Rugby League

An A-Z Journey Around Britain

49 Wigan

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In the Wigan Annual World Pie Eating Championship the contestants are now entitled to select a vegetarian option. The contest has had a controversial past. Pies, which are five inches in diameter, have sometimes been ordered in insufficient numbers and for some contests they were sourced from outside Wigan. Rigour is now demanded by both contestants and spectators. Because the contest measures capacity and speed and targets are sometimes self-selected, the best performance is difficult to establish from the official list of winners. Seven pies in three minutes is a performance that impresses me and it distinguishes an exceptional champion.

Northern rain and cold produce an appetite for comfort food, which may be why there are pie eating contests and why, in Wigan, Heinz has located the largest food producing facility in Europe. The locals also like a pint. The times I watched Liverpool play Wigan in the Premiership, I would visit a pub afterwards. Everybody in that pub drank bitter, no lager for the sensible of Wigan. Although it won the FA Cup and triumphed as underdogs, the football team was relegated. Rugby League remains the dominant sport in the town and so it should. Wigan has the most successful club in British Rugby League. Now called the Wigan Warriors it has won the World Club Championship three times.

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Traffic is a problem in Wigan but once the car is parked it is a good place to visit. Wigan has 216 listed buildings. I was a student in Wigan for a brief period and used the Taylor Library. Mill owner Thomas Taylor helped to fund the building of the Library.   Sitting amongst its oak furniture and able to wander its two floors, I felt indulged. It is a museum today but it remains a marvellous legacy.

In the Civil War the town was Royalist and did not waver. The same steadfastness endures today but the spirit is more radical. Wigan has returned Labour MPs since 1910. George Orwell lived amongst Wigan miners in the 1930s and was horrified by the conditions of British workers. His horror he made available to readers in Road To Wigan Pier. The Leeds to Liverpool Canal passes through Wigan. The Pier is a wharf on the side of the canal. The mills have been converted into an unattractive heritage centre where industrial history is revised to produce propaganda that conforms to the post-Thatcherite hegemony of Britain.

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From 1973 to 1981 Wigan Casino attracted Northern Soul fans to its all-nighters. In the USA the music magazine Billboard named it the best disco in the world. Even then there were a lot of places where dancers could shake their tail feathers, so best in the world meant something. Today the famous ballroom has disappeared under the Grand Arcade, a recent retail development.  Wigan has fine arcades, light, narrow and tall tunnels that are a surprise when you step inside. Makinsons Arcade is the best of them all. It has been refurbished and that was essential but the romance has been lost. Now it is pleasant functionalism.

The same polish has been applied to music. Sweaty all-nighters have been replaced by a cerebral International Jazz Festival. Vegetarians are welcome, of course.

Next week, world land speed records and slow footballers that never get booked, Wolverhampton

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.

 

 

 

 

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An A-Z Journey Around Britain

27 Leeds

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I was once invited into the dressing room of Leeds United Football Club. Howard Wilkinson was the manager. He was not present. I stared at a diagram behind the head of the man who was talking and saw two long arcs of blue ink meet a cross near the top of a whiteboard.   Howard Wilkinson left Leeds United and became the technical director of English football.   Moments, such as when I stood in front of that whiteboard, can make a man bitter.

Leeds, though, should not be judged on the basis of crude long ball football tactics. The high status West Yorkshire Playhouse has managed to combine success and an uncompromising repertory. It also does fine work for the community. The University is successful and prosperous. It has a good central location and its architecture has helped the City retain a gothic style that has been lost in other English cities. The splendour is not consistent because of the investment in office blocks for the 25% of the population that work in finance. Trendy shops have followed. So parts of Leeds are dreary but these can be avoided. All it takes is a short walk.

65% of Leeds District is green belt, and the City is twenty miles from the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The Leeds Country Way is a circular 62 mile walk, and no point on the walk is further than seven miles from the City.

Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire 1797 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW0076

Kirkstall Abbey, Yorkshire 1797 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/TW0076

Also near is Kirkstall Abbey, which was built at the end of the 12th Century and housed Cistercian monks. The Abbey was painted by Turner. The Abbey cannot be criticised for failing to redeem a dull Harry Potter film. The ruins of the Abbey are close to the River Aire and near Headingley, so Rugby League and cricket fans might be tempted to visit. Leeds Rhinos, the Rugby League Club, is as successful as the football team is a failure.   Leeds is the third biggest city in the UK but, because of mistakes by football entrepreneurs rather than the dim wits of Howard Wilkinson, Rugby League remains popular in the City.

50% of the UK manufacturing industry is within a two hour drive of the City. While Liverpool suffered under Thatcher, Leeds made economic progress. It may or may not be an irony that the Headquarters of what used to be the Benefits Agency was located in Leeds. The building has a brutal matchbox style and has been nicknamed The Kremlin by locals. Elsewhere there is economic relief denied those on benefits. The Victoria Centre is the finest shopping arcade in the North of England. The Victoria Hotel is a pub that was saved from demolition by local activists and it has been acknowledged by the Leeds Civic Trust which said that it had ‘splendid Victorian features’ and that it made ‘a valuable contribution to City life.’ It serves a decent pint, too.

The good news continues. Despite the close presence of the Pennines, Leeds is one of the driest cities in Britain. For rare wet days it has the largest indoor covered market in Britain. There were two cholera outbreaks in the 19th Century but that was a long time ago.

Next week, ‘Scouse not British’, Liverpool

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.