Across the great divide

Next Wednesday, a historic rugby match takes place between Bath and Wigan. But the game is more than a contest between two codes of rugby. It is a clash of two cultures. Paul Vallely reports
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The Independent Online
It will be sunny in Bath and it will rain when you get to Wigan, some wag observed before I set out. In the event, it rained in both places. This is England, it might be tempting to add, were not the point of the exercise to confound rather than confirm stereotypes.

Next week, representatives of the two best rugby teams in Britain will play one another for the first time. Until now they have never met. Bath play union and Wigan play league. But let us leave rugby out of this, apart from noting that the contest has been made possible by the fact that rugby union has now gone the way of all flesh in this commercial age and turned professional.

To find the best of British soccer you have to look to the big cities. But rugby is still essentially a non-metropolitan phenomenon and the character of the two champion sides reflects something of the changing nature of life in the nation's medium-sized towns. (Yes, I know Bath is a city by name, but by temperament it is a Middle England market town.)

On the face of it we are looking at the old North/South divide. Bath with its Georgian splendour and ladies in twin sets and brogues; Wigan with its collieries, grimy industry and men with caps as flat as their vowels.

The gazetteer appears to say it all:

Wigan: pop (1981) 84,283; coal-mining, engineering, textiles, food canning, etc.

Bath: pop (1981) 88,725; Roman city of Aquae Sulis, Roman baths, hot springs unique in Britain, 1501 abbey church rebuilt. Many C18 buildings. University.

Alighting from the train in Bath there seems no reason to object. It is easy to believe that almost half the honey-coloured limestone buildings are listed for their architectural distinction. At its heart stands the grey abbey where Edgar, the first king of all England, was consecrated by Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury, on Whitsunday in 973. All round there is glorious Palladian architecture - from the grand sweep of the Royal Crescent to the smallest Georgian town house. Here is the first theatre outside London to be granted a royal patent. It is the world of Beau Nash and Jane Austen.

The shop liveries are of subtle shades - duck egg, burgundy and sage. There are speciality shops and offshoots of Savile Row. Antiques dealers abound. There is a patisserie which offers a choice of 10 ribbons for your cake box. In the supermarket the usual "six items or less" solecism has been corrected to "six items or fewer".

Wigan gives no more contrary first impression. On the train I read John Wesley's 1764 remark: "I began to preach at Wigan, proverbially famous for all manner of wickedness" and then George Orwell's infamous account of the disgusting tripe shop in Darlington Street where he lodged in 1936 and came to the unforgettable conclusion that "the lower classes smell". Apart from a brief period of glory in the 1970s when the Wigan Casino was the epicentre of northern soul, the public accounts were unremitting. It came in the bottom 10 in 1995 in a dubious survey by Guinness Books of the best places to live.

At the station there are no signs of the slums or the industrial dereliction Orwell reported there. But the shop signs are in gaudy primary colours. Their fronts are shuttered. By early evening everything seems closed apart from the Wigan Spiritualist Church (Mr and Mrs Cotgrave on Sundays; Healing on Thursdays at 7.15pm) . Stalwart old Victorian hostelries have been transformed by chrome and neon lights into vast drinking parlours.

But appearances do deceive. For Wigan shares Bath's Roman heritage: it was Coccium when its rival was Aquae Sulis. The remnants of a Roman military post were found recently beneath a grassy mound in the town centre and Roman armour was dug up by the gasworks. Wigan's first mayor, Adam de Pemberton, held office in 1282 and its elegant Victorian town hall boasts a splendid state sword given by Charles II at the Restoration in token of the town's loyalty in the Civil War when its close neighbours stood out for Parliament. The same mound, the Wiend, is where Thomas Beecham, then a mendicant apothecary, first rolled his pills.

The historic parallels go further. Both places were built upon textiles - wool for Bath in the Middle Ages and cotton for Wigan in the last century. From both, engineering grew. Both were despoiled by the activity. ("The appearance of the place ... was all vapour, smoke and confusion," Jane Austen wrote.) And both have since undergone a shift from manufacturing to services, which has made the recent recession even more painful.

All this has wrought changes in Bath that might not be apparent to the casual visitor. Reading an account of Jane Austen in the city over dinner of rare pigeon breast with wild mushrooms and walnut oil in a smart restaurant, with snatches of conversation from the surrounding tables floating across the candlelit air, provided a revealing study in contrasts.

"You owe me 24K then..." said one of a group of expensively but casually dressed thirtysomething tubbies.

"Come on, John. She doesn't go home at night and look in the mirror and say `I'm a bit of a dickhead', does she?"

"She came in and she said: `He's been feeling my tits but I haven't complained about it'".

"So did you have to pay her off?"

"So the gutless tosser was resting in the car making sure he didn't get his Guccis wet..."

