With the shortlist for the 2021 UK City of Culture to be announced imminently, Stephen Power gives his take on the bid.

Warrington has a rich social history. Why shouldn’t it be the third UK City of Culture?

When William Lever and his brother James bought a small soap works in Warrington in 1885, no one could have anticipated the role they would play in shaping British culture. From PG tips to Marmite, the company they created and later merged to form the consumer goods giant Unilever, has helped shape our habits and tastes for generations. It’s not their only legacy.

The old soap factory is still there and it’s fair to say it makes a lasting impression on train passengers arriving at Warrington Bank Quay station. How so? Well, let’s suppose you’re a tourist intrigued by Warrington’s bid for the UK City of Culture 2021, and eager to see this hidden cultural gem for yourself.

You buy a train ticket to Warrington, blissfully unaware that the Royal Society of Arts recently ranked Warrington the worst town for culture in Britain in their heritage report. You roll up at Bank Quay station and look out the window. The first thing you see is the monolithic Unilever soap-powder factory with its giant industrial silos decorated with eccentric doodles. Beyond the windswept platforms, the bleak industrial landscape seems to combine every shade of grey.

First thoughts? In the words of TV’s Jim Royle from The Royle Family: City of culture my arse!

Jim is of course the fictional hubby of one of the nation’s favourite TV mums, Warrington born Sue Johnston.

So let’s stay with the TV theme to argue Warrington’s case by paraphrasing another TV great, Basil Fawlty: What were you expecting to see out of the train window? The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Warrington is, after all, a northern industrial town. It’s a town built on industry and commerce, something that can be traced back to Roman times.

Equidistant from Liverpool and Manchester, unassuming Warrington is like the overlooked child stuck in the middle of bigger, more demanding attention-seeking siblings.

Not renowned for any famous dishes or places of note, the town’s biggest selling point is its convenient location.

Warrington is at the crossroads of the North West, it has been since the Romans used it as a convenient place to cross the River Mersey.

Businesses locate to Warrington because it’s a convenient place to get to everywhere else. ‘Convenient’ may be an apt description of Warrington, but it’s hardly the adjective you’re looking for when you’re trying to convince the nation that the city (that isn’t a city) is the epicentre of a cultural nirvana.

Warrington qualifies to run for the UK City of Culture under rules that include any settlement with a ‘clear central urban focus’. Fair enough. But is it a fair race?

Warrington doesn’t have the allure and romance of some of its rivals. It lacks the charm of a small town and the edge of a big city.

It doesn’t boast Portsmouth’s naval history, and it has never been a pilgrimage destination like St Davids (although people did flock to the town from all over the country in the late 80s – to visit the nation’s first Ikea).

Warrington is a place where pragmatism trumps romance, as demonstrated in 2009 when a sign went up at Bank Quay station prohibiting kissing from the drop-off point so as to avoid queues at busy times.

Warrington isn’t a glamorous place. So why on earth did it throw its hat into the ring to host the UK City of Culture?

Just like an archaeological dig, you don’t have to go too deep.

Warrington may be thin on nature reserves, archaeological groups, and blue plaques. It may not be renowned for local foods such as Cornish Pasties or Melton Mowbray pork pies. But culture can be so many things. It’s not simply adding up listed buildings and archaeological finds. And one area where Warrington fared relatively well in the Royal Society of Arts culture rankings was ‘social history’ (culture and memories).

Warrington is a town with a rich history.

The town gets a mention in the Domesday Book. It played a pivotal role in the English Civil War. One of the founding fathers of chemistry Joseph Priestley (credited with the discovery of oxygen) lectured in the town during the 18th Century; this was a time when Warrington could rival Oxford and Cambridge when it came to getting an education.

In fact, the intellectually stimulating atmosphere saw Warrington dubbed the ‘Athens of the North’. Warrington played its part it during the Second World War when Warrington’s RAF Burtonwood was, at the time, the largest US Army Air Force airbase outside the US. GIs were entertained on the base by major American celebrities like Hollywood legends Humphrey Bogart and Bob Hope.

Yes, Warrington did actually exist before it was designated a new town in 1968. It has one of the oldest museums in the country, a Victorian art gallery, and the oldest public library in the UK.

It can boast the ‘Golden Gates’, once destined for Sandringham as a gift to Queen Victoria. And Warrington is the final resting place of ukulele-toting cultural icon George Formby, a singer-songwriter with a tiny guitar – the Ed Sheeran of his day! The thing is, first impressions count. That’s why visitors to the town remember a place where the air is perfumed with soap powder and little else.

Warrington doesn’t need to reinvent itself to establish the town’s name on the cultural map.

It could easily improve its culture ranking by simply putting up more blue plaques and registering some of its pubs, especially those in the picturesque outlying rural districts.

But, when all is said and done, Warrington is a working town. That’s part of its identity. An identity shared by the thousands of working people who fill the borough’s streets each year on Walking Day, a tradition that stretches back more than 100 years.

Warrington’s understated character is not dissimilar to one of its most famous sons, Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite, who Steven Spielberg once described as the best actor in the world. Warrington born Postlethwaite’s irregular features were as distinctive as his very un-Hollywood surname.

An unpretentious man, he rejected advice to change his name, yet achieved great success anyway. What’s in a name?

Bookies may have Warrington down as rank outsiders but former Warrington South MP David Mowat is confident Warrington can secure the 2021 title.

He said: ‘If Hull can be a City of Culture, I’m sure Warrington can.’

It might sound like a tongue-in-cheek reference to Hull being a former ‘Crap Town’ winner, but he has a point. What Hull demonstrated was a clear understanding of what the title is about. In Hull’s case it was about rediscovering an illustrious past that had been suppressed by the events of the 20th century: wartime bombing which devastated a once prosperous city and the post-war town planners who did even more damage.

Hull submitted a bid around the theme ‘a city coming out of the shadows’. The perfect riposte to those who joked that the only culture in Hull was gang culture or something you might find growing in a petri dish!

Being the butt of jokes is sometimes no bad thing. At least it gets you noticed. Warrington’s problem is its anonymity. To many it’s simply that place off junction 21 on the M6. Warrington has given so much but earned so little recognition. It deserves its day in the sun.

As for the soap factory at Bank Quay, it may not be easy on the eye but people viewed the former power station at Bankside on the River Thames, now home to London’s Tate Modern, in much the same way. Who knows, Bank Quay may one day prove to be the Bankside of the north! Plus turn out of Bank Quay station, head up to Aldi, hook a left and carry on down past the industrial estates until you get to the KFC, and you’ll find a public right of way through the sprawling chemical works where you can see the Grade II-listed Bank Quay Transporter Bridge, the last railway transporter bridge in the world. How about that for a bit of culture!

Stephen Power is a local writer who writes biographies and corporate histories.