Many have heard speak of the legend of Northampton. Historically the home of English shoe making since the 15th century, it is said that one may purchase footwear for a song from one of the eleven factory outlet stores. Four of us fired up Mick Hawksworth’s shooting brake and we set forth for the Midlands.
We have come 134 miles from the Chap offices but are immediately stepping into our world. We enter a wood-panelled vestibule with nobody in it; just a 1930s sign saying ENQUIRIES and a bell. This is the Cheaney factory in Desborough, 18 miles outside Northampton and the best place to commence one’s journey into the hinterland of footwear manufacture.
A small hatch opens and a lady who turns out to be called Sheila Bone says, “Ah, The Chap – we’ve been expecting you.”
After the formalities have been exchanged with Jonathan Church, head honcho of Cheaney (which he bought back in 2009 from Prada, who had acquired Cheaney and Church’s, his grandfather’s company, in 1999) we are led into the factory itself.
It takes a full hour to find out how a pair of shoes is constructed, in eight weeks and 180 processes, each one carried out by an experienced man in overalls positioned at a machine groaning under its many years of activity. There is an air of happy industry and the sort of skilled labour we thought was a thing of the past. The workers are all male and mostly middle-aged; they are apparently very difficult to replace with apprentices these days.
One fellow’s job is known as clicking – the cutting out of the leather with a small blade he makes himself from a piece of hacksaw blade. Clicking, scything, welting, gimping – each process has its own mediaeval-sounding name, and the finished shoes we glimpsed at the entrance seem a long distance from the flattened, vaguely shoe-shaped objects wedged in oily machines or steaming with glue on racks. Apart from the copies of the Sun scattered about and the absence of a tea lady, this could be the 19th century.
Cheaney don’t simply make their own shoes, though they do make a lot, having recently reached their 4000th pattern. We also notice shoes for Jeffery West, with their distinctive elongated lasts, as well as a few rather non-gentlemanly items in pink leather, clearly destined for the High Street.
The shoes drying on racks reveal their innards: mashed-up cork pulp fills the inside, giving flexibility when walking; the only solid part is a thin strut of wood over the arches. Goodyear Welting, in case you don’t know, is the process of stitching the sole to a raised piece of leather – the welt – half an inch from the edge of the sole. The more expensive models have in-channel stitching, where the exterior stitching is concealed under the sole, and a fiddle waist on the arches. These pairs also usually have a “gentleman’s corner” – a small piece of the heel missing, harking back to when gentlemen rode horses and didn’t want to catch their heels on the stirrups.
When we finally reach the finishing stage, where the shoes are beautified for the public, it comes as no surprise that this room is full of women. We were back in the 19th century again, but there was no sense of sedition in the ranks.
Exhilarated, informed and with nostrils full of leather, glue and grease, we were led to the Cheaney factory outlet shop. Here we now appreciated the workmanship involved in each pair in the large selection of factory seconds, ends-of-line and the occasional happy mistake. I bought a pair of co-respondents (pictured) which had been made with the two colours the wrong way around and only 12 pairs existed.
We still had three factory outlets to visit, and a 20-minute drive took us to the centre of Northampton, where all the other factory outlets are within walking distance.
First stop Trickers. When you stroll along Jermyn Street, the varying styles of each shoemaker are not quite so apparent as when you visit the factory. But here we saw the distinctive Tricker shape: chunky, heavy and made for the country. We met Yukihiro Sugawara, editor of Last, a Japanese footwear magazine, who proudly showed us a pair of loafers he had just bought from John Lobb, whose factory we didn’t have time to visit ourselves. Yukihiro believed it had been worth travelling 6,000 miles for.
A short hop from Trickers is the Church’s shop, where much of our cash changed hands. Our photographer Russ purchased a splendid pair of monochrome co-respondents for 2/3 of their shop price. Most of the shoes in all the outlets we visited offer this reduction; sometimes more. Mick Hawksworth nabbed a pair of Church’s black brogues for just over half their usual price.
Now running late, we didn’t have time for John Lobb, Crockett & Jones or Barker, though apparently they are all worth a visit. We concluded our tour with Jeffery West.
After the workaday outlets we have seen, all of them simply bolted on to the factory, Jeffery West is a pleasant surprise. Housed in a large Gothic boudoir scattered with antlers, zebra-skin sofas and silver-topped canes, the range is eclectic to say the least. They are all made in the Cheaney factory, except for the crocodile and ostrich leather examples, which are made in Italy – of course.
However, those chaps who might have considered Jeffery West a little too racy might want to think again. The less satanic end of the spectrum included some perfectly respectable classically designed shoes, with just enough of a touch of flair and dandyism. I could not resist a pair of burnished calf brogue boots, whose rubber soles have an image of General Custer hauntingly burned into them.
Jeffery West is the perfect way to end one’s trip to Northampton. Apart from the fact that they close at 5.30, later than all the other factory outlets, the elegance of the room decompresses you back into the real (or fantasy) world of daily life, providing a light satanic boudoir after those dark satanic mills.
HELL FOR LEATHER
Opening times and directions for the Northampton factory outlets
JOSEPH CHEANEY & SONS
Rushton Road, Desborough NN14 2RZ
Open Mon-Fri 10-5, Sat 10-4
R E TRICKER LTD
56-60 St Michael’s Road, Northampton NN1 3JX
Open Mon-Fri 8-4
CHURCH & CO LTD
St James Road, Northampton NN5 5JB
Open Mon-Fri 9.30-4.30, Sat 9.30-2pm.
CROCKETT & JONES
Perry Street, Northampton NN1 4HN
Open Friday 2-5.30, Sat 9.30-12.30
Westminster Works, Oliver Street, Northampton NN2 7JL
Open Mon-Fri 9-5, Sat 9-12
City House, 43 Cliftonville Road, Northampton NN1 5HQ
Open Mon-Fri 9.30-5.30, Sat 10-4.30
Arrive early; you will need a whole day to visit all the outlets. Cheaney is half an hour’s drive from the other outlets, which are walkable from each other. Allow at least half an hour in each store and 20 minutes walk between them.