At a McDonald’s rest stop just off the M1 motorway, I’m wolfing down a Filet-O-Fish that tastes like raw Play-Doh and scrolling through Google Maps in search of the Death Star. The site where I’ve been told it’s located is a place of Star Wars legend. It’s said to contain the decapitated bodies of Rogue Squadron pilots, broken X-Wings and hundreds of severed Stormtrooper body parts. What’s more, there’s a rumor that under all the rubble and debris are the remains of none other than the Millennium Falcon.
In Return of the Jedi, the final battle between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire takes place on the moon of Endor. What the Star Wars canon doesn’t seem to explain, though, is why the remnants of this war are located in the middle of the U.K. — specifically, in the small industrial town of Coalville.
If you’re the type of Star Wars fan who collects rare toys, comic books and memorabilia, Coalville probably sounds familiar. The town has been a subject on Star Wars fan forums basically since the birth of the internet. Throughout the ensuing years, it’s been at the center of countless arguments and online flame wars. On forums and Star Wars Facebook groups, users have been banned after issuing threats to other fans wanting to visit the town. Still, every year, dozens of geeks like me from around the world descend upon the streets of Coalville to ask locals whether they, too, have read the rumors.
Why is this small town in Leicestershire a Mecca for Star Wars nerds? Because it’s rumored to be the home of the “Palitoy Landfill,” a garbage dump where, supposedly, thousands of dollars’ worth of Star Wars toys, once produced by now-defunct manufacturer Palitoy, are buried.
It seems like it’d be easy to come to a conclusion here. Most landfills aren’t exactly hard to miss. But though stories about the Palitoy landfill have existed for decades, to this day no one seems to have found it.
I first learned of the Palitoy landfill on r/starwarscanon, a subreddit dedicated to studying the nooks and crannies of the Star Wars universe. It’s the place where you argue about the minor points in the Extended Universe novels or source rare figurines. Here, I noticed that a growing number of Star Wars fans were looking for “British Palitoy originals” — toys that dated back to the 1970s, when Star Wars: A New Hope was released.
I get the nostalgic appeal. For many Europeans, a figurine made by Palitoy would have been their first introduction to Star Wars. But for collectors like Ian Rowe, 50, who lives in New York City, the legend of Palitoy also comes from the uniqueness of the toys — that is, Palitoy figurines were probably the best quality in the world. Rowe, in fact, calls Palitoy “a big part of toy history.” The brand was “at the forefront of toys and plastics manufacturing,” he explains. “They were the first company in the 1970s and 1980s to make toys that paid attention to detail. You can see wrinkles in the clothes that Luke Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi wears, or the facial expressions they have. Even the hands curl up so they can hold a gun or a lightsaber.”
Naturally, there are dozens of Palitoy-collector Facebook groups dedicated to tracking down rare figurines. In these groups, members chart rumors about unreleased toys, search and bid on models they see on Reddit, and of course, speculate on which models are still hidden in Coalville.
It’s in one of these groups where I find my first clue to the location of the Palitoy site. James (not his real name; he didn’t want other members knowing he was speaking to me) is a member of several Palitoy-tracking groups, and he claims to be in possession of extremely rare toys, which he’s accumulated through years of interviews, forum-lurking and trips to Coalville. After we chat on Facebook, he sends me the GPS coordinates of the spot: a piece of land next to a farm called Lount Pit. And so, I stuff the rest of my fries into my mouth, wipe my hands on the front of my jeans and jump back in the car.
When I arrive, I only see the barren stretch of road that leads me to Coalville. I take several laps around, only to be confronted with the same series of green English pastures and open fields. I stop at the side of the road, put on my hazards and take deep breaths. I’m reminded of the scene in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke arrives on an empty Dagobah as he searches for a mythical warrior known as Yoda. Granted, Luke probably didn’t have to take so many U-turns in his X-Wing.
