The Path to Wigan Pier

18 May 2017 – Another borrowed title, this time slightly amended. George Orwell called his 1936 book The Road to Wigan Pier, using the pier to symbolize the region’s industrial decline. My cousin Jane (right) & I, plus her husband Rick, are on the path alongside the Leeds & Liverpool Canal, walking our way to that famous pier.

Walking our way along a very short stretch indeed, from Top Lock to Bottom Lock in the Wigan Flight of locks, which accounts for 23 of the canal’s 91 locks. This Flight allows boats to rise (or drop) 200 vertical feet in a distance of just over 3 miles.

Work on the canal began in 1771 & was completed some 45 years later, a total of 127 miles, all of it dug by hand. The canal linked with other canals, a fast means of transport for its day, its barges carrying produce — e.g. coal, limestone, woollens — throughout the region.

Today the canal is for pleasure, maintained in part by volunteers, funded by both public & private sources.

We walk under graceful arched bridges …

pass fishermen by canal’s edge …

and read fingerboards.

I spy our destination, Wigan Pier, on the lower left finger and chirp to Rick, “Only 7 minutes away!” He replies, “By bicycle.” Ohhh. Oops.

And, of course, we see the narrow boats that have replaced the old industrial barges.

Sometimes they are right in a lock, here twinned and riding low …

and sometimes they are tied up.

Solar panels, I am told, are not unusual these days.

We stop to read a red metal detail map by the path.

We’ve come from Top Lock, well off the bottom left corner; we are are now near Bottom Lock (# 9, near the bottom left corner).

We will now walk on to Pottery Changeline Bridge (# 6), turn left along the canal and, — at #2 —  finally reach oyr goal: Wigan Pier.

Here it is! Wigan Pier.

Really. Those up-tipped metal stumps. That’s it.

In a manner of speaking.

Orwell wrote dolefully: “Even the place where it used to stand is now no longer certain.” A plaque explains why. In 1929, 7 years before his book was published, the pier had been sold for scrap. What we see now is a reproduction, created in 1986 by students of Wigan and Leeds College.

So: it’s a repro.

But still worth our respect, and our time. It represents one of the piers, or “tipplers,” that used to dot the canal.They were points where tubs of coal would be run down tracks from the collieries, to hit a jetty and “tipple” (topple over), emptying their load into a waiting barge in the canal itself.

The contents of each tub had been shaken & sorted by Pit Brow Lasses, working in teams of six. They did it all by hand, 12 hours a day. “Reet ‘ard work…” as one described it, back in 1880. “Our muscles are bigger than most men’s.”

At night they would soak their hands in cold tea, to soothe the cracks in the skin.

Jane, Rick and I head off to a tearoom. We too will seek out tea — hot tea, though, to soothe our throats.

 

  • WALKING… & SEEING

    "Traveller, there is no path. Paths are made by walking" -- Antonio Machado (1875-1939)

    "The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes" -- Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

    "A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities" -- Rebecca Solnit, "Wanderlust: A History of Walking"

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