Nostalgia, rediscovered

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Today, I had arranged to visit an elderly member of my family who lives in one of the more rural parts of town so I decided to combine the visit with a short walk in her locality, an area I know well – or thought I did.

Early lock- down restrictions led to a lot of people exploring their local areas and finding walks and green spaces that had hitherto been unknown to them, or which would previously have been eschewed in favour of more exciting destinations. Unfortunately, options close to my own home are very few so I haven’t been out and about for quite some time. Travelling still has its complications and limitations, especially for users of public transport. Before the pandemic, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to set off on today’s walk, but an unexpected feeling of nostalgia and a desire to be near to water enticed me quite literally down memory lane.

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My walk started at Hey Brook where it runs under the main road at the boundary of the villages of Abram and Bickershaw. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries this was coal mining country, an area of heavy industry, but the pits are long gone, leaving behind what I remember as a wasteland where once had stood giant winding gear, mountains of coal and railway tracks. The sign for a caravan site points not in the direction of a place for holiday-making, but to a notorious travellers’ camp. The road is the start of a short nature trail to Low Hall Park, about a mile and a half away, and not my destination today.

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Not many people head that way because of the travelling community’s very aggressive dogs, which roam freely around the site and onto the public footpath. A couple of terrifying childhood encounters on that path, including an incident where a cousin’s clothes were torn by one really vicious hound, left me frightened of dogs for many years. Needless to say, it’s not the fault of the animals, and I love dogs now.

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Somewhere along the path is a memorial plaque which marks approximately the place where on 30th April 1945 an entire train – locomotive engine and 13 wagons – disappeared into the New Zealand shaft of Low Hall Colliery. Without warning, a huge chasm opened up where the shaft had been filled in in 1932. The body of the driver, 67 year old Ludovic Berry, was never recovered and remains 150 ft below ground with his beloved  train, Dolly, which he had driven for 35 years. I would have liked to seek out the plaque but I confess I’m not courageous enough to risk another encounter with a travelling dog.

Back across the road and through the kissing gate I was on another path which I hadn’t been along for 35 years or more. Behind me, a section of Hey Brook emerged as a trickle beneath the bridge where a large amount of litter had accumulated, and then twisted to the south on its course towards Pennington Flash in nearby Leigh.

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My surroundings, lush and green, a plantation of young oak and beech trees and wild vegetation, were nothing like the barren landscape I had walked over with friends and cousins in the 1970s and early ’80s. Known as the ‘rucks’, a local word for the site of a demolished colliery, it stretched out for miles, still littered with bits of mining detritus and the masonry of smashed-up outbuildings. We used to walk that way to get to a small flash – another word from the lexicon of coal mining – a lake created where water had filled an area of mining subsidence. That’s where I was headed.

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I hoped I would still be able to find my way there and that the path had not been rerouted.

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The transformation from industrial desert to botanical haven was truly wonderful.

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Pollinators’ paradise

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Tracks led off in other directions but I had the main path to myself, and it felt a little surreal to be in a place both familiar and unfamiliar.

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I felt like I could have been in an art- house film; no sound except bird song and the camera lens focused on flora and fauna.

There were no trees when I was last here, but now there is a woodland in the making.

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The path ended in another place that I knew, yet didn’t know. Last time I was here it was open and bare, but instinctively I knew the way.

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Polly’s Pond to me, or Kingsdown Flash to give it its proper name, came into view. I remember a friend’s grandma telling me that when she was young it used to be known as Auntie Polly’s. Nobody knew why, or who the mysterious ancient aunt was.

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The sky was mostly grey but emerging patches of blue were reflected in the water. Families of ducks swam in formation, approaching fishermen and walkers, clearly used to being offered food.

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Back in the day, kids used to launch dinghies and kayaks onto the pond. Staying at the water’s shallow edge, I remember wading in up to my knees and examining tadpoles and frog spawn and trying to avoid leeches, not always with success. Algae on the surface was known as Nanny Green Teeth, the malicious old water spirit who would suck children under if they got out of their depth and gave her the chance. Today, this seems to be the domain of anglers –  and their very patient dogs.

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I took a stroll on the gravel path. Trees screened the flash from view for the most part, and many openings were occupied by fishermen. Not all though.

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I retraced my steps along the green path, encountering a group of beautiful horses along the way, they and their riders more than happy to pose for the camera.

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This short and very humble walk gave me immense enjoyment, not only because it was an opportunity to be out in nature again, but because it was a lovely example of environmental improvement and enrichment at a time when so much green space is being lost to development. Here, the trend is very much reversed. I have rediscovered a place from my past as a new place that will be part of my future.

It’s turned out nice again

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In the words of a well-known George Formby song, ‘it’s turned out nice again’ today. Though cold for the last day of March, the sun has shone and, more importantly, it’s been dry. The weather has become more, or less, significant to many of us over the past week or so. Dry days have made those permitted walks, runs and bike rides possible for those who are able to get outside their four walls. Even for those like me who are working from home, it’s great just to sit in the garden for a bit, or even do a bit of planting, pruning and tidying up.

