I walked in to Widnes town centre, passing a skip which contained a fully decorated Christmas tree standing neatly to attention in the middle. A couple of doors down the road, a man was holding an animated phone conversation. He wore no top, in defiance of the cold, rainy morning. In one hand he held what one might term as his conversation phone. Another phone was sitting on top of a low wall loudly playing music through little tinny speakers. His remaining hand held a cigarette, with which he was conducting an imaginary orchestra as he spoke. I lingered beside the festive skip for a moment to enjoy this alternative prom.
The Widnes accent contains a strong twang of Scouse about it, although the average resident would certainly not consider themselves a Scouser at all, and be quite upset at the suggestion. There really are so many accents here on the M56/M62 corridor, where worlds collide. Scouse, Lancashire, Cheshire, Mancunian, and travel just a few miles over the border and you’re into Welsh speaking territory. There’s nowhere else in the country where so many profoundly different accents persist in such a geographically confined area. Perhaps it’s because this area was basically empty till just a couple of hundred years ago, a void of just a few little villages in the great medieval emptiness between Macclesfield and Lancaster. Damp marshland, not much use for anything. Until cotton and coal anyway, when the dampness was suddenly perfect for keeping the fragile threads together as they were spun, with the coal of South Lancashire to drive the machines and warm the houses of the countless workers who were drawn here.
From Scotland they came, North Wales, Ireland, and beyond, to tend the machines, empty the ships, and hew the fuel, and their accents colliding together like strangely lumpen asteroids forming in an early solar system, in towns that once founded became immediately insular, too poverty ridden to travel, inwardly focussed. Enough work to survive, no money to move further. The Wigan and England rugby league captain, Sean O’Loughlin, a Wiganer, has to be subtitled when interviewed in Australia because his accent is too impenetrable.
Widnes has a different story though, one of chemicals. Growing on the banks of the already successful Sankey canal, an early attempt to bypass the worst lethal vagaries of the Mersey, and within striking distance by water of Cheshire’s vast salt extractions, it became the natural hub of the chemical industry.
I had a busk. There was one main shopping street with a couple of arcades running off it. Most of the shops were open, and finding the right spot wasn’t easy. Across from me, several cafes had decanted furniture onto the street, and coffee drinkers gave the town a relaxed, homely feel.
A man went past with a very large loudspeaker strapped to his back. He had long, untidy hair and a significant beard, and was lithe and stringy. In one hand he held a can of ‘Relentless’ and in the other he controlled a flawless sleek black-haired lurcher on a lead. His loudspeaker was playing R&B at top volume, and he leant forward in his stride to balance the weight. He was a one man carnival float, and we all stopped our day to watch him as he passed through, apparently oblivious. It is the modern thing to play your favourite music in the street, and today’s devices are much lighter and more accessible than the ghetto blasters of my youth, but a full blown PA marked a new escalation.
I searched for some lunch. A group of older lads stopped me.
“Heard you playing back there. Good stuff.”
It turned out one of them played some traditional music himself and we knew a few of the same people. We chatted about Widnes for a bit. None of them seemed especially proud of it, despite being born and bred. Some towns, local people will defend to the last breath, others, the harshest critics come from within. I wondered what caused the difference.
“What advice do you have for someone coming to Widnes?” I asked them.
“Avoid the women, they’re ugly.” one replied immediately, to laughter.
I didn’t laugh, and their laughter dissolved. They stared at their shoes for a second, before looking at one another.
“Mind you.” He continued thoughtfully. “We’re nothing special ourselves.”
“Tell you what,” said another, as the group rediscovered their confidence, “You need to go and see Eddie Perve and play him a tune. You’ll find him in the Derby pub. He’s fat, bald and has no sense of humour.”
“Yeah, he’d like that.” Said another
Was it a set up? I replied that I’d consider it.
