We've just finished reading The Soldier's Return by Melvyn Bragg. You can follow the red button above to the book review. This novel was set in the small Cumbrian town of Wigton. We travelled to Wigton to experience the setting first hand. Although we couldn't go back to 1946, we did go to see what the town is like today.
Located as it is between the expansive Solway coast and the beauty of the Lakeland fells, you would anticipate that Wigton is a stunning little village full of pretty independent shops and cobbled lanes, enclosed by Cumbrian dry stone walls. After all, Cumbria is acknowledged to be outstandingly beautiful. We were expecting something along the lines of beautiful lakeland towns such as Keswick or Grasmere. Presumptive? Unfortunately, a little, yes.
Instead, Wigton is a small market town with typical high street banks and low-end retailers (The Original Factory Shop, B & M, and Spar). In fact, it is just as described by Bragg, having no great beauty, and is just a practical, Northern town. Not quite Grasmere, but nethertheless, very quaint.
However, some of the shops seem to be independently run, which would have the potential to enliven the area. We are a couple of gift shops that, through the windows, did seem to be worth browsing.
Perhaps, this is the same impression as felt by Sam, the main character, when he returns from his service during the war, that the town is nothing special, but ordinary. He had longed for his family, but not so much for his home town.
Rather reminiscent of ‘Balamory’, some of the buildings have been livened up by bold paintwork: blues, pinks, purples and yellows, adding a certain charm.
And the fountain in the market centre although a bold, imposing structure, is also pretty with its gilt decoration and potted plants. The George Moore Fountain was built by George Moore in memory of his first wife, Eliza. Moore was a wealthy self-made man who had earned his fortune in London, but had houses in both London and Cumbria. Each side of the fountain shows an Act of Mercy: clothing the naked, visiting the afflicted, instructing the ignornant, and feeding the hungry, and above each is a carving of the face of Mrs Eliza Moore.
Some places of interest in the town are mentioned in the novel and remain to this day, from public houses (such as The Victoria) to churches and streets.
Bragg firmly places the novel and its characters within the town. The Richardson family, Sam, Ellen and their son Joe, have always lived in Wigton. As Sam returns from the war, he is reminded of the familiar streets and houses, the market place, the pubs, the river Wiza, the paths where he and Ellen courted, the local schools, and the church where his child was baptised. Places he is all-too familiar with. His yam. (Cumbrian for 'home'.)
Some familiar places for Sam and Ellen from the town:
The Lion and Victoria public houses are both mentioned in the novel. They still remain.
St Mary's church (far right) is the church of England in Wigton.
Water Street is particularly mentioned, being the road to where Sam and Ellen move. It is considered 'a rough place' and Ellen, Sam's wife, is less than enthusiastic about living there. In the photos below, you can see Water Street from both ends.
In the novel, Bragg highlights the warren-like composition of the town, with its numerous alleyways and lanes. These are readily apparent and quite endearing. Other buildings may remain, but have changed: the Spotted Cow Dairy seems to now be a cafe and restaurant.
In The Soldier's Return, Bragg captured the town with an accuracy borne of absolute familiarity. This was one of the appealing aspects of the book: we felt that we had walked these post-war roads along with Sam, and ran up and down the lanes and alleyways with Joe, his young son.
Overall, it was fascinating to walk the same streets as the characters of book. Bragg was authentic and meticulous in his descriptions of the town and well worth a visit if you want to read the book.