Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier

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. Continue reading “Walking the canal: the road to Wigan Pier”

Walking the canal: Parbold to Wigan

Well I’ve been out walking
I don’t do that much talking these days
These days…
I’ll keep on moving
Things are bound to be improving these days
These days –
These days I sit on corner stones
And count the time in quarter tones to ten, my friend
Don’t confront me with my failures
I have not forgotten them

– Jackson Browne, These Days

For the first hour of this walk, the canal follows the valley of the river Douglas. The landscape changes after Parbold: we leave behind the Lancashire flatlands and move 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 hillls. It’s also the busiest stretch so far – bustling with cyclists, walkers, narrowboats, canoes and a school party of hikers.

The river Douglas, a tributary of the Ribble, rises on Winter Hill on the West Pennine Moors, and flows for 35 miles through the town centre of Wigan and into the Ribble estuary. Walking through the valley is to go back to the early period of canal-making when rivers like the Douglas were canalised, these navigations being the forerunners of the canal-building boom that began barely four decades later.

In 1712, Thomas Steers, the engineer who built Liverpool’s first dock, surveyed the Douglas and recommended that it be made accessible to ships, enabling the transport of coal from the coalfields around Wigan down to the Ribble, and onwards to Preston. The canalisation of the river was authorised by Parliament in 1720 and involved the construction of 13 locks. The navigation opened in 1742 but was bought out by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Company in 1780 and abandoned by 1801, by which time the canal provided a better route to the River Ribble.  Although abandoned for 200 years, traces of the navigation, including the remains of several locks, can apparently still be seen between Parbold and Gathurst.

And history moves on: the canals were soon superseded by the railways.  Walking this stretch, you are reminded occasionally of this as, behind the trees, a train clatters past on the line, opened in the 1850s,  that follows the course of the canal through the valley.

In the hedgerow there are scentless wild roses or dog roses, another maligned wildflower, regarded as a weed (‘canker blooms’, they were known as in Elizabethan times) and inferior to the fragrant garden rose. Shakespeare’s Sonnet 54 hinges on that comparison: the scent of the garden rose is the true mark of its beauty, and stands for the inner qualities of the “lovely youth”. Nobody prizes the dog rose, which is all outward show, but the true rose outlives itself, in that its petals can be used to make fragrant rosewater or as a perfume: ‘Of their sweet deaths, are sweetest odours made’.

O! how much more doth beauty beauteous seem
By that sweet ornament which truth doth give.
The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem
For that sweet odour, which doth in it live.
The canker blooms have full as deep a dye
As the perfumed tincture of the roses,
Hang on such thorns, and play as wantonly
When summer’s breath their maskèd buds discloses:
But, for their virtue only is their show,
They live unwoo’d, and unrespected fade;
Die to themselves. Sweet roses do not so;
Of their sweet deaths, are sweetest odours made:
And so of you, beauteous and lovely youth,
When that shall fade, my verse distills your truth.

Appley Bridge is a small hamlet which was once quite industrial, with several quarries and clay pits for the Wigan brick company.

Just beyond Appley Bridge the canal passes under the M6 motorway, so this stretch has offered several layers of transport technology –  from 18th century river navigation and then canal to 19th century railway and 20th century motorway.

Beyond Gathurst lies Crooke where I expected to be able to get a pint and a bite to eat at the Crooke Hall Inn.  But oddly both this and the next canalside pub were closed, with signs indicating they only opened at 2.00. Very strange!

So I had to contine along the rather dreary stretch into Wigan, through wasteland and industrial units, passing the JJB stadium where Wigan Athletic play.  Now, I thought, I’ll be able to get a lunchtime pint at the Orwell on Wigan Pier, a CAMRA pub of the year.  But it was not to be. I arrived to find the place shuttered and empty – it  closed in January 2009.  A converted three-storey grain warehouse, The Orwell was seen as a key feature of the Wigan Pier redevelopment when it opened as a national tourist attraction in 1985. But the venue had struggled with the credit crunch, the decline in the pub trade and, particularly, the closure of the other major Wigan Pier attraction last summer:  the museum of Victorian life, The Way We Were.

It seems that Wigan Council have pulled the plug on funding for these venues and has plans (if the credit crunch allows) for other developments here. The council argues that the heritage industry is not the draw it once was. Visitor numbers had been declining whilst the council subsidised the attractions at the Pier to the tune of £1.3m a year. The council now believes that the Pier’s future lies in a gradual move towards a cultural quarter for the 21st century rather than a series of heritage attractions looking back at the last century.

The original ‘Wigan pier’ was a tippler where wagons from a nearby colliery were unloaded into waiting barges on the canal. It was demolished in 1929. The pier joke is thought to have originated in a music hall act performed by George Formby Senior in which he talked of Wigan Pier in the same terms as the seaside pleasure piers in Blackpool and Southport. The replica tippler seen above was erected on the site of the old one when the area was redeveloped.