I bought a sandwich and a pie and ate them outside a solicitors that specialised in defending dangerous dog cases. Having no further reason not to, I went to the Derby, just a few doors down from where I’d been busking. It was a large, cavernous, and well attended town pub. I looked through the windows for characters who matched the description I’d been given for Eddie Perve. There were a number of candidates. I imagined myself walking in, considered how I might discover which one was the real Eddie, but none of the approaches seemed a good idea. Maybe it was for the best. I went back to my playing. Rain had emptied the streets somewhat, but the acoustic was good and nobody seemed to mind. They never do in working class towns. There’s less of a sense of personal entitlement over the street.
Widnes is a town whose story can be told in bridges. These days, its administered as a unitary authority alongside Runcorn, the town on the South flank of the Mersey. Just 2 miles apart as the crow flies, the towns began life as foreign entities, quite unconnected from one another. The railway bridge provided the first link, along with a ferry that was later split into two legs by the construction of the Manchester Ship Canal, forcing passengers to disembark and scale a wall half way across the water. This ferry was then replaced with the Transporter bridge, the largest ever attempted in Europe. The two towns were linked for good by the Silver Jubilee Bridge that finally allowed the continuous flow of traffic when it opened in 1961. Slowly, two towns that had nothing to do with one another were linked together until in 1998 they became the twin centres of Halton, a unitary authority. It’s a strange sort of marriage. A Lancashire town and a Cheshire town with very different histories co-existing across a great estuary.
Down at West Bank in Widnes, you can admire the bridges past and present. Past the chemical museum, ‘Catalyst’, and the re-wilded Spike Island where the chemical industry first seeded, you end up beneath the massive feet of the railway and road bridges, and perhaps on the foundation of the now demolished transporter bridge. These surviving bridges feed in high above on ramps that lead up from the distant town centre, leaving West Bank a strange peninsular where once it had been a destination and transit point. A careworn Greenalls pub, the Mersey, sits forgotten at the end of the road, discharging occasional old men for medicinal cigarettes, waiting for ships, ferries, transporter cars that don’t come any more. In the silence of the place and the moment you’re momentarily able to believe it’s 1959 again, when this pub marked the centre of the hourglass, though which every grain must pass.
I returned the next day to Widnes to carry on my efforts. The main street had a few other actors treading the boards today. One group were a bunch of rough lads aggressively handing out anti-bullying wristbands. Another group were gathered under an awning in the main street, wearing camouflage patterns and metal helmets.
“When was the last time you went paintballing?” They called at me cheerily as I went past. I couldn’t think of a quick answer so I scuttled on. I busked again, outside a chip shop that was still dormant at this early hour. It was a quiet morning, the wet weather dampening off the street and suppressing the characters. A kind man brought me a coffee from across the road, two sugars already stirred in, and then enthusiastically applauded each tune I played. I studied the street, wishing I had the wit of H.M.Bateman to so neatly tease the types out. I decided on 3 new types of non-giver to the busker’s collection to add to my earlier list.
1) The pocket panic-patter: The act of busking is to gently solicit money from those who pass by. For this person, there is no chance of that, but your unwelcome presence causes them to develop a pained look and to suddenly begin patting their body to ensure their wallet is still there, as if the mere act of playing a tune is enough in itself to dislodge the contents and draw them through the air into your case. “That was a close one, it nearly got out.” they think, as they march away with forced haste, one controlling hand on the fickle money.
2) The false count out: As they walk towards you, they begin counting coins into their hand until they arrive at the amount you would be worth if you were any good. They then make eye contact, frown, and pop the coins back in their pocket as they stride past.
3) The near-miss asteroid: As NASA would undoubtedly tell us, these roaming objects present you with a double challenge. Firstly, you need to spot them, no easy task in the vastness of space, as they hurtle randomly and without reference to the predictable orbits of our familiar neighbours. Even if you spot one, how the heck to you stop it? Some people just have a direct path charted down the road, and the projecting neck of a fiddle isn’t going to cause them to deviate. All that remains to be done is to take avoiding action. Aloof, their trajectory is fixed, and is not negotiable. A busker cannot close their eyes for fear of an extinction event.
But it was overall a good morning, people were friendly, and I’d made £40 by lunchtime.
