Wigan & Leigh research trip – part 2
THE BOAT TRIP
On Saturday 6th august, I boarded the beautiful boat ‘Woodstock’ at Anderton Marina from Star Narrowboats. The estimate was 3 days cruising to get to Wigan and I needed a companion for this first part of the trip, especially for the 3 tunnels, so my partner Matt came along for the ride. After Plank Lane swing bridge, I was on my own… which I was a bit nerve wracking to start with! However, I managed to re-discovering my inner ‘boatwoman’ and began to relish the challenges of solo boating along ‘the cut’ (as I learnt to say, from the local boaters) – and enjoyed trying to perfect the timing of my ‘leap off the moving boat with the middle rope’ to moor up.
For each day of boating, I selected a #WildFloweroftheDay for an instagram post by choosing one that caught my eye. I took photographs, a sample for my flower press, filmed them with a Bolex 16mm film camera and carried out some research from the library of wild flower books I had brought on the trip.
I had pinned up Bea’s map, showing where she had found Melilot with the plan to start my search at these locations. Her accompanying written study outlined correlations with the former Lancashire cotton industry. She speculated that some Melilot seeds could have traveled over the Atlantic attached to raw cotton from America, and that is why it appears in the Wigan area. The map shows patches of Melilot, coloured in orange with ‘Mill’ symbols showing where cotton mills currently stand and previously stood, alongside indicating were cotton workers would had lived. I wondered if Melilot was still present? Even though some of the industrial buildings have been demolished, huge brick mills with tall chimneys still stand, as towering markers of the town’s industrial past. Some mills are currently empty and in a state of disrepair, telling multiple stories including the demise of the once burgeoning cotton industry, and an imbalance of wealth and power. I began to think about how history is also held within plants, and where they grow. If the Melilot seeds were passengers on raw cotton imported from America, they are also connected to the transatlantic slave trade. In the mid nineteenth century, the workers of the cotton mills protested against slavery, and refused to work with imported American cotton which exasperated their struggles with famine and unemployment, yet they continued to stand for the eradication of slavery. The more I researched, I came across more histories of activism originating from Wigan. Wigan is the birthplace of Gerrard Winstanley, who started the Diggers movement in the 17th century, a group of people who planted up patches of wasteland (formerly common land) to grow food for the community.
I am interested in the fact that most of the plants my gran had chosen to study in depth were all generally classed as weeds, or ruderal species (those that are quick to take over new ground after disruption). Melilot is often considered a weed, a plant that is often pulled up or cleared away. I began to consider the connections between the multiple social injustices of the cotton industry, the need to listen and prioritise the voices of those oppressed, and to privilege a plant that is often considered a weed. There are many threads to explore by exploring a place through the lens of the plants that grow there. I begin to research the Wigan Flashes Nature reserve, an area of land was previously polluted due to industry, but is now restored as a nature reserve through planting, and re-wilding that has helped these industrial sites transform into beautiful areas supporting many species, and I think about my gran discovering over 70 species on a demolition site in the centre of town. Plants have the capacity to restore and revive, over time.
Here is part of Bea’s Melilot map from 50 years ago, and a key to accompany it.
This post is 2 of 4… the next episode is here…
These blog posts document a two week research trip in August 2022, working towards a new work for Light Night Wigan & Leigh 2022, with thanks to Gemma and Jude at Things That Go On Things, Wigan Council, Canal & River Trust, The Turnpike Gallery.