The Road to Wigan Pier.

This is not a review of the book of the same title by George Orwell, written in 1937. In fact the only Orwell novel I’ve read was 1984 and I bet you can guess when I read that! Wigan isn’t by the sea and so doesn’t exactly have a pier but a number of buildings by the Leeds/Liverpool canal had short wooden extensions from the canal bank from which to load barges and so the area has long been called Wigan Pier as a joke. It’s around 10 miles in each direction to Wigan by canal and I thought it would be a good mountain bike ride in the clear blue skies of today. In reality a gravel bike is probably the best tool to use down the canal bank, which is mainly compressed gravel, but I don’t have such a bike as I usually like a bit more off road action from my riding.

I left home just before mid day and was on the canal within a few minutes. I’ve recently fitted a new transmission to the Trek 29″ wheel bike and it uses a single chainring at the front and a wide range 10 speed cassette at the rear. I found seventh gear too low and my pedals spun too quickly but due to big gaps between the gears eighth was a little too high. It rarely seems to matter on the trails but I’ve noticed the characteristic on the road as well as on the canal. I’m quite familiar with the ride as far as the top lock above Wigan. I passed the White Bear marina at Adlington, Worthington Lakes and Red Rock which is a high point on the road. After this was the only muddy part with lots of squelchy puddles but things dried towards Haigh Hall, which is no longer owned by a wealthy industrialist but belongs to the town of Wigan and is used as a country park and events venue. There’s been a lot of unofficial mountain bike trail building in the woodland. I understand peoples desire to build trails but some are rather dangerous to pander to the whims of a small minority of riders. It might be better if Wigan allowed some official trail building to a safer standard. I’ve ridden there rarely. I stopped at the top of the flight of 22 locks above Wigan, which is the longest flight on the 127 miles of canal.

Each lock raises boats by around 12 feet.
All the lock keeper’s cottages have been sold to lucky residents.
The first of 22 locks in the sunshine.

I passed New Springs where my father worked for around 20 years and descended quickly towards the town. The surface changed to brick paving which was much faster. It’s surprising how rural the canal feels on it’s approach to Wigan with mainly housing visible until you’re right into town. The canal branches towards Manchester to the south and Wigan Pier is along another short branch to the former warehouses. The area is being redeveloped and the nightclub and bar are no longer. The pier itself, which was rebuilt in steel many years ago, was not accessible but I managed a photo from one end.

The picture at the top is from the opposite end of the building where a bridge crosses the dock. Looking the other way 2 boats were housed under cover and can be hired though I don’t imagine anyone would want to start their day on the water with a climb of 212 feet up the 22 locks, so you’d need to head in the opposite direction for up to 36 miles which only requires you to use 3 locks in the first few miles from Wigan, then no more until the city and port of Liverpool on the west coast.

George Orwell had been shocked at the poverty of the miners and mill workers of Wigan in 1937. Although he was middle class he was a socialist. I’ve always detested the wealthy preaching socialism like it’s a religion. Just as in all attempts at left wing politics the leaders remain wealthy whist the freedom of the masses to make money for themselves is quashed. The coal mining industry was nationalised but without enterprise became a costly carbuncle on our society. A nationalised textile industry is fine if we all want to dress the same as each other, as they did in China. Wigan, due to enterprise, is now a delightful post industrial town and the old cobbled areas around Wigan Pier are well worth a visit. I think the pier buildings will end up as restaurants and shops after the redevelopment. Orwell redeemed himself in my estimation, though, by describing himself as being “exactly from the middle of the lower upper middle class”. This shows an astute understanding of the British class system which, whilst diminished, still creates barriers to social mobility.

My return trip started with a climb up the locks and I soon noticed that there was a slight headwind. My pace slowed for this reason compared to my outbound journey and the gap between seventh and eighth gears seemed even wider. It’s interesting the way you notice different things when riding the same route in opposite directions. At New Springs I saw an old house, Kirklees Hall, still used for farming, which is part timber framed and was built in 1663. I’d guessed it was around that age and Google has confirmed it.

I could feel the effort on the way back because I’d been keeping a good pace up all the way. My total mileage was 21.58 with 314 of climbing. In addition to the climb up the locks there’s around 100 feet of ascent on Hogg’s lane to reach the canal and back to home.

2 Comments

  1. There once was a plaque on a slight, and I mean very slight cantilevered jetty commemorating Orwell and his account. Did you find it ?

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    1. No. It was maybe fenced off whilst they’re working on the buildings. I’d heard the nightclub closed a few years ago but I didn’t know the pub at the other end was gone. I don’t remember it having a fence round it in the past.
      Andrew.

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