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There is new growth in the garden, plenty of it, but not a lot of colour yet. With little prospect of holidays or even day trips for some time, those lucky enough to have even the smallest of green patches will, no doubt, enjoy them even more than usual in the weeks, or even possibly months, ahead. The few snowdrops that bloomed in my little garden are long gone, and one or two crocuses are clinging on, but the bright and cheerful daffodils are still making me smile.

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I decided to go into town yesterday to deposit some cash and a cheque into the bank. Cash is exceedingly frowned upon at the moment, so I felt guilty handing it over when it was eventually my turn to cross the bank’s threshold, having satisfied the lady on the door that I had a good enough reason to enter, i.e. a purpose that couldn’t be accomplished through the use of the cash machine outside. It was very unnerving to see people queueing, spaced so very far apart, to enter the few businesses that remained open.

From the bank I had one more call to make inside the shopping arcade, though there was very little shopping going on. The jocular security guy again asked me what my business was. I gave the right answer, passed the test and was admitted. As I made my way from one store to another of the three that were open, it hit me that in that moment, in that big space, there was just me and the statue of George Formby, immortalised with his ukulele in his hand. It was surreal. I’m sure George would have come up with some jolly ditty to raise folks’ spirits at a time like this, as many ordinary people are doing in all sorts of ways right now through social media. Good on them.

The Grand Arcade is built on the site of the former Wigan Casino, the legendary home of Northern Soul. There is a plaque which marks the exact spot of the Casino entrance outside a well-known mobile phone shop, but I can’t show you a picture here as that area is cordoned off; none of the stores at bottom end sells food. Like George’s lyrics, Northern Soul’s motto was a happy one, never more relevant than now: ‘Keep the faith!’. Keep smiling everyone, and be safe.

 

 

 

 

Bickershaw: a plant-potted history

At the weekend, inspired by the arrival of spring, I visited Bickershaw Hall Nurseries, a small garden centre just outside Wigan.  This friendly family-run business also sells seasonal plants, fruit and vegetables at the town market, so as I was passing by I decided to have a look around.

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Despite the record-breaking warmth of the past week, it is still February after all, and the big greenhouse looked almost bare apart from a few splashes of colour. This time next month it will be fragrant with herbs and bursting with botanical brightness.

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Whilst perusing  the perennials I chatted with the owner who told me her family had established the business nearly 50 years ago on land which had been bought much earlier following the demolition of Bickershaw Hall in the 1940s. Built in the 17th century, the Hall fell into disrepair, made uninhabitable by coal mining subsidence. The only remains are this house which had been servants’ quarters and the cattle shelter which you can see below, now both used by the Nurseries.

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Our conversation turned to another local history connection. In 1972, the land where Bickershaw Hall had once stood had gone to seed. Bizarrely, a consortium of Manchester business people and others from the music industry selected the site to host a massive music festival. One of the organisers was a certain Jeremy Beadle, and the headline band was The Grateful Dead. Other illustrious artists included The Kinks and Bryan Ferry, and the list went on… It was to be a spectacular event and the crowds arrived from all over the country.

Of course, by today’s standards the special effects look unsophisticated. A high-diver who descends gracelessly into a burning paddling-pool even seems comedic.

Unfortunately, severe rain made the event a washout, and the field looked like a scene from Glastonbury but without the associated coolness. The Grateful Dead were not feeling very grateful as this short clip shows.

The festival-goers, bless them, still seemed in good spirits despite their tents having sunk into the mire. This would have been an unprecedented occasion for them, and they would probably have just enjoyed being part of it.  I like the interview with a local shop keeper who describes the weird and wonderful foodstuffs he has stocked for the pleasure of the Bohemian showbiz types including yogurt, something he’d previously ‘heard of’ but ‘never seen’. Well it was only 1972! 🙂

My curiosity roused, I asked for directions to the festival site. A short walk led me to a path off the main road with woodland to the left.

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A couple of cars passed me from the direction I was heading, making me feel less wary about venturing alone  into what seemed quite a secluded place. I smiled to myself, picturing the hoards of party people ambling this way in the summer of ‘72.

The path opened out into a car park at what I could now see was a fishery: artificially created ponds stocked with fish for paid-up anglers to spend whole days trying to catch. One pond looked quite tranquil with nobody around.

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Whilst others took on a more sinister appearance. I hope that was a just scarecrow….

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I followed a path to the right in the direction of a familiar looking field, but not before passing the remains of a burnt tree stump, strangely decorated.

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Then there it was…. the venue!

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Try as I might, I wasn’t feeling that vibe. The festival spirit had been washed away in that July deluge.

Bickershaw Festival has achieved a quiet cult status; the 40th anniversary reunion held in 2012 (a much, much smaller affair) was even covered by the BBC. Needless to say, Bryan Ferry and the Kinks were unavailable on that occasion.

 

 

 

 

 

The Road To Wigan Pier……well, sort of

The road from Mandalay to Wigan is a long one and the reasons for taking it are not immediately clear.’ – George Orwell, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’.