Outside the indoor market, the butchers shop had a loudspeaker broadcasting an entertaining monologue about the day’s special offers, so I sat by it for a while, until sausages came round again and it became clear that it was a pre-recorded loop. The meats went round and round until they became familiar and comforting. Sold, I went inside for a pie before heading off to meet an old friend of mine, Kim.
Kim is Widnes through and through. Her ambition is to write a novel for Mills and Boon, a genre of which she has many hundreds of examples at home. We discussed the finer points of this style of writing as we walked round Spike Island, a huge area of post industrial greenness between the Mersey and the first mile of the Sankey canal. Eventually, the conversation moved on to Widnes, and life in a chemical town.
“I didn’t realise till recently that it wasn’t normal to have chemical drills at school.”
“How did they work?”
“The alarm went off every Friday, and you all had to run inside the building, and shut all the doors and windows. Pretty much the opposite of a fire drill.”
Upon adolescence, one might turn to drinking, whereupon the pint of choice was the ‘Fat Frog’, a Smirnoff Ice mixed with an orange Reef, and topped off with lager, enjoyed at ‘Top of the Town’, a now closed night club whose floors kept a tight hold of a loosely tied shoe. Widnes had calmed down a lot since then. There wasn’t much going on for younger people now.
Kim wanted to show me more of the wider district, and so we drove out to Fiddler’s Ferry, now perhaps better known for the power station, dominating the landscape, reaching the end of its days, coal giving way to other forms of electricity. We drove right by the base of the cooling towers I remember seeing jut out from the Mersey plain like little piscine teeth, when as a youngster I’d push my bike from Macclesfield all the way to the top of Cheshire ridge to freewheel right back to town. They were the limit of my world then, the last marker on the horizon before the world bent and belonged to someone else. Cheshire was my county even then, although I’d never been yet to the other side of it. It’s an accident of history that the transport links are North/South and I had no reason to ever visit Chester or the West of the County. But I knew it was mine, right up to the rising land of Wales and the cooling towers.
At Fiddler’s Ferry, as the name might imply, the Mersey is at its narrowest, and rows of funny little boats are kept up on another small isolated section of the Sankey canal. Without a theme, they’re like a packet of breakfast cereal where there’s one of every flake ever manufactured. The countryside rolls off towards the ridge at Frodsham, lush, alluvial, charming.
“Why does everyone talk Widnes down?” I asked. Nobody had a good word to say about the place. Ask any Widnes resident what they thought about the town, and most would tell you it was crap. But it wasn’t. Perhaps not the most exciting town I’ve ever been to, but the town centre is thriving, the shops are decent, and there’s enough work for everyone to get a job who wants one. Widnes is doing alright.
“Perhaps it’s the smell.” said Kim. “The chemical industry stinks when the wind blows the wrong way.”
“Nothing like as much as it used to.”
“I think we’re just a town with low self esteem. In the 80s we had the best rugby team in the world. We had Martin Offiah and Jonathon Davies. People were proud of it. The industry has slowly declined and the rugby team too. There’s nothing to really be proud of anymore. People have retired on good pensions but nothing new happens.”
“But there’s plenty of jobs, it seems ok?”
“We’ve got employment but does that make it a good town? There’s no culture. The Brindley is the arts centre but that’s in Runcorn.”
It was funny to think of Widnes, the chemical town, becoming Widnes the retirement centre. Eastbourne-upon-Mersey. I couldn’t quite imagine the deckchairs down the riverside just yet.
Perhaps part of the problem is that being a unitary authority, there’s one of everything for efficiency, and half of them are in Runcorn which is suddenly a pretty hard place to get to, now that the Jubilee bridge is shut.
On the outskirts of Widnes, there’s a sign pointing left to ‘Household Waste and Trampoline Park’, and then the route to the newest crossing, the Mersey Gateway bridge.
We passed a beauty shop billboard that offered the surprising juxtaposition of ‘Sun Beds and Nails’. It was the end of another day. Widnes had been interesting, but I felt I wouldn’t really understand the area fully without visiting Runcorn, the other half of this arranged marriage.
To be continued..
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