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”

Back to Wigan Pier?

The Orwell at Wigan Pier

The Orwell at Wigan Pier

In June 2009, walking the Leeds-Liverpool canal, I arrived at the Orwell pub at Wigan Pier to find the place shuttered and empty – it  had closed in January that year.  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 struggled with the credit crunch, the decline in the pub trade and, particularly, the closure of the other major Wigan Pier attraction, the museum of Victorian life.

It was seventy-five years ago this month, notes David Sharrock in today’s Observer, that George Orwell set out from London on a mission instigated by his publisher, Victor Gollancz, to investigate the ‘distressed areas’ of northern England.  He ended up in lodgings in Wigan: an old Etonian gaining an education in poverty, squalid housing, unemployment and general misery.

Cover of the original Left Book Club edition

The impressions he recorded in The Road To Wigan Pier may seem at times those of a traveller ‘venturing among savages’, but Orwell’s book was an important contribution to awareness of the extent of the North-South divide at the end of the 1930s and fuelled a revulsion against glaring inequality that led ultimately to the Labour landslide in the 1945 general election and the establishment of the welfare state.

‘Today the book seems curiously relevant to our own distressed times’, writes Sharrock. ‘An Old Etonian prime minister, in a cabinet stuffed with public school boys, has embarked upon the most radical reduction of public spending in generations, making cuts that have prompted robust criticism of their pace and scale. North and south are pulling apart once more … We are witnessing the longest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, according to Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, and its effects fall heavier on the north.’

Two years after publication of The Road To Wigan Pier, Picture Post sent the pioneer of photojournalism, Kurt Hutton, to Wigan to document what he saw. The Observer has a gallery of his famous photos, three of which are featured below.

The diary kept by Orwell during his stay in Wigan can be read in full here.  I have selected these extracts:

11 February 1936

Wigan in the centre does not seem as bad as it has been represented – distinctly less depressing than Manchester. Wigan Pier said to have been demolished. Clogs commonly worn here and general in the smaller places outside such as Hindley. Shawl over head commonly worn by older women, but girls evidently only do it under pressure of dire poverty. Nearly everyone one sees very badly dressed and youths on the corners markedly less smart and rowdy than in London, but no very obvious signs of poverty except the number of empty shops. One in three of registered workers said to be unemployed.

Last night to Co-Op hall with various people from the N. U. W. M. to hear Wal Hannington speak. A poor speaker, using all the padding and clichés of the Socialist orator, and with the wrong kind of cockney accent (once again, though a Communist entirely a bourgeois), but he got the people well worked up. Was surprised by the amount of Communist feeling here. Loud cheers when Hannington announced that if England and U.S.S.R went to war U.S.S.R would win. Audience very rough and all obviously unemployed (about 1 in 10 of them women) but very attentive. After the address a collection taken for expenses – hire of hall and H.’s train-fare from London. £1-6-0 raised, not bad from about 200 unemployed people.

You can always tell a miner by the blue tattooing of coal dust on the bridge of his nose. Some of the older men have their foreheads veined with it like Roquefort cheese.

(Wal Hannington was a founding member of the Communist Party and its offshoot, the NUWM (National Unemployed Workers’ Movement), from its formation in 1921 to its end in 1939.  In 1937, his book The Problem of the Distressed Areas was published by Victor Gollancz, also in the Left Book Club series).

12 February 1936

Terribly cold. Long walk along the canal (one-time site of Wigan Pier) towards some slag-heaps in the distance. Frightful landscape of slag-heaps and belching chimneys. Some of the slag-heaps almost like mountains – one just like Stromboli. Bitter wind. They had had to send a steamer to break the ice in front of the coal barges on the canal. The bargemen were muffled to the eyes in sacks. All the “flashes” (stagnant pools made by the subsidence of disused pits) covered with ice the colour of raw umber. Beards of ice on the lock gates. A few rats running slowly through the snow, very tame, presumably weak with hunger.

13 February 1936

Housing conditions in Wigan terrible. Mrs H. tells me that at her brother’s house (he is only 25, so I think he must be her half brother, but he has already a child of 8), 11 people, 5 of them adults, belonging to 3 different families, live in 4 rooms, “2 up 2 down.”

