The Canal to Wigan Pier

27-28 May 2018

Saturday Morning.

With Peter and Jenny on board, we left Astley Bridge and three quarters of an hour later were in Leigh.

Our very old friends Harry and Eth joined us, looking younger than ever.


They come from Hart Common, which is a small village near Westhoughton, and have been friends since I served my curacy there in the late ‘80s.

Tilda, Jonty and Theo were always welcome – Jonty used to walk up Harry and somersault over, aged four. This was before Hugh was born. Was there life before Hugh?

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That’s him now. Here’s how they looked then, give or take a year or so.


We approached Wigan past old mine workings now filled with water – called locally ‘flashes’. Pennington Flash, Scotsman’s Flash – ‘Who was the Scotsman?’ I asked Eth.

Catherine (who was 12 when last I saw her) and her husband Andy, with their two children Megan and Lauren, came to view the boat, and generally we caught up on the news.  Stephen, Catherine’s brother, is now a priest in Exeter Diocese. He’d come home to his mum after my confirmation classes, with more questions than answers, and she’d put him right.

At Leigh Bridge the Bridgewater becomes the Leeds & Liverpool Canal.

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We stop the traffic by lifting the road to mark the place.

The LL heads west at Wigan to Liverpool, or east towards Leeds and offers the Wigan flight – twenty one big and heavy locks. Jenny breathes a sigh of relief that these won’t be down to her.

We’re going to leave the boat for a week in Wigan, so we pulled up. Harry and Eth headed off, thrilled to have seen familiar territory from a different perspective. Peter went too, back to Mirfield. I’ll join him on Tuesday.

I bought a handcuff key (anti-vandal key) from the Canals and Rivers Trust man who happened to be passing, and Jen and I settled for the night, surrounded by apartments, with Wigan Pier just around the corner, and Trenterfield Mill looming above us.

Built in 1907 it’s formidable. Like so many other cotton mills around here. Dominating the landscape; dominating people’s lives.


Sunday morning, and I jogged half way up the 21 locks and then we joined the congregation at Wigan Parish Church. They were only just in vacancy, and a past vicar was there to preside. The congregation was elderly, and so friendly – with each other, and with us. The chat was irrepressible – even through the anthem (sung excellently, though the choir was only four).

There’s something irrepressible about Wigan – you see it in the way people dress. It’s confident, up for the world – whether it’s the old-timers that were christened, married and seen out friends and spouses at church, or the younger generations on the streets, as the night life starts to gather momentum.


Eth told me how she’d drop off Catherine as a teenager for a night out on King Street, with fear and trembling. She needn’t have worried. Catherine met her Andy in a pub. He came from a neighbouring village, and Eth said that his parents were as relieved as she was when Catherine and Andy found each other. He works in Manchester as a bio-chemist. She’s at a large secondary school, in charge of safeguarding and pastoral care.

Sunday, after church, and we each took ourselves off for a walk to explore. Jen, off along the canal in the Liverpool direction; me to find a place to eat for that evening.

One of the liveliest pubs, full of people of all ages – which is always a good sign – was The Moon Under Water.


‘You were brave, eating there,’ said Eth, later.

Named this by Wetherspoon’s chairman, Tim Martin, after he heard that George Orwell wrote a London Evening Standard article about his favourite fictional pub – The Moon Under Water.

Orwell visited Wigan in the 1930s, commissioned to write about poverty in northern towns. His 1937 The Road to Wigan Pier received mixed reviews at the time, but has become a classic of social history. This 2011 article from the Guardian, 75 years on, is worth reading.

The great Trenterfield Mill above us; Wigan Pier is just down a lock and under a bridge. It used to be a heritage centre, but is now closed.


That Guardian article:

In fact the “pier” never existed, except in song and laughter. The story goes that day-trippers on the train to Southport, peering out across the blighted landscape in a thick fog, spotted a railway gantry leading to a jetty from which coal was tipped into barges on the canal. “Are we there yet?” asked a passenger, mistaking the ghostly outline for one of Britain’s newly fashionable seaside attractions. “Nay, lad, that’s Wigan Pier tha’ cun see,” replied the railway signalman. True or not, the pier became a music-hall staple of George Formby.


The council are trying to make Trenterfield Mill a heritage centre now. But why would people want to be reminded of the past?


Especially when there’s beer and humour to be had.


There are sad places. The Roman Catholic Church. The door had been broken open, the padlock hanging useless.

Inside made me want to weep.


There was a massive seminary too, which closed in 1992.  I mean, massive. See the photographs.

St Joseph remains, looking over the place. What must he have seen, over the years.


A chasm between the folk in church on Sunday morning, and the folk on the streets as Wigan Parish Church rang out the bell for evensong.


It’s more than being ‘relevant’, or ‘accessible’ – this massive culture chasm.  Does the Parish Church face the same future? The Church of England too?


Bank Holiday Monday, and it’s three weeks on from the party at Prickwillow.

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Jen’s day to head off to London and Morocco. First we walked up the Wigan flight as far as Lock 73 (they’re numbered from Leeds). It’s her last chance to say good bye to the lock gates she has strenuously pushed, pulled and cajoled in so many ways over the last couple of weeks. She does look good on it, though.


Thank you, Jen.

We notice that there are different flowers out now. The elder is in bloom. Dog roses.



There’s a report on the news that there will be more plastic bottles in the sea than fish by 2050. More bags in the trees than flowers, too?


Then, back on TLA, and  the Jam Butty pulls out of the lock, on the way to Liverpool.


Helen emails me later, after I run after her, to get a shot of her business.


We passed you today around Wigan – at least I think it was Wigan, geography is not my strong point!  We were in Wand’ring Bark and The Jam Butty and you took some photos of us after we came out of the lock.

