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The Road that Orwell Rode: Wigan Pier

After 29 years of living in the suburbs or Wigan, I finally got around to visiting my hometown’s most famous landmark: Wigan Pier. In George Orwell’s famous commentary on early twentieth century industrial England, Orwell describes the slum conditions of mill workers and their families in Wigan. Now, you can go back in time and travel the road that Orwell rode; and experience the reconstruction of Wigan, 100 years ago.

Wigan Pier opened as a tourist attraction in 1986 and is located on the banks of the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The two main attractions are ‘The Way We Were Heritage Centre’ and the ‘Trencherfield Mill Engine’. You can take an Amsterdam style waterbus on the canal to and from these two attractions. I started by taking the waterbus over to the Trencherfield Mill. Although the yellow waterbus was almost full, there was an eerie silence as we passed over the murky canal water. The majority of the passengers were made up of middle-aged locals and pensioners. Eric, a former mine worker himself, commented that, “It’s my first time. Been living here 64 years.”

As we came to the dilapidated old mill, we had to go in a back entrance because the building is currently undergoing a mass redevelopment funded by the national lottery fund. The first floor shows what the conditions were like for workers almost one hundred years ago, and the guide explains how they developed a basic system of sign language because the monstrous machines were, as demonstrated, so deafeningly loud.

But it only when you reach the second floor of the mill that the draw-card really comes. A huge 2,500 horsepower engine, the world’s largest working original mill engine, presents itself in full glory. Built in 1907 and equivalent in weight to more than seven double-decker buses, the power room is an awesome sight. You can see a working demonstration of the steam engine and feel its immense power, while marveling at the engineering expertise of people who created the engine more than a century ago. It took funding of £600,000 to fully restore the engine to its full working condition.

After seeing Trencherfield Mill, you can take the waterbus back over to ‘The Way We Were Heritage Centre’. Here you are whisked back in time to a reconstruction of early twentieth century Wigan. The museum is populated with spooky mannequins going about their business in a reconstructed village. You can experience how life was like below ground at the coalface, wander around a Victorian shopping village and look at the products that were on offer, drop by the pub, wander around houses, and even take part in a dramatised Victorian schoolroom and experience a strict education – complete with schoolmaster.

Wigan Pier is currently being rebuilt. There are plans to build a new heritage themed attraction alongside Trencherfield Mill Engine, and next to Trencherfield Mill will be a brand new purpose built theatre. There will also be new specialty shops, pubs and restaurants, as well as an on-site hotel. All this is expected to be complete in Spring 2007. Perhaps a good date to take the road… to Wigan Pier!


Jason J.R. Gaskell, Msc. is an ESL teacher and freelance writer who has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines, and Ezines; and more recently has been working on a new title for Dorling Kindersley publishers.

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