From a mile or so off, the Derbyshire town of Bolsover looks splendid. Lights twinkle in the afternoon gloaming and the 17th-century castle perches on a ridge in rugged splendour.
But the closer you get, the faster the impression fades.
In the town centre, past the business park and the mining memorial, are a slew of cheap takeaways, boarded-up pubs. and an abandoned pizzeria.
The Derbyshire town of Bolsover could turn blue for the first time since the parliamentary seats creation after Labour voters turn away from the party over Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn
The Anchor Inn lies in darkness. The shuttered Swan hotel’s ‘Discover Bolsover’ sign creaks in the wind.
Then there’s the constituency office of Dennis Skinner, the MP here since 1970, festooned with Union Jacks, scarlet flyers and 2ft-high graffiti that reads: ‘Immigration: 300,000 a year.’
But no sign of the fabled ‘Beast of Bolsover’ himself. The veteran Left-winger is not answering calls, and no one has seen him for weeks in shopping centres or knocking on doors on the stump.
Skinner, 87, is recovering at home in nearby South Normanton after having a hip operation on November 4.
‘It was unfortunate timing with a snap election, but it was a planned operation and he didn’t want to miss it,’ says Anne Western, a friendly volunteer in the Bolsover constituency office.
‘He’s nearly better, but his consultant has been very firm about not starting back on the campaign trail too soon. And, at this time of year, we don’t want him out picking up a cold.’
How is he feeling? ‘Very, very frustrated,’ says Anne.
And, presumably, working himself into a panic at the election predictions.
Because a shock poll has suggested Bolsover — a key Brexit battleground — could fall to the Conservatives on December 12.
JANE FRYER went to visit the town. She saw the permanently closed Anchor Inn, right, and several boarded up buildings in the left behind town
Anywhere else, this would be just election noise. But the Tories winning Bolsover? Here, the prospect is seismic.
The constituency — held by Labour since it was created in 1950 — is long and narrow, and stretches down part of the M1 corridor. It is both relentlessly Labour (74 per cent voted for Tony Blair back in 1997) and ferociously pro-Brexit.
In the EU referendum, 70 per cent of people in Bolsover voted to leave the EU.
Residents of this former coal-mining area used to joke that the Labour Party could put up a Jack Russell sporting a red rosette and it would win the seat. But Tories were the enemy long before the closure of all local pits in the Eighties and early Nineties.
Most people can’t remember an MP before the Beast. The former miner has represented the constituency ever since he was first elected back in June 1970, four days after the England football team (including Bobby Moore and Bobby Charlton) were knocked out of the World Cup in Mexico. That long ago!
If he does win his seat again, he would become Father of the House, the title bestowed on the longest-serving member of the Commons.
For almost 50 years, he has defended his constituents with a ferocious bark, taking pay cuts himself in support of the miners during the 1984-85 strike.
Labour MP Dennis Skinner, pictured at the Durham Miners’ Gala in July 2017, has held the seat for 49 years. But he has not been seen on the campaign trail this election due to a planned hip operation. Voters have said they are considering voting for the Conservatives
He is legendary for his scathing putdowns and has been suspended from the Commons on numerous occasions. He called then Prime Minister Cameron ‘Dodgy Dave’, David Owen a ‘pompous sod’, and referred to Tory minister John Gummer as ‘a slimy wart on Margaret Thatcher’s nose’. Behind the scenes, he has also carried out untold quiet acts of kindness. In recent years, he has even sung to local residents in care homes to perk them up a bit.
But possibly not for much longer. His majority has been slowly slumping, from 27,149 in 1997 to 5,288 in 2017.
Opinion polls suggest that it has since fallen by a further 23 per cent.
What has changed? Brexit is testing party loyalties to breaking point.
Les Layden, 58, a former miner who worked underground from the age of 16, has voted Labour in every general election and for Leave in the EU referendum, but he is rebelling against Jeremy Corbyn’s inertia on the most important issue of our time.
