a lot to offer, despite what TripAdvisor suggests. They say that the city hosts one of the oldest fairs in England, authorized by Henry VIII, and a new music festival. There is even a “beach” at the museum in the summer, plus numerous community events.

“If you know where to look, there’s a lot going on,” Tilley says. “There are so many people who care about this city. I always challenge people’s negativity about it. I say, ‘When was the last time you visited the market, went to the movies, or found out what’s happening at the museum?’ It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.

Other towns with curious attractions that went viral

Bude, Cornwall

A Perspex tunnel between Sainsbury’s supermarket and a car park was briefly the Cornish town’s top-rated attraction (it has now fallen to number four). “A fantastic shelter from attacking seagulls,” gushed one online reviewer. TripAdvisor bosses were not amused and suspended new reviews for the catwalk.

Cinderford (Gloucestershire)

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 is named after him.

Woking (Surrey)

Prince Andrew’s car accident news night The interview, in which he denied having had sexual relations with a 17-year-old girl, revealed that he had dined at Woking’s Pizza Express. He points to a host of online reviews, including: “Wonderful staff, great food, no worries! But I don’t remember ever being there, so I don’t know why I said that.”

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