Wigan, a borough of north west England, situated north east of Liverpool, was an important market town in the Middle Ages. Nowadays it is an industrial city in a coal-mining region and has a population of 310,000. If you draw a straight line between Liverpool and Manchester, Wigan will be roughly in the middle. A somewhat strange and parochial place, it has a number of, perhaps dubious, claims to fame.
How to Get There
For a small and some would say, insignificant place, Wigan is uncommonly blessed with transport links. It sits astride the M6, one of the ubiquitous British motorways. The ghostly M58, down which people rarely venture, runs to Southport (popular with retirees). The M62 will take you off towards Manchester, or all the way to Leeds if you don't pay attention. The A49 is a lightly-vehicled ring-road encircling the town.
Of Wigan's original three railway stations, Central is now gone, but Wallgate (trains to Manchester, Liverpool, and Rainford, plus smaller intermediate stations) and North Western (2 3/4 hours from London) live on. The ultimate destination of the train from London to Wigan is Glasgow, and so in its carriages, one can usually find 'friendly' Glaswegians.
There are some in Wigan, and one features the famous Wigan Pier. Wigan is included on the route of the redeveloped Leeds - Liverpool canal, which does a neat little shimmy around the town centre before heading up towards Haigh Hall (see below), where it now acts as a repository of golf balls from the golf course. In the summer months, kids can be spotted retrieving the golf balls, which they sell back to the golfers who lost them. It is not clear what they use the profits to pay for.
What to Do when you Get There
Watch Wigan Rugby League Football Club's Team
One of Wigan's greatest claims to fame are the cherry and white jerseys of WRLFC. During the late 1980s and 1990s, Wigan's team became the Manchester United1 of rugby league, winning every competition they entered. During this period, the team took the field to the strains of the appropriately titled but musically embarrassing 'Enter the Gladiators'. This is better know as the clown music, dit-dit-diddle-diddle dat-dat daa-daa....
Central Park, a focal point of the Wigan psyche, the old town-centre ground was sold off by the club's management in 1999 and is now the site of a Tesco supermarket. The team now calls itself Wigan Warriors and plays at Robin Park, which you can't really get to unless you have a car or pay for a taxi.
The main culinary highlight of Wigan - far ahead of chips and pea-wet (mushy peas) or curry sauce, and even esteemed beyond Uncle Joe and his famed Mint Ball - is the pie. The pie's contents are rarely named, but vegetarians steer clear of them out of superstition and (perhaps) well founded fear, opting instead for the lower-status cheese and onion pie or pastie. The classic pie is of course meat and potato wrapped in delightful crispy pastry. The Wigan pie ingredients come served in a thin metal dish which serves to make the pastry go squishy. It usually sticks to the metal dish, and the scraping necessary to remove the lower crust grants consumers the added danger of ending up with thin shavings of metal as part of their meal.
The principal pie outlet in Wigan was Pooles. This company for many years operated out of three outlets in the centre of town, one of which had facilities for Wiganers to sit down and enjoy their pies at a table, where they could be entertained by the antics of the sometimes unpredictable staff. Buoyed by their status as the premier pie providers for Wigan, Pooles began to acquire shops formerly run by minor players in the pie league, Rathbones and Greggs. Pooles outlets cropped up in such places as Mesnes (pronounced 'mains') Road and Beech Hill Avenue.
Marvel at the Pie Event Horizon
In the late 1990s disaster struck the indigenous pie economy. The massively bloated wildebeest of a pie oligarchy that was Pooles collapsed in on itself, with the result that all of its shops disappeared overnight, their windows painted with whitewash so the townsfolk could not nostalgically peruse the dark interiors. Cast onto the inferior suppliers for their pie fix, the morale of Wiganers slumped, as witnessed by a contemporaneous decline in the performance of the local pie-fuelled rugby team.
Discover the History of Pie Eating
Wiganers are reputed to have gained the epithet 'pie-eaters' not for their voracious appetite for pastry products, but from their abject collapse in the general strike (early 20th Century). The Wiganers took what managers offered, ate the humble pie that was being served up, and helped to break the strike, gaining the contempt of workers in surrounding areas. In a bizarre transference, the population retained and took to heart the 'pie-eating' insult, and transformed it into a battle standard. Bus loads of rugby league supporters who frequently travelled to see their team play for top honours at Wembley2 (how strange that a principally northern sport should have to play its season-topping match in London) would display 'Pie Eater' banners from the windows, and chant 'Pie Eaters' for all they were worth. Little thought ever seemed to be given to the history of 'scabbing' that lay behind the name. For the Wiganers were 'Pie-eaters and proud of it.'.
Keep All Aglow with Uncle Joe's Mintballs
Uncle Joe's Mintballs keep you all aglow.