‘I love Dennis, but Corbyn is one prize moron. I can’t stand him,’ says Les.
‘He’s a hypocrite who skips and jumps between decisions and won’t commit to anything. He’s not the man for the job. I will vote Labour again, but not while Corbyn’s in charge.’ Yet Les can’t bring himself to vote Conservative. ‘Tory’s the Satan option around here,’ he adds.
Bolsover residents also said they are turning away from Labour because of Jeremy Corbyn, pictured in Whitby on Sunday. Former miner Les Layden, 58, who has always voted Labour said the party’s leader is a ‘prize moron’
So, a week on Thursday, he will plump for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Others, though, will make the leap, including Malcolm, 65, a retired spring-maker.
‘They treated us as stupid because we voted Leave. I’m not stupid,’ he says. ‘I voted “out” because we’ve got no control of this country. I’m not voting for Corbyn because he’s a pillock, and I’m voting Conservative because Boris is still trying to get us out.’
Dave, 68, feels similarly. He worked for 25 years in the local pit, followed by 20 years as a steel erector.
Over a pint in The Pillar Of Rock pub, beneath a giant painting of a coalmine, he says: ‘I’ve been always, always Labour. But not this time. Because of Corbyn. Because he’s not good enough. He’s got no backbone.’
‘Or b******s,’ adds one of his pals. ‘Yes, no b******s at all,’ agrees Dave.
So, despite the history, the pit closures, the Thatcher-hating, he, too, will be going blue. The whole town feels a bit desperate.
The town centre of Bolsover, pictured, has filled with cheap takeaways, boarded up pubs and an abandoned pizzeria
Over the past 40 years, the people of Bolsover have been battered and buffeted. The coalmines were once the heart of everything, but the miners’ strike split communities and soured friendships after some miners broke picket lines and returned to work.
Today, unemployment is high, literacy and ethnic diversity are low by national standards, and poverty is rife.
‘Our town has suffered,’ says Les. ‘There are so many ways the Government could have helped us, but they don’t help with anything.’
In The Pillar Of Rock pub, Steve, a former Labour councillor, echoes his sentiments: ‘We feel neglected in every way. Nobody listens, nobody cares.’
While many locals are politically engaged, with strong, well thought-out views, a worrying number have given up.
A clutch of women in the Bolsover Community Centre tell me they have never voted.
‘What’s the point?’ asks one. ‘Nobody down there [in London] listens to us up here.’
Which is a crying shame. Because there is so much good here — history, extraordinary friendliness, kindness and an overwhelming sense of community. Times may be tough, but the Christmas tree in the main square has been dressed and a lantern parade from the castle is planned.
Former president of Cambridge students’ union and Conservative candidate for Bolsover Mark Fletcher, 34, left, on the campaign trail with Tory Health secretary Matt Hancock
Yet there is something so dislocated about Bolsover you feel its people’s pain. And this sense of bitter isolation makes it ripe for an electoral earthquake.
‘Labour has stabbed us all in the back,’ says Malcolm. ‘At least Boris is trying to get us out of the EU.’
One thing is certain: they will definitely get change if they swap the Beast for Tory candidate Mark Fletcher, 34, a former president of the Cambridge students’ union who has worked as an aide in the House of Lords.
The grandson of a miner, state- educated Fletcher once admitted turning into a ‘groomzilla’ in the run- up to his Twenties-themed wedding to husband Will Knock.
The people of Bolsover, however much they love their Beast, often say he’s too long in the tooth.
‘He’s too old. He’s not up to the job any more’ is the refrain from many people I speak to.
‘He’s 87! We love him, but he should step aside and make way,’ says an old chap in a maroon baseball hat.
‘It was always going to be a strange election,’ says Anne Western.
And if they lose? ‘He’ll be devastated.’
Of course he will.
But perhaps not as devastated as the people of Bolsover have been left, after their shoddy treatment by the party to which they gave their hearts and their lives.