When George Orwell wrote The Road to Wigan Pier in 1937, the town in question was firmly at the centre of the later Industrial Revolution’s most challenging landscape.
The mills, collieries and iron-works fed off each other in a self-perpetuatuing sump of despair, and the failings of industrialisation were laid bare.
Fast forward 75 years and this corner of Lancashire radiates the confidence of a town at ease with its past; an unexpected inheritance of the very causes of the sufferings detailed in Orwell’s nightmarish polemic.
The pits and mills have gone, but the artery that provided the original lifeline to the town’s industrial might remains.
The Leeds and Liverpool Canal slides around the fringe of the town centre. Its branches meander from near the infamous pier into a garland of countryside across the low hills and mosslands around the town.
England’s longest canal was opened in stages between 1777 and 1820, taking boats on a sinuous journey across (and beneath) the Pennines. Coal, cotton, stone and cloth were its lifeblood, and Wigan thrived on this business.
Tackle the Leigh Branch towpath south and you’ll shortly reach a remarkable waterscape glinting behind reedbeds. Eight secluded shallow basins cover 240 hectares. Known as the Wigan Flashes, they were created by old mine-workings that subsided and flooded.
This is no soulless industrial wasteland; rather, one of England’s finest suburban nature reserves. More than 200 bird species have been recorded; the canal pounds and fringing lagoons are also home to bats, dragonflies and wildflowers.
Heading east from the pier along the canal’s main line, 21 locks raise the cut to a contour-hugging meander through the huge estate centred on Haigh Hall. The elegant Georgian mansion is rarely open to visitors, but the patchwork of woods, haymeadows and byways draw strollers deep into the country park here.
The industrial highway that is the Leeds and Liverpool Canal still delivers the goods to those who seek out its watery course.
HOW TO GET THERE
Wigan is close to J25 & 26 of the M6, plus J6 of the M61. Wigan North Western station is on the West Coast main line; it is also well connected by train to Manchester and Liverpool from Wigan Wallgate station.
FIND OUT MORE
Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust
The Owls at Standish
Rectory Lane, Standish, Wigan WN6 0XD
Long established, popular countryside restaurant near Worthington Lakes.
Bel Air Hotel
Wigan WN1 2NU
Just a short walk to Haigh Hall grounds and one mile from the centre of Wigan, this hotel is in an ideal location.
The World of Glass
St Helens WA10 1BX
The history of glassmaking is presented through film and demonstrations.