It had been six years since I last walked this stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, at the start of a plan to walk the length of the canal in stages – a project completed in July the following year. Now I was reprising one of the most attractive stretches of the canal – between the small town of Burscough Bridge and Wigan – this time in the company of two friends, Bernie and Tommy.
Things didn’t look too promising at the start: on the train up to Southport we had looked out on a rain-sodden landscape of Lancashire flatland fields stretching off to distant cloud-shrouded hills. When we arrived at Burscough Bridge a light rain was still falling, and a local shopkeeper was making an opportunistic offer of ponchos and wellies.
Soon, however, the rain cleared, though the cloud did not break until after lunch. We set off along the canal, past Ainscough’s Flour Mill, a listed building which was derelict when I was here six years ago. Now, we could see construction workers busy completing the conversion of the building into apartments. Further along the canal, I noticed several examples of new waterside housing developments since I was last here.
Ainscough’s Mill is a symbol of the development of Burscough Bridge into a bustling transport centre after the arrival of the canal. Boats carried coal from the Lancashire coalfields through Burscough on the way to the Liverpool docks and brought commodities for the fledgling industries that sprang up around the canal, such as imported grain for Ainscough’s Flour Mill. Manure was brought from the dray horses and middens of Liverpool and dropped off at the muck quays along the canal, then used to fertilise the reclaimed farmlands and further increase the area’s agricultural output.
The stretch of canal between Burscough and Parbold offers plenty of evidence that the farmland around here is as rich and productive as it ever was: there were large fields sown in regimented lines that looked like strips of velcro to crops that we couldn’t readily identify. Some fields were like gigantic lawns – sown for turf.
Just after Burscough Bridge the Rufford branch leaves the main canal through an arched bridge dated 1816. A settlement of canal-workers’ cottages, now a conservation area, surrounds the lock and a dry dock. It’s a very attractive corner, with cobbles and old cottages and attractive views over Lathom locks down towards Rufford.
The Rufford branch heads north for about 7 miles before joining the river Douglas. From there, navigators can follow the Douglas to the Ribble at Preston, and then out to the Irish Sea.
Navigation on the river Douglas pre-dated the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, with the river being canalised in 1742. The working life of the Douglas Navigation was short, however, as it was bought out by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company in 1772, to prevent competition with the scheme to build a canal to Wigan.
Now, walking this stretch of canal up towards Wigan is like walking through several eras of transport history: the Douglas river winds alongside the canal, while the railway which came in the 1840s, runs parallel. Then, at Gathurst, the canal runs beneath the mighty pillars of the M6 motorway.
Soon, Parbold Hill came into sight, still shrouded in drizzle and mist, and a reminder that now we were leaving the behind the Lancashire flatlands and moving steadily towards higher ground. Up to Appley Bridge this is a lovely stretch, with the Douglas twisting alongside the densely-wooded canal through the valley, surrounded by rolling hills.
Parbold is one of the communities that owes its existence to the canal: during the 18th and 19th centuries, coal was mined here and sandstone was quarried. Both were exported via the Douglas Navigation and the canal. Boat-building provided another source of employment. A familiar local scene is the old windmill just by the canal. It replaced a water-powered corn mill, before the windmill in turn was converted in the mid-18th century to be driven by a steam engine. It produced cattle foods until its closure in 1985.
From here, the canal follows the valley of the river Douglas, a tributary of the Ribble, which rises on Winter Hill on the west Pennine moors and flows for 35 miles, before passing through Wigan town centre and heading towards the Ribble estuary.
We strode on, past Appleby Bridge, engaged in deep conversation, as usual, about the state of politics. There was much to discuss: the Greek crisis, Osborne’s welfare cuts, and the shambolic nature of the Labour leadership contest. We had covered a fair distance before we had wrung the last drop of speculation from the news that Jeremy Corbyn was in the lead in the race to lead the party.
At Dean locks , just before the M6, we encountered a retired couple passing edging their narrow-boat through the lock.
Gallery: encounter at Dean locks
While their Jack Russell waited patiently tied to a nearby bench, we spoke to the wife as she turned the crank to admit water into the lock. The couple had been in Liverpool a month ago, spending a week moored at the end of the canal in the Albert Dock – and it hadn’t cost a penny! Once you’re registered with British Waterways, there are no mooring charges anywhere along the canal, so they had enjoyed free accommodation in a prime city-centre location. Now they were headed in a leisurely fashion towards Leeds: they had sold up their home to spend their life on their narrow-boat.
A little further on the canal passes under the M6 motorway, a blot on the landscape, before a last scenic stretch leading up to the village of Crooke, the roar of the motorway fading as we left it behind. At Crooke we paused for a drink and a bite to eat at the Crooke Hall Inn.
Then it was the dreary stretch into Wigan, through wasteland and industrial units, passing the DW stadium where Wigan Athletic play. The converted three-storey grain warehouse, The Orwell, once a promise of the town’s regeneration that housed a bar, restaurant and museum of Victorian life, still lay shuttered and empty, as it was when I came here in 2009.
Opposite the Orwell is the feature with which the town will be forever associated: Wigan Pier.
In The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937, George Orwell wrote of his disappointment at finding the pier had gone:
Alas! Wigan Pier had been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.
In one sense, the ‘pier’ had never existed: it was a joke perpetuated in a song by George Formby. In reality the ‘pier’ was a tippler: a device which caused wagons the nearby collieries to tip over and release their contents into waiting barges on the canal. But when Orwell came here, the tippler had been demolished six years, sold as scrap in 1929 for £34.
The tippler we see on the canal bank today is a replica, erected on the site of the old one when the area was redeveloped in the 1990s.
Today, by the side of the Pier, stands a sculpture that remembers the work of the Pit Brow Lasses, women whose job was to ‘shake the coal’ to get rid of stones, using a shaking screen, and sorting the coal into different sized cobbles. An adjacent plaque imagines the voice of a Pit Brow Lass saying:
The coal comes down a conveyor belt. There are six of us Lasses to a belt. We work hard – six in the morning ’til six in the evening weekdays, finishing at two on Saturdays. Our muscles are bigger than most of the men’s. At night we soak our hands in cold tea to soothe the cracks. We wear clogs, shawls and aprons made from sacking. But it’s our trousers we’re known for. You see, women in trousers are frowned on – people think we’re immoral. Machines are startin t’replace us Lasses. But they aren’t a patch on us.
The walk over, we headed to the station and the train back to Liverpool.
You can read the posts describing my walks along the canal in 2009-10 here.