All the miners I meet have either had serious accidents themselves or have friends or relatives who have. Mrs Hornby’s cousin had his back broken by a fall of rock – “And he lingered seven year afore he died and it were a-punishing of him all the while” – and her brother in law fell 1200 feet down the shaft of a new pit. Apparently he bounced from side to side, so was presumably dead before he got to the bottom. Mrs H. adds: “They wouldn’t never have collected t’pieces only he were wearing a new suit of oilskins.”

15 February 1936

Passing up a horrible squalid side-alley, saw a woman, youngish but very pale and with the usual draggled exhausted look, kneeling by the gutter outside a house and poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe, which was blocked. I thought how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling in the gutter in a back-alley in Wigan, in the bitter cold, prodding a stick up a blocked drain. At that moment she looked up and caught my eye, and her expression was as desolate as I have ever seen; it struck me that she was thinking just the same thing as I was.

This moment was translated into the memorable passage in chapter 1 of  The Road To Wigan Pier:

The train bore me away, through the monstrous scenery of slag-heaps, chimneys, piled scrap-iron, foul canals, paths of cindery mud criss-crossed by the prints of clogs. This was March, but the weather had been horribly cold and everywhere there were mounds of blackened snow. As we moved slowly through the outskirts of the town we passed row after row of little grey slum houses running at right angles to the embankment. At the back of one of the houses a young woman was kneeling on the stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her – her sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was almost near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate, hopeless expression I have ever seen. It struck me then that we are mistaken when we say that ‘It isn’t the same for them as it would be for us’, and that people bred in the slums can imagine nothing but the slums. For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her – understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

David Sharrock comments that this was ‘a rare moment, in a book about human sympathy, of connection between the man raised to be an officer of the empire and the proletariat that, however much he wished to embrace, repelled him still’.

18 February 1936

In the early morning the mill girls clumping down the cobbled street, all in clogs, make a curiously formidable sound, like an army hurrying into battle. I suppose this is the typical sound of Lancashire. And the typical imprint in the mud outline of a clog-iron, like one half of a cow’s hoof. Clogs are very cheap. They cost about 5/- a pair and need not wear out for years because all they need is new irons costing a few pence.

20 February 1936

This afternoon with Paddy Grady to see the unemployed miners robbing the “dirt-train,” or, as they call it, “scrambling for the coal.” A most astonishing sight. We went by the usual frightful routes along the colliery railway line to fir-tree sidings, on our way meeting various men and women with sacks of stolen coal which they had slung over bicycles. […]

When we got there we found not less than 100 men, a few boys, waiting, each with a sack and coal hammer strapped under his coat tails. Presently the train hove in sight, coming round the bend at about 20 mph. 50 or 70 men rushed for it, seized hold of the bumpers etc. and hoisted themselves onto the trucks. It appears that each truck is regarded as the property of the men who have succeeded in getting onto it while it is moving. The engine ran the trucks up onto the dirt-heap, uncoupled them and came back for the remaining trucks. There was the same wild rush and the second train was boarded in the same manner, only a few men failing to get on to it. As soon as the trucks had been uncoupled the men on top began shovelling the stuff out to their women and other supporters below, who rapidly sorted out the dirt and put all the coal (a considerable amount but all small, in lumps about the size of eggs) into their sacks. Further down the “broo” were the people who had failed to get onto either train and were collecting the tiny fragments of coal that came sliding down from above. […]


Walking the canal: Wigan to Blackburn

And the seasons they go round and round…

It’s been a while since I broke off the walk at Wigan top lock and in that time summer has come, and now is on the wane. The towpath is lined now with rose hips, rose bay willow herb, elder berries, sloes and blackberries; I crammed some of this black honey of summer into my mouth to spur me on towards Johnson’s Hillock and the Top Lock pub:

When the blackberries hang
swollen in the woods, in the brambles
nobody owns, I spend
all day among the high
branches, reaching
my ripped arms, thinking
of nothing, cramming
the black honey of summer
into my mouth; all day my body
accepts what it is. In the dark
creeks that run by there is
this thick paw of my life darting among
the black bells, the leaves; there is
this happy tongue.

– Mary Oliver: August

On the telephone wires, swallows were gathering, perhaps preparing for the long journey south that they will embark upon sometime in the next few weeks.

However, one of the dominant memories of this particular walk will be the sight of banks and masses of the pesky Himalayan balsam – it was there lining the tracks on the railway line to Wigan and back, along the tow bath and in drifts extending through the woods adjoining, and lining the road on the bus journey back to Wigan.

