Wigan is growing a reputation as a green and pleasant land
PUBLISHED: 14:49 12 April 2012 | UPDATED: 23:50 23 October 2015
This town once famous for its industrial past is now getting a reputation as a green and pleasant land, writes Roger Borrell
I came away from Wigan with two souvenirs, both postcards, from the town’s museum. One showed a group of bloodied, chisel-jawed men fighting over a rugby ball. The other featured shelves of meat pies cooling in a local bakery. Some stereotypes just won’t go away.
Still, it’s better to be famous for something than nothing and Wigan is famous for many things, including a new rugby legend in the making. Today, the popular impression of whippets and men in flat caps is now nowhere to be seen on the streets of this famous town.
In an era when every community claims to be vibrant, all towns bustle and local folk are always passionate about something or other, it is easy to become a little jaundiced.
But even on a grey Tuesday morning, Wigan town centre is comfortably busy with people flitting between the ultra modern chain stores in the brightly-lit Grand Arcade and the beautifully ornate Makinson Arcade, a warren of stained glass and independent retailers.
Add to this the Galleries and the market and you have a shopping centre that would give some of our cities a run for their money. And if you can look up from the shop fronts without walking into a lamp post you will be rewarded with some wonderful architecture, mainly Victorian terracotta revealing the town’s affluent past as ‘Coalopolis’. But there are some earlier examples, particularly the Church of All Saints, and a few exciting pieces of modern design, such as the Wigan Life Centre, a town hall with knobs on.
Pevsner would surely have approved of Wigan, and Bill Bryson, the nemesis of litter louts and despoilers of town centres, liked it so much he came back for a second look. He wrote: ‘Such is Wigan’s perennially poor reputation that I was truly astounded to find it has a handsome and well-maintained town centre.’
Now Wigan has another claim to fame - as a green and pleasant land. That’s a remark guaranteed to provoke puzzled looks from anyone who can’t see past the pits and pies.
Step forward Damian Jenkinson, the Wigan borough in bloom co-ordinator. He’s recently returned from the BBC Young Gardener of the Year competition where he came second out of 400 entrants.
He impressed the judges with his knowledge of horticulture but it was the way he had worked with the community that really struck a chord. Damian also impressed female viewers, one in particular whose social networking verdict was ‘well cute.’
Damian, who like most Wiganers has a good sense of humour, is from Abram and started as a volunteer. He won a European award for his efforts and basically refused to leave until the council gave him a job. Happily, they did in 2007 and, despite the job title, his role has little to do with hanging baskets and street planters.
He and the Street Scene team galvanised kids and communities into groups passionate about making their areas better places to live.
As people saw what could be achieved through self-help and a hand from Damian’s team, more and more joined in and this ripple effect has spread to many parts of the borough. ‘Some cynics might think it’s not cost effective but this is a making a difference,’ says Damien, who also works with the Royal Horticultural Society. Pride in your community means reduced litter, less graffiti and a reduction in vandalism. It all adds up.
‘We work in some of the most deprived areas and we work with young people – some disaffected – to reduce litter, waste and to make them think more about their environment. Wigan in Bloom isn’t just flowers. It involves education, biodiversity and working with business.’
The Wiend is a prime example. This was a neglected area near the town hall, run down and derelict land attracting undesirables and stray dogs. Now, it is a green lung with a striking piece of art – a perfect spot to eat your jackbit, as lunch is called around here.
Not far away is Ashton Town Green, another attractive green space. When the locals heard there was money available to grass the area they had more ambitious ideas and came up with a design and organised planting to create a park in miniature. As a result of the encouragement from Damian and his colleagues, Wigan’s neighbourhoods have received an impressive 20 awards in the last year.
But that only scratches the surface in this green borough. As the council’s John Rowbotham says: ‘Look behind the terraced streets and the brick walls and you will find beautiful lakes, ancient marshlands, deer and bittern. People in the borough don’t always realise what is here let alone people from further afield.’
Wigan’s Greenheart Regional Park covers 57 square kilometres forming a network of parks, wetlands and four nature reserves. What’s hugely impressive is that much of it has been created from land scarred by decades of industrial dereliction.
Looking after this ambitious project is Martin Purcell who has worked with a variety of organisation such as the Wildlife Trust to make the most of theis open space which makes up 75 per cent of the borough. Where it was once top of the league for derelict land, it is now a pace-setter in creating space for leisure and recreation. It not only attracts rare birds but people in pursuit of leisure activities, such as sailing.
‘We are working to raise the profile of Greenheart,’ said Martin. ‘Our message is that Wigan is a great place to live and an excellent place to invest. We also have six kilometres of canals, a new marina and improved tow paths for walkers.
‘There are tremendous areas of wildflowers and flashes which are used by sailing clubs. We even had a Chinese delegation here. Their town in the north east of China had suffered from industrial dereliction and they came here to see what we had done and take back ideas. We want Greenheart to help sell Wigan and show it in its very best light.’
Perhaps those postcards should have stayed in the museum.
Wigan now has yet another rugby hero to add to legendary names such as Billy Boston. At the age of just 20, Owen Farrell, pictured above, has been hailed as the new Jonny Wilkinson after some stunning performances in an England rugby union shirt. No surprise really. He has a great pedigree - his dad is Andy Farrell, who played rugby league and the union code for England.#
Wigan’s Life Centre started winning awards even before it was finished. This complex blends modern and traditional architecture to house a range of services from the usual council departments to library facilities, the NHS and a healthy living zone with two pools and a gym.
Coal mining is believed to have started in the Wigan area in the 15th Century but it was during the Industrial Revolution that it reached its peak with about 1,000 pit shafts in and around the town.
Mesnes Park, opened in 1878, has been at the forefront of Britain’s parks revival with millions from the Lottery Heritage Fund helping to restore the 30-acre site to its former glory.
Haigh Windmill, a local landmark for more than 160 years, won an urban design award for a restoration project. Lottery funding was used to save the windmill, which was actually a brewery pump. Haigh Hall is a Grade II listed building from the early 1800s. It is surrounded by 250 acres of parkland and woods.
Famous locals include comic entertainer George Formby Junior, whose statue is in the Grand Arcade.
The DW Stadium is home to the Wigan Warriors Rugby League side and Wigan Athletic, two teams playing in the top flight of their sports.
The town’s museum was originally the library opened in 1878 and it was here George Orwell researched his book, The Road to Wigan Pier. There is no pier, of course, but there is a jetty on the canal.
The Battle of Wigan Lane happened during the Civil War in 1651. About 300 men were killed and as many captured. Wigan had been a Royalist stronghold.
Wigan isn’t just famous for pies. Famous foods includes Heinz baked beans, Pataks Indian Foods and Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls.
American thriller writer Martin Cruz Smith, probably most famous for his novel Gorky Park, chose Victorian Wigan as the setting for his 1996 novel, Rose
The print version of this article appeared in the April 2012 issue of Lancashire Life
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