The conversation, overheard from three separate tables, reflects something of the changes to economy of the city. Until the late 80s it was a rather well-heeled place with almost zero unemployment. Recession changed all that, hitting the professional classes as services shed staff or went into liquidation. Unemployment remains higher than average professional, managerial and administrative classes in the area. It was no wonder they kicked out Chris Patten in 1992.

"You can still find a lady in twinsets if you go out and look," said John McCready, deputy editor of the Bath Evening Chronicle, "but it's mostly thirtysomething young couples from new industries".

"There's a different kind of buyer at the top end of the market," says Charlie Barkshire, of the estate agents Charterhouse International. "The bankers of the 80s, when London money was the backbone of the market here, have gone. There are fewer people with second homes here. Now those properties are all being bought by executives from computer firms."

Bath is about to take another blow as the Ministry of Defence is pledged to move 4,000 of the 5,500 jobs it has based in the city out to Bristol by 1999. Tourism now seems the major way out. But boosting the two million visitors a year will create a new raft of problems of its own.

They do not have that problem in Wigan, though they would like to. And they do not much like it when people snigger at the idea of a long weekend in Wigan. The town, it has to be conceded, is rather more handsome than outsiders might expect. It has some imposing half-timbered houses and fine Victorian municipal edifices even if the high street has the usual homogenised array of regular names and the city centre is flanked by the inevitable inner ring road.

The covered market still sells cowheel tripe and gold-medal black puddings. But what was once staple fare is now to be found on a speciality stall of which Bath would be proud. And if the property market has been slow in recent years the exception has been in larger properties. "Those between pounds 100,000 and pounds 200,000 are selling unaccountably well," says estate agent Len Gibson, of ALG Investments (Wigan) Ltd.

As in Bath jobs in the industrial employment category "distribution, hotels and restaurants" have overtaken those in manufacturing. As a result, unemployment is only 7.7 per cent (compared with 17.9 for Manchester and 17.8 for Liverpool) which is marginally better than the rate in Bath.

"Is this place any good?" I asked a chap coming out of one eaterie with red gingham check tablecloths and chianti flasks with red candles stuck in them.

"It's a long-established family business," he replied with masterly equivocation. Northerners are very skilled at that - appearing slightly simple while maintaining a mask behind which irony all too often lurks. Irony, of course, is what constitutes the chief difference between the denizens of North and South. While Bath worries about how to crack the riddle that increased tourism will bring more traffic fumes which will destroy what the tourists come to see, Wigan is turning the world's mockery to its advantage.

Orwell, you will recall, concluded that the North/South divide did not exist. What did exist was a "curious cult of northernness, a sort of Northern snobbishness" based on the notion that "the North is more moral and hardworking... and the South is sly, cowardly and licentious". This, he concluded, was a myth.

But then Orwell was the man who went in search of Wigan Pier and when he couldn't find it told the nation on the wireless that its disappearance was symbol of Britain's industrial decline. How wrong he was. It was there all along, it was just that he didn't know what to look for. Wigan Pier is, in fact, a slight bump in the towpath on the Leeds-Liverpool canal where two curved pieces of metal protruded in a "Tippler" to tip wagons of coal into the barges below. That it was called a pier was a local gag to take the mickey out of Blackpool and Southport.

The final joke is that Wigan has now turned the place into a heritage museum that has attracted millions of visitors. It has teams of actors who perform an array of contemporary vignettes which range from a suffragette meeting to a pit disaster to a bare wooden classroom complete with draconian schoolmarm who made the Duke of Edinburgh write lines on the board after his late arrival - "punctuality is the prerogative of princes" was the reprimand he had to inscribe.

Orwell would have been unimpressed by the knowing self-deprecation. The North-South divide, he insisted, was a myth, though traditions, he concluded, are not killed by facts. But then, Orwell was a Southerner.

Bath Motto: `Floreat bathon' (`May Bath flourish')

Twin towns: Aix-en-Provence, France; Kaposvar, Hungary; Brunswick, Germany; Alkmaar, Holland.

Industries: Printing, book-binding, light engineering, retailing.

Attractions: The 18th-century Pump Room, giving access to the hot spring and Roman baths; the late Perpendicular Abbey Church of St Peter and St Paul; the reconstructed Assembly Rooms.

Claims to fame: Bath Oliver biscuits, Bath buns, bath bricks and Bath chairs. Features in the work of Richard Sheridan, Tobias Smollett and Jane Austen.

Wigan Motto: `Progress with Unity'

Twin town: Angers, France

Industries: Engineering, textiles, food-canning.

Attractions: The Church of All Saints, with its Norman tower, and the redeveloped area around the Leeds and Liverpool Canal (the pier). Like Bath, Wigan was once developed as a spa but the chalybeate springs were quickly overshadowed by the growth of mining.

Claims to fame: George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier. Home of Uncle Joe's mint balls. Home of indie band The Verve.