diamond geezer

 Monday, April 23, 2018

Gadabout: WIGAN

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]

Wigan Pier
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 cracking spring morning 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.

Wigan pies
'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.

Wigan Casino
Northern Soul brought Wigan to life, specifically overnight at the Wigan Casino. 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 Grand Arcade 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.

<< click for Newer posts

click for Older Posts >>

click to return to the main page

...or read more in my monthly archives
Jan20  Feb20  Mar20  Apr20  May20  Jun20  Jul20
Jan19  Feb19  Mar19  Apr19  May19  Jun19  Jul19  Aug19  Sep19  Oct19  Nov19  Dec19
Jan18  Feb18  Mar18  Apr18  May18  Jun18  Jul18  Aug18  Sep18  Oct18  Nov18  Dec18
Jan17  Feb17  Mar17  Apr17  May17  Jun17  Jul17  Aug17  Sep17  Oct17  Nov17  Dec17
Jan16  Feb16  Mar16  Apr16  May16  Jun16  Jul16  Aug16  Sep16  Oct16  Nov16  Dec16
Jan15  Feb15  Mar15  Apr15  May15  Jun15  Jul15  Aug15  Sep15  Oct15  Nov15  Dec15
Jan14  Feb14  Mar14  Apr14  May14  Jun14  Jul14  Aug14  Sep14  Oct14  Nov14  Dec14
Jan13  Feb13  Mar13  Apr13  May13  Jun13  Jul13  Aug13  Sep13  Oct13  Nov13  Dec13
Jan12  Feb12  Mar12  Apr12  May12  Jun12  Jul12  Aug12  Sep12  Oct12  Nov12  Dec12
Jan11  Feb11  Mar11  Apr11  May11  Jun11  Jul11  Aug11  Sep11  Oct11  Nov11  Dec11
Jan10  Feb10  Mar10  Apr10  May10  Jun10  Jul10  Aug10  Sep10  Oct10  Nov10  Dec10 
Jan09  Feb09  Mar09  Apr09  May09  Jun09  Jul09  Aug09  Sep09  Oct09  Nov09  Dec09
Jan08  Feb08  Mar08  Apr08  May08  Jun08  Jul08  Aug08  Sep08  Oct08  Nov08  Dec08
Jan07  Feb07  Mar07  Apr07  May07  Jun07  Jul07  Aug07  Sep07  Oct07  Nov07  Dec07
Jan06  Feb06  Mar06  Apr06  May06  Jun06  Jul06  Aug06  Sep06  Oct06  Nov06  Dec06
Jan05  Feb05  Mar05  Apr05  May05  Jun05  Jul05  Aug05  Sep05  Oct05  Nov05  Dec05
Jan04  Feb04  Mar04  Apr04  May04  Jun04  Jul04  Aug04  Sep04  Oct04  Nov04  Dec04
Jan03  Feb03  Mar03  Apr03  May03  Jun03  Jul03  Aug03  Sep03  Oct03  Nov03  Dec03
 Jan02  Feb02  Mar02  Apr02  May02  Jun02  Jul02 Aug02  Sep02  Oct02  Nov02  Dec02 

eXTReMe Tracker
jack of diamonds
Life viewed from London E3

» email me
» follow me on twitter
» follow the blog on Twitter
» follow the blog on RSS

my flickr photostream