Give them to your granny, and watch the b*gger go.
Or so the local Uncle Joe legend would have it. These powerful minty spheres are made by the WM Santus company whose factory can be found in the throbbing heart of Wigan - smells emanating from the building give the surrounding streets a distinctive sickly sweet candy floss odour. Uncle Joe's are suitable for vegans, and can be found on the regional delicacies stands of some of the larger supermarkets.
Have a Nice Stroll in Haigh Hall Park
Haigh Hall is a stately home in Wigan, now run by the council and can be hired as a venue for wedding ceremonies and outdoor events (rock gigs). The extensive grounds are open to the public. They provide a popular place for walking the dog or just having a stroll in pleasant surrounds. The 'Duggie' (River Douglas) runs through the park, and is coloured red instead of the customary transparency. In the grounds of Haigh Hall is a miniature railway, established by the council's former erstwhile Director of Leisure Services, the splendidly-named Mr Gilbert Swift (now retired).
Smell the Smells of Mesnes Park
Mesnes Park, on the north side of town, is a classic example of Victorian municipal park design, with long straight avenues, neat flowerbeds (when they haven't been trampled on or urinated in) and even a bandstand. A statue of Wigan luminary, Sir Francis Sharpe Powell (MP) stands on a plinth inscribed 'erected by public subscription'. One memorable characteristic of the statue is that while it is mostly coated in verdigris3 corrosion, one toe-end of a shoe remains splendid and shiny, as superstitious Wiganers rub it for good luck.
Brave The Pubs
Of the many pubs in Wigan - Our Researcher recommends The Tudor (see below), the Bowling Green (no bowling green) and the Beer Engine (with bowling green) as the main contenders. In these locales, some distance from the town centre, people wear reasonable amounts of clothing for the prevailing weather conditions, and sit down to enjoy hand pumped pints of nut brown ale.
The Tudor - Home of the 'alternative' crowd, it boasts a dance-floor some six-feet square, booth style seating, and occasional music events. Located on New Market Street, right next to the Bus Station, it is popular with students and older regulars. Ask the landlord, Russell, about how he lost his fingers for an exciting yarn, and ask his wife, Frances, the same question for an entirely different answer. The clientele has decorated The Tudor house's once pristine white walls with a fascinating array of graffiti, from which may be learned the principal neuroses and obsessions of the anguished 'misunderstood' students who have been lurking there since the walls were last painted. Some characters choose greater permanence by carving their inane comments into the wall. Contrary to the impression given by the sign outside, the Tudor has not had a function room since the bus station was built (circa 1988). Time moves on, The Tudor remains much the same.
Our Researcher recommends discretion when visiting other Wigan drinking establishments.
Gawk at Semi-naked People
Visitors venturing into the centre of Wigan on a Friday or Saturday night during the high summer will not be surprised to encounter large numbers of lasses in skimpy attire and lads in their shirt sleeves, all enjoying the balmy temperate climate of North West England. What is surprising is that the self-same visitor, when arriving in Wigan in the depths of frosty January, will find the dress-code remains much the same. The only concession to the weather is for the barely-decent women to adopt 'the stance'.
Adopt 'The Stance'
Put on pair of tall high heels. This will help you to attain the perfect 'tottering' gait, that is only truly mastered when done on the strength of 12 bottles of Diamond White cider.
Ensure that you are wearing no more clothes than strictly necessary to avoid arrest.
Wait for January (or that cold snap the UK gets in August).
Fold your arms and hug them tightly across your chest, if possible pushing your boobs upwards.
Walk quickly with very short strides from the Bees Knees to EmBarGo, trying to look impervious to the cold.
For added points try shouting things like 'Garreeh' (translation: 'Please come here, Gary'), and other choice phrases from the Wigan vocabulary.
For males, only steps 3, 5 and 6 are required. Attempts at the other stages may result in ridicule and/or death, as may departing from the strict 'Ben Sherman' shirt uniform.
Buy a Second-hand Heavy Metal Record at Steve's Stall
The best place in Wigan to buy a second hand Iron Maiden album for less than £5. Steve's is located in a cubby-hole near the outdoor market, on the side nearest Smiths of Wigan. Steve is a Beatles obsessive - in some ten years of visiting the stall, our Researcher can report never having witnessed Steve ever choosing to play music by any non-Beatles-related artist. He even has Ringo's records. For dedication to the cause (come rain or shine, he's always there, crammed into the tiny space behind his little counter) and for having had enough decent LPs over the years to inspire the youth of Wigan to great musical heights, Steve's deserves mention in any psychogeography of Wigan. And he may offer you a cup of tea in a styrofoam cup - if you'll go and get it.
Oh, and talking of music, one of the finest British bands in many a year - The Verve - all originally came from Wigan.