THE TOWPATH TO WIGAN PIER

Anal JourneysDavid Warner, Bernard Cribbins, Nichelle Nichols – they’re dropping like flies again; and in tandem with the passing of familiar famous faces whose finest performances evoke inevitable nostalgia, a purely unrelated excursion on my part has involved delving into a retro-scented environment as redolent of a disappearing world as those dearly departed characters were. Over the past month, I’ve followed a route carved-out by navvies more than 200 years ago and ended up at a landmark George Orwell immortalised in 1937, despite the fact even he arrived too late to catch the decrepit remnants of an old music-hall gag. A lengthy post-war restoration of our man-made waterways has perhaps neutered their industrial origins, yet a wooden jetty erected to assist the loading of coal onto working barges was labelled a pier as an ironic dig at a town sorely lacking in the gaudy glamour that the coastal escape routes offered the colliers whose booty the vanished edifice was once weighed down by. The fact a functional construction was jokingly compared to a seaside stalwart highlights how the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, upon which the actual Wigan Pier stood, was very much a workplace for the majority of its existence, something it’s easy to forget when one strolls beside it today.

The Canal cuts a sublime swathe across the Pennines for 127 miles, and almost half-a-century ago a small segment of it provided yours truly with a picturesque playground during seemingly endless school holidays; back then, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was on my doorstep, and improvised summer outings along the towpath left a lifelong love of the location it’s been nice to revive. This time round I’ve followed that path on the other side of the geographical divide, however, with the starting point being the West Lancashire town of Burscough. Although less than 10 miles from Wigan, walking all the way using the Canal as a route is a method of getting from A to B that consciously makes journey’s end something to prolong. Unlike the internal combustion engine – rendering the journey itself an inconvenience to be got through as quickly as possible – when one walks along a canal, it’s all about the journey rather than the destination. In terms of reaching the finishing post, it’s far more tortoise than hare. Leisurely is the word.

Indeed, the leisurely pace of a canal trek is something that again emphasises the changing purpose of this country’s waterway network. When barges are sighted on canals today, nine out of ten times they’re either pleasure cruisers or alternative dwellings for the eccentric; the former come and go as must-have accessories, with the barges belonging to some of the more faddish wannabe shipping magnates betraying their sell-by dates via their shabby, neglected state as they sit permanently moored and gathering dust. Of course, if the more zealous members of the green lobby get their way, a century from now we may well see road vehicles as we now see canal vessels; perhaps a visitation of future transport-for-all came courtesy of the occasional cyclists along the canal path that required rather tiresome standing aside at certain points of the route. At least some cyclists had bells on their bikes to warn pedestrians they were creeping up from behind, whereas others exhibited the same entitled arrogance the revamped Highway Code has misguidedly legitimised on the roads. Either way, the mess that tyres have made of the path is something that a drop of rain can exacerbate, making the journey on foot one in which veering too close to the edge is even more ill-advised.

Actually, any rainfall that took place didn’t occur whilst I was walking the towpath; I was fortunate that each leg of this journey was staged on days when the sun had got his hat on. As if to underline the prosaic nature of the trek, the walk from Burscough to Wigan was undertaken in isolated episodes spread over several weeks. Also, a pattern was established whereby the end of every stage would then see the immediate retracing of steps after a drink and bite to eat; for example, stage one was from Burscough to the village of Parbold, though once this said hamlet had been reached it was then followed by backtracking to Burscough (where the car was parked). Stage two on a different day began at Parbold and went all the way to the commuter village of Appley Bridge; when that was achieved, a return visit to Parbold was then in order – and so on. Stage three: Appley Bridge to Gathurst, a district of the township of Shevington; and stage four consisted of Gathurst to Wigan. The inspiration for this undertaking was the late, great Ian Nairn, whose 1972 trilogy of documentaries for the BBC saw him travel from London to Manchester by road, Manchester to Leeds by canal, and Leeds to Edinburgh by rail. The canal seemed the more economic option in these cost-of-living crisis days, not to mention providing a suitably serene travelling experience.

Certain sections of the route were marked by blissful vortexes of natural quiet, often spanning a good ten-fifteen minutes without sight or sound of another human being or the noise pollution of traffic. Indeed, it was these sedate passages that most evoked childhood memories; there’s something inescapably calming about a location with an abundance of wild flowers on one side and water on the other that taps into an impression of summer as seen through a child’s eyes as much as the mellifluous commentary of John Arlott transmitting on Long Wave represents the season’s sound in the imagination. Other than cyclists, the only interruption would come via the occasional fisherman positioned by the side of the canal or the odd dog-walker and his/her canine companion. Long periods of untouched nature would be periodically intruded upon by affluent settlements – old tied cottages refurbished for the nouveau riche and new-builds attempting to blend in to the surroundings, with the regular incursion of archaic coaching inns remodelled as gastro-pubs making the most of having survived both the smoking ban and lockdown. All of these somehow seemed integral to the landscape, however; even a motorway bridge that crossed the canal during the stage with Gathurst as its finishing post could be admired as a feat of engineering as impressive as the canal itself rather than an unwelcome 20th century gate-crasher.

