The Magnetic North’s Simon Tong – who you may have seen playing guitar for The Verve, Blur and The Good, The Bad & The Queen over the years – grew up in Skelmersdale, Lancashire. Having used the Orkney Islands to inspire their debut (out 18 March), the band’s second album has been inspired by his home town – a place designated as a new town as part of the UK’s second wave of post-war population redistribution and following years of difficult economic conditions, on the early 80s became the official UK home of the Transcendental Meditation movement, after it was deemed the perfect site for the movement to build their "ideal maharishi village complete with gold meditation dome". With the album, Prospect Of Skelmersdale, presenting a collection of musical snapshots of a uniquely British town by drawing on childhood memories, local folk tales, the urban landscape and the lives of its inhabitants, Simon has written a helpful visitors guide for Q.
Skelmersdale was mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1087 when it was a village owned by Uctred who ruled over Dalton and Upholland. Some say the name ‘Skelmersdale’ is derived from the Scandinavian meaning ‘Devils Dale.’ Others say it was derived from another early Viking ‘Skajalmarr.’ Today it is a town of some 40000 people, developed to act as an overspill town for Liverpool. There is a central Concourse Shopping Centre, a Police Station, Swimming Pool, Sports Centre, Library and Transcendental Meditation community but no cinema or hospital. A hospital has been promised by successive governments ever since the town was built but it has yet to materialise. It now has a concept album dedicated to it.
Places To Visit
Birch Green: Why not have a wander round the many pedestrian walk ways of Birch Green. There used to be a pub called ‘The Silver Birch’ –which is sadly no more. The name ‘Silver Birch’ conjures images of the shady groves of native British woodland, which must once have covered Birch Green for hundreds of years before the new town arrived. We used the name as a loose inspiration for a song. The fireworks that can be heard at the end of the song in no way relate to the fire that gutted the pub some years ago.
Tan House – Little Jerusalem: Take the 312 bus to Tan House. Also known as ‘Little Jerusalem’- either because of it’s uncanny similarity to that ancient middle-eastern city, with it’s white buildings set into the hillside, or maybe it is a reference to the hopeful Utopian ideal of William Blake’s new Jerusalem.
The Golden Dome: If spiritual enlightenment is your thing visit the Transcendental meditation center in Ashurst and enjoy a session of Yogic Flying. The Indian yogi who is originally said to have inspired the Maharishi’s movement was called ‘Jai Guru Dev’ and is sang about in the refrain of John Lennon’s Across The Universe. We named the first track of the album after him hoping it would bring good luck and blessing to our project. George Harrison was the only Beatle who stuck by the Maharishi after his alleged fumblings in Rishikesh and our album is bookended by a version of George’s Run Of The Mill’ with Hannah Peel joined for a duet with guest vocalist and friend of the band- Laura Groves.
Ashurst Beacon: The beacon is the pointy building that you can see on top of the hill and is a reminder of the witchcraft that historically abounded in many parts of Lancashire through the ages. Built around 200 years ago, it’s popular with Goths, Witches and Satanists – who occasionally have a smoke and leave offerings there on Halloween.
Other Sites Of Interest
Skelmersdale Library: An important cultural centre for the town. There are rumours it may close due to cutbacks, which would be a disaster. Last year local artist David Ball put on an exhibition of old photographs and recollections gathered from local residents, that show the town growth since the 60s.
Digmoor: Visit the local shopping parade or go for a pint in the Black Swan, locally known as the Mucky Duck. We collaborated on our album artwork with a Liverpool photographer -Stephen McCoy- who in 1984 had photographed and documented Skelmersdale and it’s residents- the Digmoor housing estate in particular- as part of a project at the local college. It would be wonderful to do a follow up project and track down all the people in the photographs to see where they are now.
Up Holland: A settlement on the outskirts of Skelmersdale and located on the road to Wigan Pier. Once home to three members of The Verve. Prince Charles and Lady Di drove through here in a car. As a child my school made us all stand for four hours waiting for them to drive passed. They didn’t stop.
When planning your visit to Skelmersdale you will soon realize that the National Rail website does not recognise Skelmersdale train station. This is because it was closed in 1961, the same year that it was decided a new town should be built there. Either the planners thought that in the age of the car a train station wouldn’t be needed, or that in the unlikely event that no one could afford a car it would be preferred if people couldn’t leave the town very easily.
Places To Stay
In summer why not camp in the middle of Half Mile Island. It was once the biggest roundabout in Europe, but now the third biggest. No toilet facilities available.
Places To Eat
Best to take sandwiches. The Toby Inn has recently been developed and maybe worth a look. There was also the Coach Inn but according to a review on Trip Advisor: “The good news is that the coach house has stopped doing food- the management must have tasted the food the chef was making which in my opinion was the worst I have ever eaten anywhere in my life”. If really stuck you could probably find a decent lentil curry in Ashurst- just ask at the TM meditation centre.
Other Useful Information
Skelmersdale is twinned with Cergy-Pontoise- a new town outside Paris. The Police station is located next to the Concourse and the nearest Hospital is in Ormskirk. Simon Tong @magneticgonorth
For more head to Symphonyofthemagneticnorth.com