Wigan is located between Liverpool and Manchester, and is in the administrative thrall of the latter. It's perhaps most famous for a tourist attraction that doesn't exist, but music, food and sport also resonate. I was in town on Saturday morning, and explored three Wigan icons... [7 photos]
In 1936 George Orwell made a famous literary quest to seek out the soul of the industrial north, including three weeks amongst the slag heaps and muddy canals of Wigan. The poverty he found shocked him, but no semblance of Wigan Pier was forthcoming, the structure having been originally conjured up as a music hall joke. This of course hasn't stopped numerous tourists following in his wake, attempting to follow The Road To Wigan Pier, and I can now be included in their number.
In the 1980s the local council tidied up the post-industrial area around the canal basin to try to make something of the place. The largest warehouse became a museum called The Way We Were, focusing on the theme of "life in Wigan in Victorian times". Gibson's Warehouse, inside which narrowboats once moored up to unload, became a waterside pub called The Orwell. A demolished coal staithe was reinstated to ensure that there was a pier of sorts on site. Towpaths and boardwalks were spruced up, several heritage statues were scattered around for good measure, and even the Queen was drafted in for the official opening. Initially, at least, the place was a hit.
I turned up on a crackingspringmorning to discover that time has not been kind. The museum closed in 2007 due to low visitor numbers. The recession killed off the pub in 2009. Both are still boarded up and nudging dereliction, one propped up by scaffolding with a legal notice on the door debarring squatters. The waterbus service no longer operates. One of the dockers portrayed as a statue has had the top part of his head sliced off and looks like a 'B' movie monster. If you're a local businessperson with a financial deathwish, 1.43 acres of land are currently up for sale as an "iconic development opportunity".
Across the canal the Wigan Pier nightclub was demolished in 2015 to make way for a new leisure nucleus called Wigan Pier Quarter, although none of the promised mixed-use leisure redevelopment has yet taken place. The only immediate success is Trencherfield Mill, now flats and offices, but housing a 2500HP steam engine which fires up for visitors on occasional Sundays. This short stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal may still look impressive, but rings increasingly hollow. Wigan Pier is once again a victim of economic decline, perversely echoing what George Orwell found here eighty years ago.
'The Road To Wigan Pies' would more likely be a best seller today. The populace of Wigan adore their pies, which are very much the lunchtime snack of choice, in the same way that Cornwall loves pasties and Stoke-on-Trent lusts after oatcakes. I did my research beforehand and observed that family firm Galloways appear to be the purveyor of choice, so popped into one of their many turquoise fronted bakeries (immediately opposite the station) before the main rush started. You're never far from a pie shop in Wigan. I plumped for the classic meat and potato, resisting the temptation to coat it in a bread roll - the legendary pie barm. "That'll be £1.80," said the aproned lady, "and I've put a fork in there for you."
To enact a total Wigan cliche, I took my paper bag down to Wigan Pier and unwrapped it on the site of the former canalside nightclub. I'm not sure what size I was expecting, perhaps something narrower and thicker, but I was pleased enough with a scaled-down version of a full-size family savoury. The pastry was lush, and irregular enough to confirm a hand-finished means of production. As for the filling, well, let's just say there was a lot more potato than meat, but mixed together into a smooth peppery gloop which tasted a lot better than it looked. It was simply delicious, and deliciously simple, and I'm gutted to discover that Galloways have no outlets further south than St Helens. Next time, with gravy.
Northern Soul brought Wigan to life, specifically overnight at the WiganCasino. Crowds came from across the region to this former ballroom to enjoy a wild night dancing to classic tunes rarely spun down south, always ending up with the same three songs by Tobi Legend, Jimmy Radcliffe and Dean Parrish. In the Museum of Wigan Life* I watched a short documentary showed excitable youths queuing to enter the building, insistent in vox pops that none of the rest of the week mattered, while management stashed vast piles of pound notes behind the paydesk. Once inside they packed the dancefloor with their exuberant gyrations, flares flapping, on this occasion to the insistent soundtrack of What by Judy Street. Between 1973 and 1981 there was nowhere like it.
And then the club closed, and the next year it burnt down, and today the town's main shopping centre covers the site. Stepping inside the GrandArcade is no cathartic experience, the muzak choice is far poorer, and as tributes go the Casino Cafe food court in the upper mall lacks emotional nourishment. What there is downstairs is a statue of George Formby, Wigan's famous cheeky ukulelist, and my guess is that the Queen would far rather have attended its unveiling that that dull pier thing down the road. All the town's current nightclub options are crammed down King Street, from 80's-themed parties to bierkellers, in great enough numbers to suggest that escapism is still an essential part of life in Wigan.
* The Museum of Wigan Life is a one-gallery whistlestop tour of the town's heritage, from Roman encampments to rugby league success, housed in the town's former main library. If I'd been asked to guess I'd have assumed the displays were at least 20 years old, but apparently they only date back to 2010, so goodness knows what they spent the £1.9m restoration grant on.