An A-Z Journey Around Britain

49 Wigan


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.


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.


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.






An A-Z Journey Around Britain

46 Valentia Island


Valentia Island requires a detour from the journey around Britain. The detour is justified. Ireland is an independent state and country but it is located in the section of landscape that maps define as the British Isles. More important, when I go there I do not think of it as abroad. The island is reached by crossing the Maurice O’Neill Bridge from Portmagee, a town whose name is derived from an 18th Century smuggler who appreciated the intricate coast of the island. Maurice O’Neill was executed in 1940. He was arrested while staying in an IRA safe house. O’Neill was unlucky. The authorities were seeking his housemate Harry White who escaped. The escape by White began with a crawl through wilderness and finished with him stepping off a bus in O’Connell Street in Dublin and was worthy of Billy the Kid.

Knightstown is the urban centre of the island. It is home to 156 people. The locals are friendly but there have been the occasional clashes of cultures. Trendies can cause offence. I stayed outside Knightstown in a quiet community that had a pub. The landlord was not impressed by Americans who assumed that he would sell coffee. Whether he should have told one American to go away and used two alternative words I am not sure. He poured an impeccable pint but it was in the same pub that I came to the conclusion that Guinness was the most overhyped keg beer in the 3000 year old history of alcohol. I did not mention this to the landlord.

Times change. Now the island has a three day music festival in July. The festival this year had a lot of jazz, and, on a quiet island, mixing jazz and folk is a sensible idea.

Valentia Island has fabulous scenic views. The wildlife is varied, and so is the archaeological history. Early settlements are well preserved and are complimented by standing stones that exist in fine locations. The island has a Heritage Centre and a museum called the Skellig Experience. The island of Sceilig Mhichil is reached from Portmagee rather than Valentia Island. Sceilig Mhichil has a 6th Century monastic settlement. The monastery was abandoned in the 12th Century.   George Bernard Shaw described the island as ‘part of our dream world’.


Because Valentia Island is the western tip of Europe it possesses not only an attractive lighthouse but also the Valentia Observatory. This was built in 1868. It is the wettest weather station in Ireland but the skies over the Observatory are not as wet as those over the mountains of Kerry.   Rain did not deter the entrepreneurs who thought that there was money to be made from a Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. It took five attempts to lay it between Valentia Island and Hearts Content in Newfoundland but the two ships laying the cable finally met in the right place in 1858. The first telegraph between Valentia Island and Hearts Content mentioned the glory of God and offered peace and goodwill to all men. Some people thought that the technological breakthrough would unite the world. To them it must have felt like watching Coca Cola teaching the world to sing.   Imagine their surprise in 1914 and 1939.


Next week, Dracula and a whalebone, Whitby

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.