Sunday 24 January 2010

No Kisses Until Wigan

Before I went there, I thought that Warrington's main claim to fame was that it was the first place in Britain to get an Ikea. I'm not being nasty here. I'd call that a pretty good accolade. I love Ikea's ludicrously attitude to naming their furnishings, their Tärka wardrobes and their Lakshmi sofas and their Ülrika CD holders. If I had an Ikea within spitting distance you wouldn't be able to have a cup of tea in this house without drinking it from a Carøla mug with your bum on a Bennybjørnannafridagnetha pouffe.

Still, it's not exactly everything you want from a town. It's not a centre for cultural improvement. And besides, Ikea's on the outskirts, squatting next to the M62 in its primary coloured magnificence like a six year old went wild with his Lego. The actual town centre was an unknown quantity to me. I doubted it would have the same Swedish minimalist elegance.

My first stop was therefore Warrington Central station, on the Liverpool to Manchester route. Actually the train I was on was headed for Scarborough, and I only managed to catch it at the last minute, earning a surly look from the woman collecting the tickets as I hurled myself on board. She also gave my Cheshire Day Ranger ticket a longer than usual once-over, as though she was hoping for a reason to chuck me off at Edge Hill. As it was, we chugged our way through Merseyside and then out to Warrington.

I must apologise for the extreme smugtwattery of my face in that shot. I took three pictures, but one turned out to be blurred, and the second had the Warrington Central sign erupting from the top of my skull like an antenna, so I had to go with the maximum git photo seen here. It does at least show the 80s style ticket office that Central's got. There's a bricked up doorway beneath the railway bridges, and, on the platform itself, what looks suspiciously like an old ticket window, but it looks like at some point a person at Rail House decided to spend some money on the station and the new ticket office was built. Either that or they were losing too much revenue from people going straight up to the Liverpool platform without bothering to cross to the Manchester one and buying a ticket. When I got there, a load of college students were larking around outside, waiting for their bus; I did a quick circuit of the block before coming back to take my photo. I invariably look a complete tit trying to take a picture of myself with the station sign - I didn't fancy an audience of braying teenagers.

From there, I turned left and headed into the town itself, not really having much of an idea where I was going. I actually got a pleasant surprise. I'd had impression that Warrington was a New Town, and so I'd lumped it in with other soulless holes like Skelmersdale and Milton (spit) Keynes. I'd seen the red brick estates around the Ikea. I figured the town centre would be a load of brutalist 1970s concrete buildings, a behemoth of a shopping centre, and hundreds of roundabouts.

A quick wander round soon showed me that while Warrington may have been designated a New Town in 1968, this was actually done with the aim of expanding a town which was already there, and had been for centuries. Consequently, the town centre had a pleasing mix of old and new, with Victorian buildings adapted for new shops, like the one above. Yes, it is an unfortunate name, isn't it? I wonder if anyone's ever explained to them that their fluffy pink gift shop is named after a harrowing Meryl Streep film about the Holocaust. Maybe they do know, and just don't care. Perhaps they're just big Meryl fans. At least they didn't call it Death Becomes Her.

There is still a large shopping centre, called Golden Square, which has clearly had some money spent on it in recent years to make it a bit more 21st Century. There's light pouring in from above, and while it doesn't quite stop it feeling like a shopping precinct, it's still not bad to wander round. It certainly made a change from the bitterly cold January wind and rain outside, which was making my ears glow. I had a look round, staring in shop windows, and finally exited into the town's old Market Square, complete with a wrought iron canopy and surrounded by coffee shops and old-fashioned pubs. Warrington seems to have quite a few shopping centres, in addition to Golden Square; I saw signs for The Courtyard and the amusingly named Cockhedge Shopping Centre.

At any rate, I'd spent long enough eyeing up the displays in Waterstones, so I headed away from the pedestrianised zone for the town's other station, Warrington Bank Quay. The route was through the town's "Cultural Quarter", and was heralded by a very impressive looking stately home. Very nice, I thought; very impressive, right in the middle of town. I wondered if it had once been the home of some Duke of Warrington or something. When I looked closer, though, I realised that the imposing building behind the golden gates was actually the Town Hall.

Now I worked in Local Government for six years, and at no point did I ever work in a building that looked like that. When I worked in Chester, my office overlooked McDonald's loading bay, and about four o'clock I used to have to bellow down the phone to be heard over the McLorry backing into place to make a delivery; in Crewe, I was stuck in a 1970s tower block which had all the charm of chewing gum on your shoe. Not once did I get to work in a place that had its own driveway. I feel cheated.

I went further into the Cultural Quarter, the rather grand name for the Victorian streets that stretch between the Town Hall and the station. At its centre is Palmyra Square, a pleasing enough patch of green, which just reminds me of Largo's home (also called Palmyra) in Thunderball. I should probably get some kind of Bond aversion therapy, something to stop all these little triggers going off in my head and stopping me from perceiving the world through normal eyes.