This was perhaps the least satisfying stage of the walk – partly because a good 50% of the time – from Adlington, past Chorley and on into Blackburn – the canal is accompanied by motorway, the roar of traffic constantly present though hidden from view by woodland.  And it’s the way that the canal burrows deep through the tree cover here that is also unsatisfactory – it was only on the bus ride back from Blackburn to Chorley that I got any real sense of the surrounding countryside: the moorland views towards Rivington Pike, with the stone terraces of the 19th century mill towns climbing  through the hills.

I picked up the trail again above Wigan top lock, where the canal runs along the fringe of Haigh Country Park. Haigh Hall was once the seat of the Earl of Balcarres who profited from the wealth generated by the coal seams and the Haigh Iron Works which were developoed from the 1840s onwards. In the photo below, Haigh Hall can just be made out on the skyline.

towpath bridge at entrance to former Basin Quay, Haigh Country Park

On the stretch up towards Adlington I fell in with another walker, a local guy whose grandfather had worked as a boatman, who pointed out relics of the industrial past on the opposite bank – here was where coal was loaded, there signs of the textile industry; that house was once a pub that served the bargemen, and there was where the original railway line to Blackburn ran.

Approaching Chorley a 150-year-old spinning mill has been converted into a retail and leisure destination called Botany Bay. It has 5 floors selling collectables, furnishings, memorabilia, furniture and gifts.

There’s plenty of it anywhere along the canal, but on the Chorley to Blackburn stretch it was particularly marked: the magnetic attraction of the waterside for new housing developments. This was a striking example, just below the start of the locks at Johnson’s Hillock:

I worked my way up the locks at Johnson’s Hillock and stopped for lunch at the Top Lock pub.

The canal now turns northeast and flows along a secluded and often densely wooded valley at a height of over 350 feet above sea level. After a short while I reached Withnell Fold –  a 19th century model village built to house workers at the paper mill, now demolished apart from its chimney.

As the industrial revolution of the 19th century expanded, more mills and workers were needed. Sites for these mills were largely dependent on a water supply and transport systems to bring raw materials in and produce out. Some mills were too far from centres of population so ‘colony’ villages had to be built nearby to house the workers: Withnell Fold village and Paper Mill were built on a green-field site in 1843. The owner and builder was Thomas Blinkhorn Parke (1823-1885), the son of Robert Park, a local Cotton Mill owner.

The Reading Room was built by Thomas Parke’s son, Henry and opened on 4 Oct 1890 for the benefit of the mill workers and their families. It was equipped with a billiard table, reading room with current periodicals, and upstairs a stage and concert hall with a sprung dance floor. Henry Parke wanted the building to ‘help young men gain general knowledge and help introduce less indifference to social questions’. He was a local benefactor and two of his best known achievements were to fund the first Public Library in Chorley in 1899 and also build Brinscall Baths (the first Public Baths in the area) in 1911.  A sculpted tree trunk represents T.B. Parke, founder of the villlage.

The village school was also built by Henry Parke. The date-stone to the right of the main entrance door reads HTP 1897, his initials.

The terraces of stone cottages in the village square were built in 1843.

Withnell Fold Methodist Church is one of the later buildings to be constructed. It was built by Thomas Blinkhorn Parke in 1852 as a day school and Chapel combined.

I was musing over the many and varied names people give their canal boats – often something aspiring to a peaceful state of mind, a flower or a girl. But today I saw one named mirrlees and another called crossleys.  Strange – they’re both places where my Dad worked – Mirrlee’s manufactured diesel engines at Hazel Grove, near Stockport and Crossley‘s were a motor vehicle manufacturer he worked for in Openshaw. Whatever. Here’s a boat called Topaz.

I trudged on towards Blackburn, the roar of the motorway constant on this stretch. At the Cherry Tree suburb, after roughly 16 miles I decided to call it a day and caught a bus back to Chorley that rattled through the stone-terraced hillside villages of  Withnell, Brinscall and Wheelton; then a bus to Wigan and finally the two-car diesel that rattled and screetched its way back into Liverpool. I’d reached the towpath at ten that morning; I got home for 7:30. All the public transport was dead on time.

Next: Blackburn to Clayton-le-Moors

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)