by Peter Wilson
Edmonton Journal, 9 August 2003
WIGAN, ENGLAND - This year the literary world is cheering the 100th anniversary of author George Orwell's birth and the city of Wigan is eagerly joining in the chorus.
Not that Orwell's publicity did anything for the city at the time. When Orwell wrote his impassioned exposure of poverty in northern England in the 1930s, his choice for the book's title was Road to Wigan Pier. In the pages of the best-selling documentary, Orwell revealed the shocking truth of how unemployment had affected the living conditions of the working classes in Britain's northern cities.
Orwell's book documented the terrible slums and unhealthy diets of the population. He also wrote about the sometimes appalling working conditions in the region's factories and coal mines.
Understandably, at the time some city fathers probably thought Orwell's book was a publicity disaster. Seventy years on, however, the city's tourism authority is more enthusiastic about its connections with the famed author. Wigan is definitely not the same place as when Orwell spent his research time here. Its favourite adopted son would probably find the city unrecognizable. Like other cities in England's north, Wigan has done a masterly job of reinventing itself.
Coal pits, once the lifeblood of the local economy, are closed, as are the "dark, satanic mills" that once ruled the world's cotton market. Coal built Wigan, but now specialized engineering operations and a growing service industry rule the local economy. Most of all, the city's Wigan Pier Experience is a successful multi-million dollar investment in the community's newest industry, tourism.
Ironically, although Orwell penned the title for his famous book, his search for Wigan Pier proved a disappointment. That's not surprising. About 25 kilometres from the sea, Wigan never had a pier like the one boasted by British seaside resorts. Wigan's pier was actually a modest metal jetty used at the turn of the century to unload the black gold from rail cars into waiting canal barges.
Around the end of the 19th century, a famous music hall performer conjured the name "Wigan Pier" into a tongue-in- cheek song and the city's pier took on almost mythical proportions. Orwell concluded that a pier never existed.
The original "pier" had been torn up for scrap in 1929, seven years before Orwell began researching his book. It has now been rebuilt in what is thought to be near to its original location as part of Wigan's $6.5 million project, the Wigan Pier Experience. Established on the banks of the redeveloped Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the complex offers a fascinating look back in time. Visitors step back to an industrial period when northern England and its industry played a crucial part of the economic engine that helped build the British Empire.
Renovated cotton mills, warehouses -- some dating back to the 1770s -- and old canal wharves are home to working exhibits and displays that recreate Wigan as it used to be. Since its official opening in 1986, the restored 1.6 kilometre long stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal has won more than 20 national and international awards. The heart of the project are the two restored 1890 warehouses.
On the museum's ground floor, there are reminders of the grim working conditions experienced by coal miners of the region. At its peak in 1900, about 25,000 men and boys worked underground in Wigan's coal industry.
Doubled over, in cramped, poorly ventilated conditions, the miners worked long and hard. Their usual diet underground was cold tea and bread and meat drippings. It was a tough, 11-hour day. Out of his wages the miner was expected to buy his own tools and pay a daily fee for his safety lamp. Almost 800 years of coal mining history ended in 1992, when the last colliery in the area closed for good.
Visitors to the Wigan Pier Experience can also take in the world's largest original working mill steam engine. Housed in a century-old cotton mill, the engine that powered the hundreds of machines the old factory ran in its heyday still runs as smoothly as it did when it was first installed.
If you get thirsty during the tour, a visit to the Orwell Pub is an essential ingredient to complete the experience. Away from the crowds, it's an ideal spot to relax and reflect on Wigan's connections with the great writer that the pub is named after.
While his books reflected the times, Orwell also had an uncanny ability to weave into his works remarkably accurate predictions of the future. Some of his prophecies were pretty bleak. Contemplate his works over a pint of best bitter and a traditional ploughman's lunch.
While "Big Brother" might not be around to watch over the Wigan Pier Experience, the rest of the family certainly appears to be thoroughly enjoying the tourist highlight of this Lancashire city.
IF YOU GO
Wigan is less than an hour's drive north- west of Manchester's city centre. Wigan Pier is sign posted from all major road networks; follow the brown and white tourism signs. Free parking is available on both sides of the site. For rail travellers: Use Wigan North Western or Wigan Wallgate Stations. Both are five-minute walks from the Wigan Pier.
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