In 1937, Wigan Pier was immortalised in the title of George Orwell’s Left Book Club account of unemployment and desperate living and working conditions in the northern industrial areas. In the book, Orwell responded to criticism from the Manchester Guardian of ‘his wholesale vilification of humanity’. On the contrary, he says:

Mr. Orwell was set down in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity. He liked Wigan very much — the people, not the scenery. Indeed, he has only one fault to find with it, and that is in respect of the celebrated Wigan Pier, which he had set his heart on seeing. Alas! Wigan Pier had been demolished, and even the spot where it used to stand is no longer certain.

In another passage Orwell writes:

I remember a winter afternoon in the dreadful environs of Wigan. All round was the lunar landscape of slag-heaps, and to the north, through the passes, as it were, between the mountains of slag, you could see the factory chimneys sending out their plumes of smoke. The canal path was a mixture of cinders and frozen mud, criss-crossed by the imprints of innumerable clogs, and all round, as far as the slag-heaps in the distance, stretched the ‘flashes’ — pools of stagnant water that had seeped into the hollows caused by the subsidence of ancient pits. It was horribly cold. The ‘flashes’ were covered with ice the colour of raw umber, the bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks, the lock gates wore beards of ice. It seemed a world from which vegetation had been banished; nothing existed except smoke, shale, ice, mud, ashes, and foul water.

The Wigan Terminus Warehouses (above) were built in 1777 and refurbished in the 1980s. For a while this was the end of the canal: barges could moor inside the building and off-load directly into the warehouse.

I’d imagined that Wigan only emerged as a township with the industrial revolution, but as early as the 13th century it was one of four boroughs in Lancashire with Royal charters, the others being Lancaster, Liverpool, and Preston. During the Industrial Revolution Wigan experienced dramatic economic expansion and a rapid rise in the population. Although porcelain manufacture and clock making had been major industries in the town, Wigan now grew as a major mill town and coal mining district.

Here’s a painting that evokes that period: The Dinner Hour – Wigan is one of the few paintings by Eyre Crowe that is well known today, and one of the few paintings of his on public display (at Manchester Art Gallery). It is likely that the painting was inspired by a visit to the cotton mill shown in the picture – Thomas Taylor’s Victoria Mills in Wigan – during one of Crowe’s trips around the provinces in his capacity as an Inspector of Schools of Art. The verdict of some modern critics is that it is the ancestor of the Northern townscapes of L.S. Lowry, who also painted Wigan scenes, including one of the Wigan Coal & Iron Works which was auctioned in 2008.

The first coal mine had been established at Wigan in 1450, but by the 19th century there were 1,000 pit shafts within 5 miles of the town centre. The town’s cotton and coal industries declined in the 20th centuryand the last working cotton mill closed in 1980.

I did eventually get lunch after a friendly local gave me an excellent recommendation – the Stables Brasserie, located in an 18th Century stable building on Millgate, just yards from the busy centre of the town and the new Grand Arcade Shopping Centre. I had a superb salad Nicoise and a pint of Boddy’s.

After the junction with the Leigh branch, the canal reaches the Wigan flight of 21 locks. This was once a heavily industrialised area, with collieries and ironworks. Today the canal has bequeathed a very pleasant linear park to the town, the adjoining industrial waste ground having been landscaped and the towpath paved to provide an excellent cycle lane that is evidently well-used.

Just before the top lock I was hailed by Alan who asked whether I’d seen any boats coming up the rise (I hadn’t).  It turned out that he had worked on the canal before he retired and we chatted for while about how much the area around the locks had changed. Amongst the industrial sites along here were Bridge Colliery and Ince Hall Coal and Cannel Company (cannel being a dull coal that burns with a smoky flame). And beside the top nine locks stretched the Wigan Coal & Iron Works, then one of the largest ironworks in the country. It was a massive operation, employing 10,000 people at the turn of the 20th century.  It mined 2 million tons of coal to produce 125,000 tons of iron annually.  The skyline here was dominated by 10 blast furnaces, 675 coking ovens and a 339 foot chimney. It must have been an impressive sight on the Wigan skyline at night. All gone now, leaving not a trace.

From the top lock the canal makes a sharp turn left; looking down from here over the town you become aware of the great height climbed through the 21 locks.

Reaching Bridge 59A at New Springs, I decided to call it a day and caught a bus back into town. I travelled out on 9:55 train from Central to Ormskirk, then caught Cumfy Bus 203 to Parbold. Returned by bus to Ormskirk, then Merseyrail home. The bus to Ormskirk stopped at the Arriva depot in Skelmersdale to change drivers. It was there I caught sight of this strange admonition: what bureaucratic mind thought up this?

Back to Liverpool where this ad for British canals is currently on display at the bottom of Leece Street: the end of an everyday getaway.