Before long, I meet my own Jedi master: a guy called Liam, who’s coming back from his lunch break. Wearing a white hard hat, a high-vis jacket and scuffed camel-skin workman’s jeans, he has a strong Midlands accent, and when I ask him about the Palitoy landfill, he gives me a look of confusion. “Do you like Star Wars?” I ask him. “Nah, mate,” he replies. “I only really watch the football.”
Still, Liam confirms that there is an industrial recycling dump nearby. He takes me to a side street, a quarter-mile from where my car is parked, and I arrive at a fairly normal-looking trash collection site with several colored bins. When I ask one of the workers about Palitoy and Star Wars toys, I’m once again met with befuddlement. “People usually come here to chuck away old wood and garden refuse,” one of the guys tells me. I look into one of the trash compactors for plastics — hoping, perhaps, to spot a Stormtrooper model — but all I see are plastic water bottles, My Little Pony backpacks and some silver whippets.
I message James on Facebook to tell him I found nothing. He doesn’t respond. Perhaps he gave me the wrong address. Or, more likely, I got played.
Not the Toys You’re Looking For
Palitoy was founded in Coalville in 1919 by the inventor Alfred Edward Pallett. Originally, the company specialized in celluloid plastics, which meant that it could produce products like figurines, where models could be flexibly molded and keep their shape as they hardened. It started off making plastic windmills and baby rattles, but by 1937, it had moved to manufacturing toys, including American brands like Action Man and G.I Joe. Palitoy was acquired in 1968 by General Mills, and by 1977, when it landed the license to make and distribute Star Wars toys in the U.K. and Europe, the factory was Coalville’s biggest employer. The success of Star Wars around the world meant that by 1978, Palitoy was turning over £20 million annually — making it one of the U.K.’s most successful companies that decade.
“Everyone who grew up here probably had a relative who worked at the Palitoy factory,” says Joe Hand, owner of the Leicester Vintage Toy Shop. On the shelves that line the shop walls are collections of vintage memorabilia: series like Doctor Who, Stargate, Red Dwarf, and yes, some original Palitoy Star Wars toys.
Palitoy is at the core of Coalville’s history, Hand says. Nearly everyone here has some memory of it. “When Palitoy really expanded, it was huge. And if you were a kid, it was great because there would always be odd stock — mistakes in the molding, or an error, which meant it couldn’t be sold in a shop, and you could either get it for free or buy it at a dirt-cheap price.”
Because of the excesses in stock — the result of experimentation in plastics, as well as poor factory management, Hand says — toys were taken not to one, but multiple landfills across Leicester. Lount Pit was one of the bigger landfills for toys in the 1980s, but Hand remembers hearing stories from his friends who would sneak out at night to get toys from the back of trucks, or from garbage skips, before they were dumped and paved over with concrete. One of his friends, he says, was even able to get a rare Millennium Falcon set — something that was high in demand when the Star Wars movies first came out. He says it could be worth “thousands” if auctioned today.
But why wouldn’t there be an official record? Partly, Hand says, because burying toys in makeshift landfill sites wasn’t particularly well-regulated in the 1970s and 1980s, and Palitoy usually paid farmers and landowners to bury old or defective stock. “I don’t think anyone looked at the toys back then and thought they would be collector’s items,” Hand says. “No one even knew if Star Wars would be a success outside of America, or whether it would still be famous today.”
A lack of records means that the sites of the landfills tend to be secretive, stored in people’s memory or kept in close-knit circles. When details are disclosed, it’s often in exchange for information or a rare toy. When I ask Hand if he knows where any of the sites are, and if he’d be willing to help me on my quest, he’s cagey. Even off the record, he can’t help. “I’m the only person who knows where some of the sites are, and that’s based on a lot of interviews with people, and visitors who come into the shop who happen to have information,” he says.
