Opinion: Leave Warrington alone, we have George Formby and a cursed Buddhist statue
The town doesn't deserved to be branded the least cultural place in the UK, argues Wazza native Rebecca Monks
'Fancy a bit of culture?' asks the Daily Mail (somewhat ironically); 'definitely don't go to Warrington.' As it happens, I have a confession to make: even though I am a writer for this arts and culture publication, I am from Warrington.
To put that into context, that means I grew up in a small town without any historical ships, no listed parks, areas of natural beauty or historical battlefields, and none of the pubs are old enough to merit a special shiny plaque deeming it a community asset. As you can probably imagine, my childhood's sore lack of significant nautical artefacts still plagues me to this day.
The Mail's article refers to a new study by the Royal Society of Arts, which ranked 325 areas in the country as part of a Heritage Index, designed to help communities see if they are 'making the most of their history and identity'. As you might have gathered, Wazza came in at number 325, and so according to the Mail's article, has been named 'the worst place in Britain for culture'.
If you're measuring it by those standards, then yes, the closest I got to being part of a culture club was to stick 'Karma Chameleon' on repeat in my new-build terrace house. But the problem here is that culture isn't always tantamount to heritage.
Culture is a nuanced amalgamation of arts, ideas, customs, and the social behaviour of a community or society, and it is not necessarily developed because a place has a few parks that are pretty enough to be listed. Where Warrington may lack heritage features, it more than makes up for it with venues, traditions and significant events.
An obvious starting point would be The Pyramid and Parr Hall. These are two keystone cultural centres in the town, which regularly host everything from live music events to theatre and comedy. Every year, families go to the Parr Hall's Christmas pantomime, many of those doing so because it is traditional in their household to take part in this cultural ritual.
Right around the corner from these venues is the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery, with over 200,000 objects. For a small town, trust me, that's a lot of objects. The artefacts in there cover everything from ethnology, archaeology and numismatics to local and social history, natural science and fine art, and as many Warringtonians will remember, there is a statue in there which is said to be cursed. It represents a Buddhist monk (no relation), and an ill fate has befallen staff members who have touched it in the past (or so legend / the local paper has it). That's the stuff of low-budget horror films, people.
Cursed statues aside, it's not only Warrington's key venues and attractions that generate a cultural buzz in the city. It's the significant events that take place there year-on-year. The annual Warrington Walking Day, for example, sees schools and groups from all over the town get together behind some loud brass bands and march through the centre. The girls dress up in frilly white dresses, the boys try and figure out what a cumberbund is. Friends and family members give children money along the walk, and it all ends with a big fun fair. The last time I took part as a young'un, I came away with around £15 in change and a stomach ache from an overzealous go on the waltzers.
There's also the annual Christmas lights switch-on, which attracts some mid-level celebrities and some poor soul dressed up as Peppa Pig, and more recently, there's been a German market there over the Christmas period for those shoppers taken by the desire to buy pricey handmade mittens.
Moreover, let's look at some of the famous people associated with Warrington over the years. George Formby is famously buried there, and his mad banjolele skills have definitely withstood the test of time. Chris Evans has done alright for himself, and even Kerry Katona's career isn't to be sniffed at. Acclaimed actor Pete Postlethwaite was born there, and 18th century clockmaker John Harrison, whose marine chronometer revolutionised long-distance sea travel, may have been born 70 miles away in Foulby, but he came to live in Warrington.
Sure, Warrington's culture does suffer a little due to its proximity to both Manchester and Liverpool, since most folk can head to either of the big cities for arts and heritage. But that's not to say that the town is without it, or indeed that it deserved to be labelled the worst place in the country for it. I may not live there anymore, but Wazza gave me a solid understanding of the value of arts, history and community-led events, and I'll take that over an old ship and a stately park any day.