After a series of heavy blows, Leigh is a town on the up
PUBLISHED: 21:28 11 January 2013 | UPDATED: 08:26 11 February 2015
After a series of heavy blows, Leigh is a town on the up, as Paul Mackenzie reports
We ‘do’ funny in Lancashire. It’s a key part of our county identity – more so possibly than in any other part of the UK. You only need look at a list of some of the great comics we have produced for proof, but our humour isn’t limited to the likes of Les Dawson, Peter Kay or Victoria Wood. It’s in our DNA. It comes naturally. There’s humour everywhere. Even on a grey, wet Friday in Leigh, it’s easy to raise a smile.
Not convinced? Take a trip to Leigh library where you’ll find Lancashire’s second funniest sign. Now, any other county would surely be happy with one funny sign, but we need a ranking system – that’s how funny we are.
On the door as you enter the library is a sign which reads “No sunflower seeds to be eaten in this library”. I asked the friendly chap working there what the sunflower seed problem was that had prompted the sign. He had no idea.
And while it’s a good ’un, the undisputed leader in the county’s funny signs league is still “No pies are left in this vehicle overnight”. If you’ve not seen that one yet, head over to Wigan, it’s very popular there.
But before you make your way to the A578, explore Leigh. The brutalist library building may not be a thing of conventional beauty from the outside, but it houses a fine art gallery (just don’t eat sunflower seeds in there).
And there is plenty of attractive architecture around the town – particularly the grand town hall across the square from the library, which was opened in 1907 but has not been used for council meetings since councillors debunked to Wigan in 1974.
The impressive wood-panelled council chamber is watched over by a portrait of Sir Thomas Tyldesley, the Royalist Civil War commander and supporter of the Earl of Derby, who was killed at the battle of Wigan (a disagreement over filled-pastry snacks which got out of hand?).
The grandest feature of the chamber is the beautiful stained glass window which depicts the town’s six buuilding blocks- weaving, spinning, commerce, education, engineering and mining.
There isn’t much evidence left of those industries now but although Leigh has had a troubled time since the industrial heart was ripped out, there are signs that the town is bouncing back.
Andy Burnham has been MP here for 12 years and on the day of my visit, he was also doing a nice line in funny signs himself – his office window screamed “We did it. Leigh will stay in Leigh”. It’s a reference to the boundary commission’s decision to reject proposed changes to his constituency area.
Andy, the Shadow Health Minister, admits Leigh faces a number of challenges but he points to a number of examples of Leigh’s resurgence.
The extent of those challenges is evident from the front window of his office – its view across the busy street is of three take aways, three empty shop units, a pawnbroker’s, a betting shop, a shop offering to buy your gold and a clothes shop specialising in clothes for larger women which was holding a closing down sale.
But even on the wet Friday I was there, the streets were thronging and the shops and market were busy, although the poundshops and charity shops which dominate the street scene were doing noticeably more trade than the high street stores not offering major discounts.
The MP said: ‘People who haven’t visited Leigh recently might be surprised. The town suffers from the image of the past and perhaps that’s not helped by having the grimy mines on the Welcome to Leigh signs, but this is a green and vibrant place.
‘Pennington Flash is an incredible treasure, right in the heart of the north west. Formed by the collapsed mines, it is now an internationally important wildlife site and attracts birdwatchers from all over the world to see fan-tailed somethings or other rare birds.’
The £83m Leigh Sports Village and the on-going redevelopment of the former Bickershaw Colliery site into homes and leisure facilities including a marina are, says Andy, further signs of the town’s regeneration. He is also pleased the town has a cinema again, after a gap of 20 years.
‘It is very much a town in transition,’ he said. ‘We have developing green areas and there are economic developments too. The big four supermarkets are investing money here because they can see it is an up and coming town which is affordable for young families. Our market is special too because it is one of the few remaining traditional markets.
‘When I became the MP here it was only ten years after the last mine had closed and the town was still rather depressed, I think, still suffering. Places don’t regenerate from that kind of major blow very quickly, but Leigh has changed beyond all recognition.
‘The town’s economy is much more vibrant now, it’s much more diverse now. But there is still work to do, everyone knows that. For instance, Leigh needs a viable transport hub and it doesn’t have that at the moment. I think a lot of Leigh’s decline can be traced to Dr Beeching’s cuts which left the town adfrift. It was a killer blow.’
That situation could be set to improve with a £76m investment in bus routes which could see reduced travel times between Leigh and Manchester city centre in the next two years. The plans would see up to four buses an hour from Leigh into the heart of the city using new bus lanes on the A580 East Lancs Road and along specially resurfaced section of the railway line Beeching axed.
Father-of-three Andy would like eventually to re-instate the town’s rail link – it was on the route of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway. But he’s also aware of the fate that befell Lord Huskisson, the MP for Liverpool who was crushed by Stephenson’s Rocket on the railway’s opening day. ‘If I’m still the MP when the rail link re-opens, I’ll be sure to be extra careful,’ Andy said.
The ups and downs
Leigh Centurians Rugby League side, who play their home games at the impressive Leigh Sports Village, could benefit from a change in the rules of Rugby League to re-introduce promotion and relegation to the top division. The system was ended in the Super League in 2007 but there is a growing clamour, supported by honorary vice president Andy Burnham MP (pictured), to return to the old rules. Any change could be in place at the start of the 2016 season.
The toast of the town
The parish of Leigh was formed in the 12th century and comprised the six townships of Bedford, Pennington, Westleigh, Astley and Tyldesley-with-Shakerley. Its name means ‘meadow’ and the area was famous until the end of the 19th century for its dairy produce, including the Leigh Toaster, a cheese which has recently been reintroduced to shops by Garstang cheesemakers Dewlay.
Leigh’s shining stars
Famous people born in Leigh include Georgie Fame, opera singer Tom Burke, known as the Lancashire Caruso, chess grandmaster Nigel Short, James Hilton, the author of Goodbye Mr Chips, and comedian Ken Platt whose catchline was “I won’t take my coat off, I’m not stopping”. Poet Philip Larkin’s parents married at Leigh Parish Church, as did newspaper columnist Lynda Lee Potter. Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies went to Leigh Grammar School and the Beatles played a gig at Leigh Casino 50 years ago next month. A new group called Gerry and the Pacemakers were on the bill the following week.
Not a huge fan
The Earl of Derby’s Cavalier troops suffered heavy losses in a fierce battle in Leigh in December 1642. And the earl was back in Leigh nine years later when he spent his last night in the King’s Arms before being executed in Bolton. The pub was demolished in the 1790s but a stone commemorating his stay, which had been built into the wall, is now display in the Civic Square.
Leigh’s Highs had lows
Richard Arkwright is famous for inventing the Spinning Jenny but it seems he stole the idea from Thomas Highs who was born in Leigh in 1718. In 1764, after many months hard work with a clockmaker from Warrington called John Kay, he produced a machine he called a Spinning Jenny. He couldn’t afford to patent his invention but made machines for hire and set to work on the new improved version, the water frame.
Kay went to work for Arkwright, taking with him the designs for the Jenny and the water frame. The following year Arkwright moved to Nottingham where he patented the water frame and went on to untold riches, while Highs lived on in obscurity, although a court case in 1785 stripped Arkwright of his patents when Highs was among the people who testified that his inventions had been stolen.
In 1911 a tiled mosaic image of a woman using Thomas Highs’ Spinning Jenny was put over the doorway a shop which was demolished in 1990. A reproduction of the mosaic can be seen outside the Spinning Jenny pub and the original, now cleaned of soot and traffic fumes, is on display in the town hall.