So what possessed me to drive to Wigan on a dull Saturday afternoon in March? It was a dull Saturday afternoon, I'd never been to Wigan and I love driving. I seriously love driving - my ambition is to do the star in the reasonably priced car circuit on Top Gear. Don't get me wrong as much as I love Top Gear, Clarkson is an A1 tosser - I just watch it for its comedy value and seeing Clarkson nearly kill himself on a regular basis.
Anyway, were was I? Wigan, yes, parked in the council car park - a modern functional affair, with a quirk that you had to pay the man in the booth to let you out. A bit bizarre, when you can normally pop money in a machine which will pay for your parking. It must be a council thing.
Next... shopping... It has a market, which is obligatory for any northern town. No self respecting northern town can operate without a market, it's one of those ancient bylaws I think which insists they have to sell obsure pig products.
It has a Debenhams too, which I was surprised to see as I was brought up understanding they were only the preserve of the major conurbation. I think there is a plot by Debenhams to take over every possible town with is watered down designer nonscience, forcing out those quite frankly bizarre and old school department stores that have been established 50 years, where your Gran thought it was the height of sophistication. (Draws breath!)
A few years ago I used to think Starbucks was the benchmark of civilization for a town, now they are popping up everywhere like a rash. No longer can I take this as my barometer of how unlikely it is getting my head kicked... In Wigan it has a Starbuck, but the likelihood of physical violence is right high.
So apart from Debenhams and Starbucks, there is the usual array of high street shops you get everywhere across the country. It is a shame high streets are morphing into each other with the loss of local identity. However I did spot I very old school sweet shop selling sweets by the quarter out of big jars - they seemed to do 'Uncle Joes Mint Balls' - there must be factory round there. I was so transported to the 70s, where I accidentally got talked into buying a pound of pear drops instead of getting bread for my mum.
Now one of the things I love about visiting new towns is going into charity shops as you never know what you can find. I seriously think you can do a psychological analysis of a town by stepping into a charity shop. So what did the charity shops of Wigan tell me about the town? A little down at heel and working class kind of town. The item on display were functional and of little aesthetic value. Nothing extraordinary, although it's not a town for volunteering, which is a shame. There were several charity shops closed or with ridiculously short opening times - not a good sign in my books. There wasn't a great selection of records, but we found out there was one of those electrical exchange shops in town, so people were trading their record collections for peanuts instead of donating to charity - another great shame for the charities.
It is clear the recession has hit hard in Wigan - lots of shuttered shops and the cheap shops being popular. It's the sort of town in a boom time that would only just be alright, but as soon as money is scarces the shops disappears and has an air of depression. The posh coffee shops will be gone soon, and the cheap pie shops will loom large in this post industrial, recession hit landscape.
There must be some serious drinkers in this town - there are pubs everywhere. I know it's a rugby town, and naturally it has it's fair share of fast food joints that cater for this market, but there is serious number of pubs. It would take a harden drinker a long time to get barred from every pub in town if they lived in Wigan. Although I did notice one former pub, with beautiful red tiles on the outside, had been converted to a Thai restaurant. Is Thai the new Indian? Clearly in Wigan.
Now the residents... they talk at one level and that is LOUD! The teenagers are LOUD, the nutters are LOUD, everyone is LOUD. It's bizarre. There was nutter who was discussing LOUDLY his sexual health issues with the whole of the shopping precinct. And there was one guy who came up to us and asked us something, we thought he was drunk. He asked us the question again... he was asking us for the time. There is a really odd accent operating in these parts... I can understand why my mate who once resided in these parts was told by their parents not to speak like the locals - her parents were scousers and that is saying something.
I did say to my partner if I had been a teenager in this town I would have got the first train out of town in my goth gear on Saturdays and hung out in Manchester by Urbis with the other goth kids. I'm sure that all the goth kids who plague Urbis on Saturdays are from random northern towns like Wigan seeking the civilization of Manchester. I so feel for them...
So in conclusion, what can I say about Wigan, apart from it being full of nutters - its a town with personality. It's rare these days for a random northern town to leave a distinctive impression, especially with the generic morphing of the shopping and rash of coffee shops is erasing the distinctive qualities of a place, but Wigan retains some hints of individuality, albeit sectionable at times.