WIGAN PIER WAS made famous by the author George Orwell, who published his “The Road to Wigan Pier” in 1936. Recently, we were staying in Widnes (Cheshire), which is not far from Wigan, a town that was in Lancashire when Orwell wrote his book. So, we decided to see Wigan Pier for ourselves.
A quick glance at a map reveals that Wigan is not on the sea, which is where most piers are to be found. The town is inland, and the so-called Wigan Pier is neither a pier nor on the seaside. It is on a part of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal in central Wigan. It was originally a landing stage where locally mined coal was loaded onto barges.
The name ‘Wigan Pier’ might have originated when a train carrying excursioners to the seaside was delayed at Wigan and they saw a structure that looked like a pier, as the following (from http://www.wiganarchsoc.co.uk/content/Projects/WiganPier.htm#Folklore ) described:
“…not long after leaving Wallgate Station, an excursion train from Wigan to Southport, was delayed on the outskirts of Wigan and passengers saw a long wooden structure that reminded them of Southport Pier. This structure would have been the 1,050 yard long wooden gantry … It was built in the late 1880s and carried a double line of rails from Lamb and Moore’s Newtown Colliery high across the River Douglas, the canal and the Wigan to Southport Railway line, to Meadows Colliery by Frog Lane … It certainly would have been easy to see this wooden gantry from a train heading towards Southport.”
I cannot say whether or not this is the true origin of the name, but it is a good story.
We took a road to Wigan Pier and after going around the town’s one-way system and several roundabouts, passing a huge Asda store a couple of times, we arrived at a series of old warehouses labelled Wigan Pier, and parked next to the canal. The Orwell visitor centre, which we were led to believe existed, is no more. A passer-by, with whom we chatted, told us that any memorials to Orwell and his book had disappeared a few years ago. Likewise, the collieries: these have been closed down long ago. Where they were there are housing estates, factories, and shops.
The warehouses close to where the coal used to be loaded many years ago, were inaccessible. They are being redeveloped to create a leisure ‘hub’. This will include (according to hoardings surrounding the old buildings): a beer tap house; conferences; live music; canal tours; festivals; a food hall; and an ‘artisan deli’. I am not sure what is meant by an artisan deli, but whatever it is, I am sure that should George Orwell ever make his way back along the road to Wigan Pier, he would be truly astonished by it.