David 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