I am a writer and teacher, out and about in the world but with Nottingham never far from my heart.
Published February 20th 2015
On the trail of one of England's best loved authors
Jeanette Winterson was 16 when she fell in love for the first time. Nothing unusual about this, but for young Jeanette the love she found was a little different; it catalysed her resolve and led her to leave the repressive atmosphere her adopted parents' Accrington home and strike out on her own. Also, the object of her affections was another girl.
It doesn't seem shocking now, in our comparatively enlightened age, but for a 16 year old girl to identify herself as lesbian in 1960s England was something of a big deal. Factor in the double-whammy of growing up in an ardently traditional working class town and living with Christian fundamentalist parents and you can begin to understand the controversy caused by Winterson's revelation.
Winterson fictionalised her experiences of adolescence in Accrington in the 1985 book Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, later adapted into a hit TV series by the BBC. I first came across Oranges… while studying for the English Literature portion of my degree in Manchester, the city of Winterson's birth and only 20 miles south of her hometown of Accrington.
Jeanette Winterson speaking in Poland in 2005, Image by Mariusz Kubik
It's a wonderful book; melancholy, hopeful, funny and sometimes disturbing, and it rightfully catapulted Winterson to the forefront of contemporary British literature. The Bildungsroman won the Whitbread Prize on its release in 1985 and has refused to be pigeon-holed ever since. Winterson has vociferously opposed attempts to categorise the work as a "gay or lesbian" novel, pointing out that if straight fiction can have universal appeal, a work with gay themes should surely have the same.
To get to the heart of Jeanette Winterson's development as an author and writer, we need to travel to north-west England, and the town of Accrington. This industrial town of about 70,000 inhabitants might be small, but it has become woven into the culture of England, thanks in part to the work of writers like Jeanette Winterson.
Accrington's famous Market Hall
Accrington Stanley – the town's plucky football team – are currently languishing in the fourth tier of the English league system, but have become symbolic of the ethos of "true British football"; the melancholy story of the Accrington Pals battalion, the military unit made up of friends from the mill town who fought bravely and suffered catastrophic losses in World War I, is emblematic of the experiences of millions of young men in the Great War; and the eerie and sad story of the witch trials of nearby Pendle taps into a very English fascination with all things macabre.
All of these things originated in Accrington, but have touched the hearts of the nation as whole.
A battalion of the East Lancs Regiment, of which the 'Accy Pals' were a part
Visitors to Accrington on a Jeanette Winterson pilgrimage should visit the town's old market hall. This majestic building was built in the mid-nineteenth century and features heavily in Winterson's book. From here, a short walk around the small town-centre will bring you into contact with towering mill buildings, warehouses and stockyards; the sleepy remnants of a once bustling industry, and a reminder of the atmosphere of Winterson's youth.
The town's huge railway viaduct is another reminder of the power of industry. It's a magnificent structure in its own right and has inspired several works of art and music.
A few miles to the north of the town is Pendle Hill, the area made famous by the Pendle Witch trials of 1612 in which nine local residents were sentenced to hang for practicing witchcraft. It's a disturbing and desperately sad chapter in the history of the area, and one made all the more evocative by the stunning landscape that unfolds for tens of miles across the Lancashire countryside.
A 19th century imagining of two of the "Pendle Witches"
To get to grips with Winterson's writing career after the release of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, spend a few hours up here with Jeanette's latest novel, 2012's The Daylight Gate.
Then the true power of Winterson's writing – and that of the bleak and mysterious geography of the English north-west – will become apparent.