At the same time, Hand keeps a close eye on internet rumors. He’s developed a nose for fake information. “I remember there was a guy on a [forum] who clearly wasn’t from the U.K., and he claimed to have information on a rare Palitoy site with a lot of rare action figures,” Hand recalls. The only problem was that the guy in question gave an address that contained a postcode nearly 40 miles away from Coalville. He kept insisting that it was true, “even though it clearly was a misdirection!”
A New Hope
As I drive to Coalville town from Hand’s store, I realize that it’s unlikely anyone would be willing to share the information I need when I have nothing in return to offer — they likely think I’m just looking to make a few thousand dollars at an auction.
But I’m determined to leave with at least a hint of where a site may be, so I decide to ask a few locals in town. “Use the Force, Hussein,” I hear Obi-Wan tell me as I look for signs of Star Wars fandom. It takes me to Greggs, a chain bakery I can only describe as a British Panera. Inside, I awkwardly ask diners sipping tea and nibbling on iced buns what they remember about Palitoy. Mostly, they shrug me off — until a local in her 40s named Barbara Hall stops me. Palitoy landfill raids formed part of her childhood, she says. “My two older brothers used to go out and bring back bags full of toys!” she tells me. Her brothers and their male friends would usually visit a site a few kilometers away from their home, on Jackson Street — one of the Palitoy factory sites. Hall doesn’t remember many details, but she tells me I might be able to find one of the sites near Coalville’s Forest Park.
I hop back in the car feeling like Han Solo about to complete the Kessel Run.
The Town That Was
What happened to Palitoy? In short, deindustrialization, and the movement of plastics production to Taiwan. In the space of just a few years, Coalville went from being a manufacturing powerhouse to a town that was left with nothing when Palitoy shuttered in 1994.
Filmmaker Matthew Holt, the producer of Palitoy documentary A Landfill Far, Far Away, says the company represents more than just toy nostalgia for Coalville residents and local historians — it was a symbol of the town’s greatness in a bygone era. “A lot of people I’ve spoken to who worked at Palitoy weren’t Star Wars fans,” Holt tells me. “But they still have very fond memories of the factory and the town. It’s why many of them want to see the toys in a museum: Star Wars toys are a reminder to some people of the vibrant community that used to be here.” Holt has memories of family friends who found themselves unemployed overnight when Palitoy moved its manufacturing overseas.
He’s got countless interviews for his documentary, but there’s one thing he’s missing: footage of a site being dug up. Many of them have been paved over with concrete, he says, and anyone wanting to excavate would need to go through a ton of legal paperwork and employ professional archaeologists to carry out the dig.
Does he know where any of the landfills are, though? Holt just laughs. He wonders how the town might change if the locations ever became public. “There’s something fun about all the rumors and mysteries, the people you have to get through to find information,” Holt says. “It definitely brings a lot of people from different walks of life together.”
In terms of my quest, as I arrive at Forest Park, I find myself at a dead end — or, in my case, a car park. The lot is wedged between a physiotherapy center and a set of modern offices, most of which are available to rent. I have no idea where I’d even start looking for a landfill. Perhaps, like the Lount Pit, the landfill of toys has been buried in the park, covered in layers upon layers of dirt and grass. Or maybe the landfill site was cemented over, and only a strong connection with the Force, or an extremely strong piece of ground-radar technology, could detect whether or not I was standing on an abundance of plastic.
I circle the area a few times and notice someone in the office looking at me from their office window. We exchange looks — and a feeling of despair, a loss of hope, a questioning of what the hell we’re doing with our lives. Like so many pilgrims before me, my journey has ended in failure. I will not be going home with a golden medallion for bravery. Like Anakin Skywalker, I will not be allowed onto the Jedi Council.
But while I may not be returning back to London with a mastery of the Force, I’ve learned about the different ways nostalgia can shape a community. Sure, it might be easy to make fun of grown adults squabbling over — or driving hundreds of miles for — toys of fictional characters; however, for the people of Coalville, the importance of those toys has nothing to do with Star Wars or its fandom. Rather, they’re a reminder of a time when Coalville was at its prime — and what it could maybe be again.