Leaving Wigan Pier for a flash

All I knew of Wigan was the pier made famous by George Orwell’s book (which I have only just read) and the sight of the tall chimney proclaiming ‘Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls’ as I whooshed by on a train that felt itself too important to stop. I also knew they had a rugby team thanks to Eddie Waring’s strange way of pronouncing ‘Wiiiigan’ in the Saturday sports results on the TV in the1960’s .
A recent family connection, in fact two, has caused me to get to know Wigan and it’s history a lot better. I was surprised to find the pier didn’t exist but despite this fundamental problem it still came to fame following a traveller mistakenly thinking they were in Blackpool, a period as a Music Hall joke then George Orwell giving it a permanent place in history when he wrote ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’. A stub of a ‘pier’ has been built in more recent times to provide a focus for tourist activity.
The 1930’s Wigan described in the book was a dirty smelly place with people living in extreme poverty and working in one of the large number of coal mines in the area. Since then all the mines have gone, the last closing in the 1990’s, and even the ‘Wigan Alps‘ are no more, having been leveled in the 1960’s. Walking in and around Wigan in 2011 it is hard to imagine the scenes in Orwell’s book without the mines, their supporting industries and the dilapidated workers accommodation.
One of the side effects of mining is subsidence caused as the land starts to collapse into the mine workings below. In Orwell’s book this is typified by the poor living in houses whose doors and windows won’t open due to the movement of the building caused by the subsidence. Modern Wigan has taken advantage of the subsidence by allowing holes to fill up with water and transform into ‘flashes’, huge lakes which have now been designated as nature reserves. A look on Google Maps shows the extent of these flashes with the Leeds & Liverpool canal and its Leigh Branch providing a route amongst them. The local council and organisations such as Lancashire Wildlife Trust have worked hard to transform one of these areas into Wigan Flashes Nature Reserve, a home to a huge variety of wildlife, including the rare Bittern. Look around and you will find other similar areas that provide a green band around Wigan.
So, there is now a ‘pier’, you can try ales from Wigan’s two excellent breweries and you can walk home by the flashes listening to ‘booming’ bitterns while sucking one of Uncle Joe’s tasty mint balls. What more could you want, except maybe one of Wigan’s famous pies.

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