Next: Wigan to Blackburn

Steps we take
Steps we trace
Into the light of reunion
Paths that cross
will cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

Speak to me heart
all things renew
hearts will mend
round the bend
Paths that cross
cross again
Paths that cross
will cross again

(Patti Smith, Paths That Cross)

Walking the canal: Halsall to Parbold

I began this leg of the journey at Halsall, where the first sod was ceremonially dug (in November 5, 1770, by the Hon Charles Mordaunt of Halsall Hall) for the commencement of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. A sculpture (‘Halsall Navvy’ by Thompson Dagnall, erected 2006) next to bridge 25 by the Saracen’s Head pub now commemorates this.

I caught the 300 bus to Halsall War Memorial, which stands by the church, a short walk from the canal. The day was warm and sunny, though with a fair amount of clod – but at last it seems the cool, changeable weather we’ve had this May is giving ground to a warm spell. As I set off on the towpath birds were warbling in the reeds on the opposite bank.

On Halsall and the launch of the canal, I found this on the website of the Ormskirk & West Lancashire Numismatic Society:

One of the major constraints on economic development in the eighteenth century was the appalling state of transportation. The roads alternated between mud baths and dust bowls, depending on the season, while navigable rivers were few and far between. Relatively small scale works, such as the Douglas Navigation between Wigan and the Ribble Estuary, had improved matters to some extent, but in 1767 two groups of far-sighted businessmen set up committees, one in Liverpool and one in Leeds, to investigate the construction of a canal to link the growing industrial areas with the coal fields and the major ports of the North East and North West of England. The outcome of their planning was the Leeds and Liverpool Canal Act of 1770, which authorised the construction of the first major canal in Great Britain. The route of this canal passed immediately adjacent to Halsall, and the very first sod turned, in the construction of this industrial miracle, was turned on 5th November 1770 by Colonel Mordaunt of Halsall Hall.

The canal now runs through continuous open countryside, which soon establishes itself as extremely flat and intensively cultivated lowlands. In the large fields alongside there are ranks of cabbage, potatoes and other crops as far as the eye can see.

This was once an area of low lying marshland, much of it below sea level and, consequently, thinly populated. The original course of the River Douglas ran close by, joining the sea near Southport. At some point its course was blocked possibly by giant sand dunes thrown up by a great storm and it found a new, northern mouth in the Ribble estuary, leaving behind the area known today as Martin Mere. This once extended to 15 square miles but in 1787 Thomas Eccleston of Scarisbrick Hall, with the help of John Gilbert, set about draining it for agricultural use (it was Gilbert who, as agent to the Duke of Bridgewater, enlisted James Brindley’s help in constructing Britain’s first major canal). Once drained the mere required vast quantities of manure to raise its fertility for crop production. ‘Night soil’ was shipped in along the canal from the large corturbations of Liverpool and Wigan and off-loaded at a series of small wharfs, some still visible today. Part of the mere remains undrained, a haven for migrating geese.

At Scarisbrick there is an extensive marina providing plenty of mooring places and narrowboats line the canal banks for a mile or so. Scarisbrick (apparently pronounced as ‘Scays-brick’) was, in early times, an area much avoided by travellers. With its vast tracts of poorly drained peat marshes and the huge lake of Martin Mere, it was difficult terrain to cross. Much of the flat land between Southport and Liverpool is, as noted, polder reclaimed from marshes and the lake. The place name itself comes from Old Norse, and literally means ‘the Norseman Skar’s hill-slope’. Scarisbrick appears to have been a village of some size during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Scarisbrick Hall was the ancestral home of the Scarisbrick family and dates back to the time of King Stephen (1135–1154). The present building, considered to be one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in England, was designed by Pugin and completed in 1867. Its most notable feature is the 100-foot tower, which resembles the clock tower of the Houses of Parliament. The building is now occupied by a private day school and public access only allowed once a year. There is a pleasant, wooded section of the canal towpath running alongside the grounds.

Walking on I must have disturbed a lapwing with a nest and chicks in a neighbouring field (they often nest on farmland); she became extremely agitated, circling and calling ‘pee-wit’ as I walked on for several hundred yards. A little further on a pair of orange tip butterflies were active.

At Heatons Bridge I stopped for lunch (splendid roast veg and goat’s cheese baguette with mouth-watering home made chunky chips) and an excellent pint at the pub.  Just by the bridge there remains one of the many defensive pillboxes erected as a precaution against invasion during the Second World War.

The next place of significance was Burscough Bridge. The draining of Martin Mere and the building of the canal had a dramatic effect on rural Burscough. The highly productive farmland had always been a major source of work but now even more land was available for cultivation and the growth of Burscough accelerated.