When the end of the line was eventually reached, I experienced a similar sense of anticlimax as Eric Blair himself must have felt 85 years ago; where be Wigan Pier? Well, the site that bears that famous name today largely consists of several expensive-looking ‘luxury apartments’ or work units that sadly stand unoccupied. In a way, this serves as a melancholy metaphor for the town of Wigan itself. A cursory online exploration reveals a settlement that Ian Nairn particularly praised in the 1960s as a fine example of a thriving Northern enclave that had transcended its industrial roots once boasted a characteristic Victorian market hall that embodied the spirit of the place. Alas, like many such locations during a period in which town councillors became drunk on the unrealisable visions of town planners, Wigan suffered from over-ambition, and even the ‘Casino’ that put Northern Soul on the map in the 70s has long since fallen beneath the dubious wrecking-ball of progress.

My previous visit to Wigan – only in the dying days of 2021 – found the old market’s replacement still open to the public, even if most of the shops housed in it were closed for business; seven months later, the entire area has been boarded-up and blocked-off; ‘1989’ is the giveaway year of its erection imprinted in the architecture, though the fact the town’s beating heart was swept away to accommodate a misguided attempt at urban regeneration was mirrored in the plethora of lunchtime pissheads and mobility scooters for the clinically obese that left the saddest impression on the visitor. Thankfully, the established order of my canal trek meant a dispiriting Wigan was followed by a return to the less-depressing environs of Gathurst. Overall, though, the lingering impact of an impromptu journey was of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal itself as opposed to the town at the end of it. The timeless appeal of this country’s unsung waterways remains unpolluted by ‘progress’, and as a method of seeing the country in a refreshingly alternate light, I can’t think of anything better.

© The Editor

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5 thoughts on “THE TOWPATH TO WIGAN PIER

  1. Living quite close to the same canal, I stroll sections of it frequently. Canals are a living history lesson, reflecting the historic trade of an area, now often traversing sites of post-industrial decay but also many wonderful vistas of nature – well, as natural as any entirely man-made feature can be.

    I marvel at the design skill, especially on one so topographically challenging as the Leeds/Liverpool, including the hidden provision of dedicated reservoirs to maintain the water-levels whatever lock-usage occurs, just as I remain in awe of the back-breaking work which those thousands of navigators must have done to hack out those level channels through unforgiving terrain without any of the modern equipment which their current peers would expect. The stone-work on the locks, formed by huge lumps of hewn rock, all perfectly placed to support the mammoth mechanisms, all achieved by manpower alone. To say nothing of the spectacular aqueducts. And all still in place, still doing the job, 200 years later.

    When occasionally accompanied by younger folk, I try to explain the canals’ historical significance, how they enabled the initial seeds of industrial growth from which we all still benefit, but also that they were a huge commercial gamble for their builders, many of whom did not survive the cash-flow pressures of their demanding quest. To most of those young folk, this is all new, they’re not taught about the Industrial Revolution now in schools, history seems to be limited to ‘Henry & Hitler’, what a tragic waste of relevance and real history. The canals are far more interesting.

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    1. I seem to recall history lessons at school largely represented by the Suffragettes and the triumph of Maoist Communism in China; there was little – if anything – concerned with the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps having the genesis of it on my doorstep via the Leeds & Liverpool Canal plugged a gap that my natural curiosity explored further. If one springs from any old Northern town, the canals are so integral to the town’s initial prosperity that it’s hard to avoid them in a way – at least if one has any interest in history. And, as you point out, it’s understandable that anyone under, say, 50 is bound to view them as nothing more than luxury options for those wealthy enough to afford a pleasure cruiser, utterly ignorant of how they were the motorways of their day.

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      1. I was fortunate that, back in the 1960s, as well as standard History, my school also taught Economic History as a separate subject – that’s what really turned me on to history, not the Kings & Queens & Dates memory-test nonsense, rather it established the foundation of all that we have now and explained so much about the society we inhabit and the origins of its structures. Henry & Hitler it ain’t.

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  2. I’m lucky enough to live close enough to the Peak Forest Canal, and sometimes, if I get a bit of spare time, wander the four or five miles to Whaley Bridge and back to pick up a rucksack full of shopping rather than pop to the local shop or get a bus. Despite being sandwiched between the Hope Valley railway line on one side, Manchester to Buxton line and the A6 on the other, there are stretches where you genuinely feel quite distant from the hustle and bustle, and, on a pleasant day and should you be left alone by the pushbikes for a while, the process of walking becomes hypnotic and almost trancelike; one of the few places and activities in the world where you can genuinely lose yourself. I like a nice walk in the hills or the city, don’t get me wrong, but it seems more involved, or demanding somehow, so lacks the “pleasant mindlessness” the canal walk seems to invoke in me.

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    1. Yes, I know exactly what you mean when you describe a leisurely canal walk as hypnotic and trancelike. It seems to infect all the senses, especially with the removal of man-made noise pollution and all that goes with it. I never notice the moment at which I cease to hear traffic anymore; it just slowly fades away, and then when it eventually gatecrashes the scene again the shock is like stepping out of a darkened cinema back into a blindingly bright day.

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