The Train to Wigan Pier

Part 5: The Train to Wigan Pier

Today’s slide show:Wigan Pier

The Orwell, the pub at Wigan Pier

Manchester’s emergence as the site and center of the industrial revolution was based on the “three C’s”: coal, cotton, and canals. The new Manchester’s bid to become a tourist destination is based on three R’s: renovation, reconstruction, and renaissance. Over in Wigan, there’s a fourth R: re-creation.

In the 1930s, George Orwell recorded the terrible conditions of the working class by living in their homes and in boarding houses around the north of England. No mere documentarian, his goal was to inform his pronouncements on socialism for the book published as The Road to Wigan Pier. Now everyone can relive the bad old days at the Wigan Pier Experience, a “heritage culture experience” on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, just a few hundred yards from either of the town’s mainline railway stations.

Judging from my visits to Wigan and Liverpool, if the word “experience” or “story” is in an attraction’s title, it means it’s jam-packed with replica artifacts and life-size figures in shiny nylon wigs. Apparently, it also means that it costs about $15 to get in.

No time to read Orwell? The Wigan Pier Experience is your three-dimensional CliffsNotes version of the book. Instead of reading, you can walk past waxy models of miners crouched in the cramped underground confines of the pit or creep through a collier’s cottage, complete with a (replica) old codger caught using the outside lavatory.

We Northerners do tend to play up our privations, so I was afraid the Povertyland theme park of WPE would romanticize the hard times at the turn of the 20th century and glorify the miserable way we were: Catch black lung like a real Wigan miner! Be deafened by the noise of spinning machinery like the plucky mill girls of old! Have all your teeth pulled by the time you’re 18 in authentic working-class fashion!

Unfortunately for my preconceptions, the organizers made too much of a good-faith effort to represent a broad picture. Along with the mining disasters and scenes from the bad old days, there were also tableaux showing the local pub and vacation trips to the seaside. And the complex itself is undeniably attractive, with the journey between the two main sections—”The Way We Were,” the re-creation of Wigan in 1900, and “Opie’s Museum of Memories,” a tour through 100 years of domestic life in Britain as reflected in one man’s collection of consumer goods and packaging—accomplished by a waterbus ride down the canal. While this uncharacteristic fit of fairness is on me, I should add that one of the site’s main draws—the world’s largest original working mill steam engine—was closed for repairs when I visited, which perhaps tipped the balance in favor of authentic over genuine. (After a million-dollar investment and almost a year of intense restoration work, the Trencherfield Mill Engine is due to reopen Sept. 4.)

In The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell admits that before he lived among the poor, he imagined that young people longed for education and headed off to work only because they were forced to do so by economic circumstances. He soon learned otherwise. “Of course I know now that there is not one working-class boy in a thousand who does not pine for the day when he will leave school. He wants to be doing real work, not wasting his time on rubbish like history and geography.”

Wigan was a royalist holdout in the English civil war and boasts a fine 13th-century parish church and a war memorial designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect responsible for designing the classic red telephone box and the London power station that now houses the Tate Modern. Its tourist brochure declares, “The town makes no claim to being the first resort for visitors to the North West. We can however, proudly boast to not being the last resort.”

In other words, Wigan’s marketers are realists. Like a pre-epiphany Orwell with his notions of young men longing for education, they might wish that tourists would flock to the 800-year-old church, but they’ve learned what visitors want, and they give it to them: a place where senior citizens can take pride in what they endured and show younger generations the kind of chocolates they ate when they were kids.

Manchester boasts a huge array of historical artifacts, but they’re of the grim, industrial variety rather than the royal family and their jewels brand. So, the city’s marketers have combined realism—all those shops, fancy restaurants, and clubs that at least some of the locals can enjoy—with aspirational idealism—the beautiful new buildings and high-concept museums that are supposed to draw foreign visitors—in their sales pitch.

So, would I recommend a holiday in Manchester? Absolutely. If sport or music is your thing, there are few places in the world with more to offer in such a small space. Personally, I get a headache if I wander too far from asphalt, so I stuck to the old cities, but for folks who enjoy scenery and greenery, the Peak District and the Lake District are close at hand. And for old-fashioned seaside fun, the totemic English resort of Blackpool is just a 90-minute train ride away.

Visiting Britain without visiting London meant no West End theater, but in August the exciting cultural events are at the Edinburgh Festival anyway, and Manchester is closer to the Scottish capital. Almost everything, from accommodation to restaurant meals, is cheaper up north, and you don’t have to negotiate the mysteries of the Circle Line. True, it rains a lot, but London’s not exactly Waikiki, is it?

I knew that Manchester had changed when I woke up one morning, remembered what I’d done the day before—eaten well, seen wonderful art, bought cool retro sneakers—and thought, “I must be in London.”