I wish we had had time to stop, moor up and chat but we have to be in Liverpool for Wednesday so we’re on a bit of a time table.  I’ve found your blog, have read a few posts, and will return to read the rest.  Just read about your new hair cut and funnily enough, I noticed how fab your hair is while we were passing!

We are Christians too, C of E to boot.  Our home church is Aldridge Parish which is a short walk from our home in Aldridge.  We live in our house for the winter months and then summer on the boats, making & selling jam to earn a bit of income.  When travelling I spend a lot of time worshipping God in the scenery.  We use the Boaters’ Christian Fellowship website  for the comprehensive list of canal side churches and try to get to services when we can.  We’ve been to a wide variety and it’s lovely to find God in such diversity.

Our jam business has been going for 6 years now following a major detour in my career path.  We love it.  Our website is .

As well as jam, we both write too.  Andy (my husband) earns more than I ever do as he writes for Waterways World, usually publishing about 6 articles a year.  He also blogs at and is way too fond of alliteration for my liking!  I write for myself, mainly.  I blog at which is primarily a breast cancer blog.  I write poetry, mostly bad poetry, but I do love to dabble.

We will be leaving Liverpool docks on Sunday 3rd June and heading along the LL until Leeds so maybe our paths will cross again.  If not, I wish you every success and much happiness in your new post and hope you have a smooth move.

I hope we catch up with them again.

You know true friendship when this returns within a day, washed and dry.


Eth and Harry picked me up for a meal after Jen had gone.

We went down memory lane – my curacy, remember.

Here’s where Jonty and Theo were born. Home deliveries. Both on Sunday mornings. Any excuse to get out of church.

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Here’s where Tilda first went to school.


Here’s the church rebuilt after the Victorian barn of a place burned down in 1990. St Bartholomew’s, Westhoughton.


That was a sight in the middle of the night. I reckon I saved the tower by insisting the fire officers concentrate their water on the base to stop the fire funnelling up.

Simon Tatton-Brown, the Rector at the time, did a great job of rebuilding. It’s lovely inside.

Back to Hart Common for a brew. This house was always welcoming when I needed it.


Then I’m dropped back to The Lark Ascending for my first night alone.

It’s a beautiful full moon over Wigan lock 87.


Tuesday sees me heading back by train for Mirfield. There’s work to be done on the preaching book I’m editing with Richard Sudworth, and on the Theological Reflections: Methods book that Elaine Graham, Heather Walton and I produced in 2005, which needs to be revised.

It’ll be great to see everyone at The College of the Resurrection, as the final week is underway. Folk getting ready to be off to sort out housing; to prepare for ordination services. Peter has nearly finished his essay – the one on Sacramental Theology – that he’s been writing for five weeks now. We need to move stuff out of our rooms and over to Workington, before we return to take The Lark Ascending onwards to Skipton.


4 thoughts on “The Canal to Wigan Pier

  1. David Runton

    Dear Frankie, What a joy its been to travel with you via your delightful posts. There’s a book there I imagine. When and where is Peter’s ordination? The Wigan 21 flight, your next boating challenge, brings back memories. My one armed friend Mark who owned Jenna, asked me and Barbara to join him for this ascent which he regarded as the last achievement of his boating life. It was a Saturday morning in September. Rain was pelting loudly on the roof. The consensus of opinion was “ oh well it will ease up shortly” which of course it didn’t. Mark though was pulling on his waterproofs with assistance from Barbara. The engine started at first ignition. At least Mark and I were going to be active. Barbara got the short straw by helming us through without any bumps or conflict with a sill. We did it in 4 1/2 hours still pelting. We didn’t lose a windlas or keys to open each anti vandal lock. Mark controlled the strap gripping it either in his armpit or between his knees compressed together. Once at the mooring Barbara immediately restored us all by producing steak and Kidney pie to be washed down with a glass or two of Rioja. Mark was elated and settled down to sleep off his exhaustion. I suppose Barbara and I would have washed up and got the deck shipshape but I can’t remember anything else except the sense of exhilaration that we had helped Mark to achieve his ambition. So I’m happy to be drafted in to help crew you through, along with other, younger, volunteers I would hope! Go well in your change of domain. It’s seems it is an extremely busy time for you. With love and prayers David and Sally.

    On Tue, 29 May 2018 at 06:49, Larkrise to Skipton wrote:

    > fefward posted: “27-28 May 2018 Saturday Morning. With Peter and Jenny on > board, we left Astley Bridge and three quarters of an hour later were in > Leigh. Our very old friends Harry and Eth joined us, looking younger than > ever. They come from Hart Common, which is a ” >

    1. Dear David
      Thanks for these memories! I can just imagine it. Hopefully it won’t rain tomorrow!
      Be great to catch up as we near Ilkley – and to meet on TLA in the future.
      much love to you both

  2. Ruth Boydell

    Frances, Late in the piece Jenny gave me your blog address. I am enjoying dipping in and out of it so much. Thank you. The trip sounds wonderful.
    As a silly aside, the first joke I learnt as an Australian child was as follows:
    ‘Why is it dangerous to be in the English countryside in Spring?
    Because the hedges are shooting, the bullrushes out and the cowslips about.’ I thought it hilarious and gave me an idea of another world where there were magical plants!
    Jen and Bill’s friend
    Ruth Boydell

    1. Dear Ruth
      Lovely to hear from you. Love the joke. It will be included in the blog!
      Do actually follow the blog too – I’d like some followers in Australia. That would be cool.
      (Scroll to the bottom, include your email address and press follow).
      It was great spending time with Jenny. I think she’d doing really well.
      much love

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