St Helens, more than rugby league and industry

PUBLISHED: 01:15 09 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:01 20 February 2013

Head Coach Helen Billington, back row in blue, with coaches and the swimming project members

Head Coach Helen Billington, back row in blue, with coaches and the swimming project members

It's miles from the coast, but this town known for heavy industry and rugby league is also making waves in other sports. Roger Borrell reports

As you arrive in the borough of St Helens the predictable Welcome signs flash past your windscreen, but something here is not quite right.

This is supposed to be the home of gritty industrial endeavour where men are men and they pause only to wipe the perspiration from their brows before taking to the rugby field to knock lumps out of each other or, for a little light relief, from any passing Wiganer.

So whats this? A road sign showing a field of radiant flowers and a message extolling the fragrant pleasures of Inglenook Lavender Farm with the words Discover Your Doorstep.

Are the town fathers urging locals to get in touch with their feminine side? No, its a subtle message urging people to look a bit closer to home for what the borough has to offer because they might just be surprised.

And one of those surprises is an award-winning lavender farm at Rainford, an attractive village within this fine old borough.

However, there are still plenty of ways to confirm any stereotypes you might have about this Lancashire town, which came to prominence as a powerhouse of coal mining and glassmaking in the 18th and 19th centuries.

As you wander down the streets - dodging artist Tony Bishops penguin sculptures - you spot tell-tale signs of its proud past. For instance, one building has marvellous terracotta tiles displaying the slightly fearsome features of Thomas Beecham, the St Helens genius who founded a pharmaceuticals empire.

Around another corner is a statue of Queen Victoria surveying the impressive square with its equally impressive Town Hall. And then there is the brilliant World of Glass museum, celebrating a once burgeoning industry now represented solely by the Pilkington company, still a world leader and the last of the towns major employers.

Overlooking the M62 is The Dream, a dramatic 20 metre concrete sculpture of a girls head. While this is a striking piece of art - our answer to the Angel of the North, perhaps - it also harks back to the industrial past. It was installed on the site of the former Sutton Manor colliery and, predictably, this work was inspired by the men who once laboured underground. Equally unsurprising is the mixed reaction it has provoked.

And the headlines in the local newspaper are about a bronze statue of Keiron Cunningham, skipper of the all-conquering St Helens Rugby League team. It is destined to move and make its permanent home at the new Saints stadium.

So, if you are seeking stereotypes of a town dominated by industrial endeavour and sporting prowess, then you dont have to look far.

Young people in St Helens tend to reach an age when they have to make a choice -rugby league or football, laughs Helen Billington, who is head coach at St Helens Swim Training Project.

Helen, who travelled the world competing for the Great Britain swimming team, and the schemes administrator Joe Coy, know that few youngsters make it in either sport and several decide to take to the water.

Their project, which has been running since the 70s, brings together youngsters from four local swimming clubs to create a hot-house where promising swimmers receive specialist training with a view to nurturing the champions of the future.

There are currently 60 on the project. We realise not all are going to make it but we still want them to enjoy the experience, says Helen. They end up feeling good about themselves and it helps them gain confidence.

Joe adds: Part of my role is to educate the parents - telling them what we do and why we do it. It needs dedication from them as well as the youngsters.

It certainly does. The scheme, based at the Parr Swimming Baths, requires a commitment of around 16 hours of training a week - in the pool and on dry land. If St Helens doesnt have some swimming champions in the near future, it wont be through lack of effort.

While sail-making is part of St Helens industrial past along with the first modern canal, known as the Sankey Brook Navigation, you might think modern-day sailing is not high on the agenda in this landlocked town.

You would be wrong. One of St Helens hidden gems is Eccleston Mere, barely a mile from the famous Knowsley Road, current home of Saints. Here is the home of Pilkington Sailing Club.

Keen member Richard Hampson says: Eccleston Mere is an oasis of lake and countryside yet a stones through from the town. The Mere is largely hidden from general view and many would not know that it was there at all.

The club was formed in 1957 as a dinghy racing facility for Pilkington employees but membership is now open and anybody can apply. While primarily involved in dinghy racing, in 2002 the club became a Royal Yachting Association training centre and now has an impressive range of courses as well as links with a number of local schools.

In 2009 the RYA recognised the clubs good work with children, awarding it the Onboard Club of the Year for the region. The 200 members are also involved with various charities, including Age Concern.

The last year has been one of the most successful racing seasons for the club. Its members include the North West champions in the Enterprise Class and the Pilkington team came its best ever fourth place overall out of around 80 UK clubs at the prestigious West Lancashire Yacht Club 24 Hour Race last September.

Local people use the lake and its surroundings for walking their dogs or just for a Sunday afternoon stroll, adds Richard. Visitors are always welcome. The sailors share the facility with fishermen and all enjoy a wealth of wildlife and in particular birdlife. Spring and early summer produce flocks of Canada geese together with a host of other waterfowl including herons, grebes, coots and moorhen, all nesting and rearing seemingly endless chicks.

On still summer evenings those new to the lake often comment quizzically about the distant roar of the lions and the trumpeting of the elephants. Knowsley Safari Park is just across the fields to the west!

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