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Last week I heard on the news that a life-size statue of George Orwell had been erected outside BBC Television Centre in London; apparently it is the only statue of the author and political commentator in any public place. I can’t imagine there being an effigy of the man on anybody’s mantelpiece next to the Royal Doulton figurines, so this may well be the only statue in existence.

This unveiling at BBC HQ coincided with Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ being chosen as the October/November read by the book group I belong to. I had thought it a strange deviation from our usual selections (mostly fiction – anything goes except chick -lit), but I had read the book about 25 years ago when I spent one summer devouring everything Orwell had written, and I had found it interesting, if rather depressing. I was happy to give it another go.

As with most books which we read more than once, the experience is different each time. I was struck by the richness of the language Orwell used to create a realistic but almost poetic picture of some of the people and places he encountered in the 1930s in working-class communities, mainly (though not exclusively) in the north of England. Here is a marvellous example:

‘The shop was a narrow, cold sort of room. On the outside of the window a few white letters, relics of ancient chocolate advertisements, were scattered like stars. Inside there was a slab upon which lay the great white folds of tripe, and the grey flocculent stuff known as ‘black tripe’, and the ghostly translucent feet of pigs, ready boiled.’

The Road to Wigan Pier’ is a book of two parts and it is a great shame that the descriptive style of the beginning – more akin to Orwell’s works of fiction – doesn’t continue all the way through; if it had, more than just two of us in the book group might have read to the end! The second part of the book is all about Orwell’s socialist political views, his thoughts on the north/south divide, and includes a lot of not very interesting details such as room measurements in working class homes and the links between tidiness and number of children in a family.

The thing that struck me most about the book was how little it actually had to do with Wigan in particular. Other places, including various towns in Yorkshire and Wales, receive as many mentions, and not one of the photographs is of Wigan. So why the title? To Orwell, Wigan Pier symbolised decay and loss. It was in 1936 when he spent time in the town, seven years after the ‘Pier’ had been removed for scrap. The locals had forgotten the exact spot on which it had stood, and Wigan Pier – formerly an emblem of thriving industry and plentiful employment –  had slipped out of sight and into the past.

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So what was Wigan Pier?  It was actually a coal tippler – a metal construction – on the bank of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. It was used to transfer the coal from the many mines in the area onto waiting canal barges, and these vessels would carry the ‘black diamonds’ to Liverpool and from there to other parts of the country. In its late 18th century heyday, the canal must have been the equivalent of an aquatic motorway of its time. Coal was king in Wigan, and the north of England was heavily industrialised. By the late 19th century, railways had taken over most of the coal transportation and canals began to slip into disuse.

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A reconstruction of part of the original structure

 

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The ‘Pier’ at Wigan was left standing for decades, part joke, and obsolete until it was finally scrapped. The photograph below, which I took about 10 years ago when visiting ‘The Way We Were’ Wigan heritage museum, shows the dismantling of the defunct tippler back in 1929. A replica made by students at the local college was installed in 1986 on what is thought to be the same spot, and it still attracts visitors who want to be photographed next to the Orwellian icon; apparently, some people become quite annoyed when they read the information plaque and discover it is only a replica.

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Dismantling of the original

 

This canal-side area just outside of Wigan town centre, and a very short walk from the town’s two train stations, was almost desolate at the time of my visit on a recent Sunday afternoon. Apart from an occasional appearance by cyclists and dogs with their human walking companions, there was nobody else around. It felt quite surreal in such a quiet spot to reflect on the intense noise and frenetic activity which would once have been there. The Kittywake, a narrow boat which offers leisure trips during the warmer months, was tucked away in her undercover mooring for the duration of the winter.

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The Way We Were Museum had enjoyed a few years of popularity during the nineties and early noughties, and was a favourite with primary schools who brought their young charges to experience the mock Victorian classroom complete with super strict (‘resting’ actor) teacher in charge.

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Coach loads of older people who still remembered their childhoods at the time of Orwell’s writing would also head to Wigan to reminisce. The attraction, which was located within the former canal terminal buildings, closed a few years ago when visitor numbers started to drop. It is now boarded up and neglected, the cycle of rise, fall, revival and decline repeated across the decades and centuries. Below are a few photographs I took at the museum which depict life in industrial Wigan in bygone times.

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In his book, Orwell describes vividly the Leeds and Liverpool canal where it passed through Wigan

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All around was the lunar-landscape of slag-heaps……the canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogsthe lock gates wore beards of ice…..nothing existed except shale, ice, mud, ashes and foul water.

As the photographs below show, the canal has been reinvented as a place for leisure and relaxation and is a popular place to walk. Pretty former lock-keepers’ cottages line the now pristine pathway and behind them a former mill has been converted into swanky apartments.

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To end the afternoon, I decided to venture about a mile outside of the town to visit one of the local ‘flashes’ – former pit shafts which were later flooded over – described by Orwell as follows.

‘…in the distance stretched the ‘flashes’ – pools of stagnant water that has stretched into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits……the’ flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber…’

Scotsmans’s Flash is now a wildlife conservation area enjoyed by local people and a centre for water activities. I wonder what Orwell would make of Wigan now, without a coal mine in sight but with the ‘Pier’ – or a version of it – still standing witness to what once was.

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