Paul Simon wrote Homeward Bound while waiting to catch a train out of Widnes. The homesick singer did not settle in Britain, unlike the daughter of Elvis Presley who moved to Tunbridge Welles and who has sometimes sold fish and chips from the back of a van. She must think it quaint. Tunbridge Wells, though, is not Widnes. Runcorn is on the south bank where the Mersey estuary widens, and Widnes is on the north bank. The suspension bridge that crosses the estuary is magnificent but it is plagued by traffic in the rush hours.
Widnes expanded after a chemical factory was established there in 1845. Chemical manufacturing still provides employment for the locals. Social deprivation in Widnes is not exceptional but despite investment the town feels a poor choice for a place to live a life. Neither quite the outskirts of Liverpool nor an independent town, it has even swapped counties and now is condemned to being unwanted by not just Liverpool but Lancashire, where it used to be, and Cheshire, where it is now.
In the index to British listed buildings the interior of the town hall is described as ‘without interest’. The exterior, though, is a heart warming mix of red brick and tile and is packed with industrial gothic integrity. If the town is ordinary, Victoria Park is well maintained and it complements fresh air rather well. Spike Island has wildlife, a riverside walk and a nearby power station. It is a good place for a pedestrian to see the Runcorn-Widnes Bridge. Catalyst is a good name for a science museum that has won awards. The ticket prices reflect a desire to educate rather than make money.
The true passion in Widnes is Rugby League. Widnes Vikings are not rivals for the Lancashire giants, St Helens and Wigan, but they have a good stadium, and the team has had its moments, including being Rugby League World Champions in 1989. Widnes also has a Silver Blades Ice Rink and a two year old ice hockey team that has begun well.
The Brindley Theatre, which is in Runcorn, attracts customers from both sides of the estuary. It relies on tribute bands rather than fading talent, unlike the seaside theatres in the South. There are exceptions. Michael Portillo appears in February, and the talented actor Simon Callow in March. Callow will be talking about his hero and mine, Orson Welles. The ex-Tory Minister will be exploiting his enthusiasm for railways and trying to sell a book. The restaurants and pubs in Widnes and Runcorn are not memorable but the reviews for La Cantina in Trip Advisor are exceptionally good.
The name Widnes is derived from Vid Nase, which is supposed to be a Viking reference to the wide nose of the estuary.
On my last visit to Widnes I saw the Ronettes. Ronnie Spector had aged but her flirtation from the stage produced an uninhibited reaction in the men that would have shamed any redneck audience. Confident American women should be wary of the signals they give to men in small Northern towns. After that night Ronnie Spector understood. I saw a confident rock star retreat into an asexual shell. Like Paul Simon, the leader of the Ronettes did not return to Widnes.
Next week, arcades and motorcars, Wigan
Howard Jackson has had four books published by Red Rattle Books. His 11,000 mile journey around Brazil is described in Innocent Mosquitoes. His latest book and compilation of horror stories is called Nightmares Ahead. Published by Red Rattle Books and praised by critics, it is available here.
If you want to read more about his travels click here.