The completion of the canal saw the development of Burscough Bridge into the most important canal town in Lancashire. Burscough became a bustling transport centre, it was a staging post for the packet boats that carried passengers between Liverpool and Wigan, some of whom would transfer to the stage coaches travelling along the turnpike road to Preston and the North.

The traffic on the canal continued to grow in the 19th century. 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.

A local explained to me that the now-derelict Ainscough’s Flour Mill is a listed building. It was originally owned by H & R Ainscough, who also owned a mill in Parbold and then by Allied Mills until its closure in 1998. The site was bought by Persimmon Homes who plan to convert the mill into apartments, though nothing has happened recently – perhaps because of the credit crunch. After nearly 10 years of disuse, the site is starting to decay, and has suffered some vandalism, but is largely intact. Atmospheric photos of the interior of the mill can be viewed on The View From The North website.

Just after Burscough Bridge the Rufford branch leaves the main canal through an arched bridge dated 1816. A canal settlement, 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.

Navigation on the River Douglas pre-dated the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. When the canal was built it replaced the Douglas between Wigan and Burscough. A new cut between the main line and the river at Sollom was built. Later the lock at Sollom was removed and a river lock built at Tarleton. The Rufford Branch in places looks more like river than a man made channel, while the River Douglas has been canalised and is dead straight. Images of the Rufford branch can be viewed on the Towpathtreks site.

About three miles further on is Rufford Old Hall (National Trust), one of Lancashire’s finest 16th-century Tudor buildings. Most famous for its spectacular Great Hall, with carved ‘moveable’ wooden screen and dramatic hammer beam roof, it is also rumoured that a young William Shakespeare performed here for the owner Sir Thomas Hesketh. Another day I’ll visit the Hall and the explore the canal there.

But for now, it was on towards Parbold. A little further on I encountered a sunken boat, a fierce dog and a rather odd place for barbecues in the shape of a fish.

Finally Parbold hill began to come into view, a reminder that I was leaving the Lancashire flatlands and would soon be entering different country.

Along the banks of the canal here is a profusion of Cow Parsley, known also as Queen Anne’s Lace, which seems a more appropriate  description of this elegant plant. A Dylan melody goes through my mind:

Purple clover, Queen Anne’s lace
Crimson hair across your face
You can make me cry but you don’t know
Can’t remember what I was thinking of
You might be spoiling me with too much love
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go

Flowers on the hillside blooming crazy
Crickets talking back and forth in rhyme
Blue river running slow and lazy
I could spend forever with you and never realize the time…

(You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go)

The fresh, green fern-like leaves and frothy flat heads of cow parsley line lanes and roadsides in May and June. It’s apparently adapted well to changes in farming in the last few decades, benefiting from the heavy use of fertiliser in farm fields, and possibly also the  nitrogen in traffic fumes. It occurs widely on railway banks, woodland edges and on waste ground. I remember as a child we’d use the hollow stems as pea-shooters.

There’s a poem featuring cow parsley that also evokes the sense of noon-day heat and stillness as I walk this stretch:

The pasture gleams and glooms
‘Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.
All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
Are golden kingcup-fields with silver edge
Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn-hedge.
‘Tis visible silence, still as the hour-glass.

(from Silent Noon by Christina Georgina Rossetti)

And there’s another inspired by this flower; Queen Anne’s Lace, by William Carlos Williams, is a meditation on purity in which a touch of desire changes everything:

Her body is not so white as
anemone petals nor so smooth – nor
so remote a thing. It is a field
of the wild carrot taking
the field by force; the grass
does not raise above it.
Here is no question of whiteness,
white as can be, with a purple mole
at the center of each flower.
Each flower is a hand’s span
of her whiteness. Wherever
his hand has lain there is
a tiny purple blossom under his touch
to which the fibres of her being
stem one by one, each to its end,
until the whole field is a
white desire, empty, a single stem,
a cluster, flower by flower,
a pious wish to whiteness gone over –
or nothing.

Parbold lies in the valley of the river Douglas, which was canalised before the construction of the Leeds-Liverpool canal, the route of which follows the river up to Wigan.

The village is dominated by Parbold Hill, on which lies the famous Parbold Bottle, now restored. This is a stone monument about 6.5 feet high, so called because it vaguely resembles a giant bottle. It was erected in 1832 to commemorate the First Reform Act.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, coal was mined here and sandstone was also quarried. Both were exported via the Douglas and the canal; boat-building was also a minor economic activity.

A familiar local scene is the old sail-less windmill just by the canal which replaced a water corn mill. The windmill in its turn was superseded in the mid-18th century by the present mill which was originally worked by a steam engine and produced cattle foods until its closure in 1985.

So now I’m about 28 miles out of Liverpool, with 7 miles to go to Wigan or 99 to Leeds!

I caught Cumfybus 203 from Parbold shops to Ormskirk station, then Merseyrail back to Liverpool.

Next: Parbold to Wigan top lock