It was just gone ten a.m, and the town museum was still closed, sadly, meaning I missed out on Warrington's recreation of a local street scene; but the library was open, so I went in to finger the spines (and, incidentally, dry off a bit from the rain). I had to push my way in past a gaggle of scallies, one of whom was boasting that he had managed to avoid his knife being discovered by the police through the method of wearing two pairs of trackie bottoms. I was horrified. He wasn't just admitting to owning two shell suits, he was also saying he wore them. Truly nightmarish.

I had another terrible moment as I passed Parr Hall, the town's chief performance venue. You know that repressed memory therapy, where people lie back on a couch and discover that they were beaten black and blue as a child but just blocked it out? I experienced something similar then. I had been to the town centre before, about six or seven years ago, to hear a band at the Parr Hall. The whole evening was so dreadful I'd actually erased it from my memory until now.

You see, I was there to see Steeleye Span, Britain's premier "folk/rock" band, and if you've never heard of them, lucky you (I urge you to check out that YouTube link so you can fully appreciate their awfulness). I must make clear, I wasn't seeing them voluntarily. They are The Bf's favourite band, ever; he has all their albums, on vinyl and CD, and countless videos and DVDs of them in action. He dragged me along to their performance through a canny mix of blackmail, guilt and promises that it wouldn't be that bad.

It was. Imagine your Auntie Gloria, pissed on the sherry at your cousin's wedding, turning to the karaoke machine and playing a load of 15th century folk songs while your Uncle Roger does Guitar Hero in the background. That is Steeleye Span. And the crowd were worse: middle aged buffoons who cheered at every swish of the lead singer's skirts as she danced another reel around the stage, while a man with a moustache fiddled behind her (with a violin, thankfully). They burst into Gaudete - a song which summons up the truly glorious sound of a monastery choir on a wet Thursday during the Black Death - and the man next to me closed his eyes, nodded his head and whispered, "Yes," in a reverential tone. I couldn't wait to be away from these repellent humanoids, and let me tell you, the Bf suffered afterwards for forcing me to sit through it. I took him home and made him watch Casino Royale - not the 2006 classic, but the insane 1967 version of the first Bond novel which should only be seen through a haze of marijuana and LSD. That showed him.

I let out a strained scream of terror at this reawakened nightmare, then turned and fled the scene, rushing towards the steaming towers of the quite spectacularly ugly Unilever factory. Warrington became a major centre for textiles and chemicals thanks to its 1-2 punch of the Mersey and the railways, and that legacy is still clear from the vast blue buildings of the works, looming over Warrington Bank Quay station.

Warrington Bank Quay itself has had some money chucked at it in recent years by Virgin, who manage the station. Their efforts have meant there's a coffee shop in the ticket hall and the girls behind the counter have bright red uniforms, like Happy Shopper versions of the stewardesses in that Virgin Airways commercial. The money hasn't, however, extended to paying for a station sign anywhere, so I had to stand in the middle of the road to get a pic with the station building itself behind me.

At that point, incidentally, I was listening to Britney Spears singing Outrageous. I had my iPod on shuffle! Don't judge me!

One sign that Virgin had invested in was this one:

God, I hate corporate tweeness. I hate any soulless institution that likes to go all giggly and funny and try and nudge you into smiling as it sticks its hand in your wallet. The worst offenders are Innocent smoothies - every inch of their packaging is trying to be cute; they're about two minutes away from putting a smiley face in the "o". I'd happily thrust whoever designed that packaging into a thresher. The same for this sign - it was created as a publicity stunt, with daft pictorial images of people kissing, just to hype the refurbishment of the station, and it certainly got it in the papers. But that was a year ago. What's so special about Warrington, anyway? Does this mean I can go for the full Frenchie at Wigan North Western, and perhaps a hand shandy in the layby outside Lime Street, because they've not got signs telling me I can't? Can we have a sensible "no waiting" sign installed now, please Mr Branson? Thank you.

So that was Warrington: a surprisingly nice town, even if they do frown on hot liplock action. It could be completely cowed, sitting, as it does, halfway between Liverpool and Manchester, but to me it felt like it was holding its own, a decent community and worth a visit on its own. Just don't mention the Span or I might have to scream.


Anonymous said...

I find Barclays to be the worst for corporate tweeness, with signs over their ATMs reading 'Hole in the Wall', and their cashiers all wearing name badges that read something like 'Hi I'm Jane / I live for my nails'.

Innocent, on the other hand, is a brand name which can be subverted, at least by terminally childish people like myself

Scott Willison said...

Worst part of the Hole in the Wall is that it's Hole in the Wall (TM). You can't trademark a phrase like that! I hadn't noticed the "live for my nails" but it sounds like perfect justification for a large polo mallet to the face.

I liked the link! There should be more smut on supermarket shelves...