When you tell people you're going to Wigan, there's a sharp intake of breath. 'Wigan?' they say, 'oooh,' like a mechanic sizing up your car for a costly repair. But ask them to elaborate and they shrug and say: 'You'll see.' So it was with a mixture of apprehension and anticipation that I boarded the train north. But my revelation would have to wait - we were delayed (thanks, Virgin), and by the time I got there the only thing there was time to 'see' was the inside of the Quality Hotel.
Next morning, I pitched up for a day's graft at Milliken Industrials, a carpet-tile factory. Yes, a real factory. Like the rest of British manufacturing, carpet-making is now a niche activity, but specialists such as Milliken can compete with cheap overseas rivals, thanks to their expertise and flexibility.
First off, a pair of steel toe-capped shoes and a quick rundown on safety - what to do if there's a fire, what to do if I discover a fire, and - my favourite - what to do if I happen to start a fire. Then to work in the factory: cavernous, with a strong whiff of carpet. I was told I'd get used to this, and, surprisingly, I did. The place was strangely bereft of people. Factories these days are highly automated, and anyone expecting to see hordes of workers in thrall, Fritz Lang-style, to the relentless demands of the machinery will be disappointed. There seemed to be more people in the office and the canteen than there were on the shop floor.
I walked the site with process engineer Andrew Sweetmore, on an environmental check. We talked carpet tiles as he showed me around the factory grounds, dating from the 1930s and rather charmingly landscaped with cottagey rose borders. I broached the subject of Wigan. Andy hastily assured me that he lives in Blackburn. But he must have been out in Wigan? Yes, he said. 'Put it this way, it has an incredibly diverse nightlife.' Something else came up, so I never discovered what he meant, although I guessed it wasn't full of Vietnamese restaurants and gay clubs.
Audit over, I was introduced to Roy and Tony, who were boxing up finished carpet tiles. Roy was a muscle-bound giant - and I soon discovered why. Not only did he box up for a living, which is hard work; he finished off with a daily three-hour gym session. But compared with his colleagues, Roy was on the small side; there were several carpeters whose square yardage was much greater. Tony used to work in a bakery.
Roy and I moved on to 'quality control' - looking for defective tiles. This was a bit like being a finalist on The Generation Game. We watched tiles go by on a conveyor belt, eyes peeled for sub-prime specimens, pulling them off for washing if they were marked or otherwise below par. I found it soothing, but Roy said you can only do it for so long before carpet-tile blindness sets in.
Around the periphery were vast racks and display areas. Gargantuan inkjet printers mean that tiles can be decorated with virtually any pattern or design: your company logo, directions (fire exit, loos, this way out etc) and even your photo. Carpet tiles come in many varieties too: tufted, PVC- and bitumen-bonded. The huge bonding machines swallow molten goo, fabric tufts and backer in at one end and spit out tiles at the other - all with little or no human intervention. The few people hovering around the machines are there mainly in case they break down.
The sonic knife is a Doctor Who-style device that uses high-frequency sound to cut the tiles precisely to size. Andy, a callow 24, told me the sound drove him nuts; I could only just hear it; colleagues in their fifties didn't know what all the fuss was about.
After a respectable cheese and ham sandwich in the canteen, I was taken over to the warpers, where I met Carl. He oversees the spinning of hundreds of bundles of thread onto a big metal drum like a missile nose-cone, thence to a giant steel bobbin which, I soon realised, is not something you'd want to get in the way of. It's a giant's sewing kit with thread reels the size of a man. And, unlike boxing tiles, this was pretty skilled and complicated work. I watched with interest but little comprehension.
The same could be said of my experience of Wigan. I had to rush back to London, so apart from a short, literary walk down to Wigan pier (a tarted-up canal jetty complete with a 'venue' called - inevitably - Orwell's). I never did get to the heart of the place and the reason for all those cryptic half-answers. Maybe next time - and then when someone else asks me what Wigan is like, I'll be able to inhale sharply and say: 'You'll see.'