The Ride to Wigan Pier – a story of kids, bikes, and beer

tuiglenA guest post by Simon Vincent, of Auckland Transport and Bike Te Atatu.

As it’s a crisp, clear morning I park my bike at the jetty alongside Henderson Creek in Tui Glen Reserve and look into the water and let my mind flow with the tide. That’s one of the joys of riding a bike – you can just pull up, take in the view, ponder life, the universe and everything, and then get back on the bike and continue your journey.

The jetty has me thinking of another relic of a bygone transport age, and as my thoughts drift to some of my earliest bike-powered adventures I realise I’ve come a long way from Wigan Pier.

As a kid growing up in a small village surrounded by the industrial giants of Liverpool and Manchester, my life was a mixture of rural and urban life and trying to find my place within it. One thing was certain: the value of a bike. The freedom to roam I enjoyed was determined by how far my friends and I were willing to pedal.

During the seemingly endless summer holidays (yes, we had a version of summer in Lancashire) my mates and I would hop on our bikes in the morning and return home in the evening, having spent the day exploring and getting up to low grade mischief. One particular ride, when I was about twelve, stands out – the ride to Wigan Pier.

Wigan was, and is, of course, a hotbed of Northern culture: pies, Northern Soul all-nighters, Rugby League, George Formby – and of course was also the setting for George Orwell’s treatise on social deprivation, The Road to Wigan Pier.

Wigan Pier as it is today (pic via Wikipedia)
Wigan Pier as it is today (pic via Wikipedia)
Wigan Pier as Orwell would have known it. (Pic via Slowboat Notebooks
Wigan Pier as Orwell would have known it. (Pic via Slowboat Notebooks)

But none of these were what called to our motley crew of cyclists.

No, we were heading to a garden centre, of all places. This particular garden centre was allegedly home to a faulty vending machine that apparently dispensed two cans of pop for the price of one – and amidst the cream soda and dandelion & burdock, the Holy Grail for pre-teen boys: shandy.

(Not Simon and pals; but close. A bunch of Wellington school kids cycling round the Eastbourne coast, 1983. Pic via National Library of New Zealand
Not Simon and pals, but close: Wellington schoolkids cycling round the Eastbourne coast, 1983. (Image via National Library of NZ)

The trip was an ambitious one, about a 20-mile round trip, but I’ll say it again: there was shandy to be had! Our group was the cream of Lancashire youth; the Deans, the Heaphys and the Vincent boys – nothing could stop us, not even punctures.

The first puncture happened just as we left the road and joined the tow path beside “the cut” – our name for the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Fortunately in those days before quick-release skewers, we were close to a garage and the owner lent us a set of spanners. Even better, we were able to use his air pump, no need to use our bike pump with its tartan (why always tartan?) flexible valve. Now, though, we only had one remaining patch and the journey stretched before us…  but the thought of the shandy and its promised “no more than 1% alcohol” spurred us on.

Cycling along the cut was always a joy. The path was not smooth; its rough surface allowed us to jump and practice our wheelies. It did, however, have its dangers. The overgrown brambles narrowed the path and the thought of ending up in the cut was not a pleasant one. Water quality was not something we thought of in those days, but we did worry that lurking in those murky depths lay piscine danger – a giant pike, known as Big Bess, that had snapped many an angler’s line hunted here. And, more improbably, the story that a unscrupulous pet shop owner had discarded his stock of piranha in the canal was doing the rounds at school

We rode and we rode. We rode so far the accents along the tow path changed again and again. We called out “Any luck?” to those fishing on the banks, and bartered with bargies – we would open the locks for them in exchange for our shandy money.

A bicycle was our passport to the wider world and we loved the freedom it gave us.

As we rode we talked all things cycling: plans to get a set of “cow horn” handlebars (they were the fixie of their day), was there a pair of bicycle clips that could handle Oxford baggies, and the rumours of a 12-speed in the village.

Soon our destination neared, and we came to skidding halts on the gravel in front of the vending machine. Our money went in, sadly only one can dropped out – but it was shandy. We drank deeply and then we got on our bikes and rode home, euphoric and drunk with the freedom of cycling.

Back home, when asked where we had been, we replied “nowhere” and that was good enough for our parents but really on our bikes we had been everywhere. And even then, the next trip was being planned: t’ top o’ Parbold Hill. Rumour had it the old Italian guy who ran the ice cream stall gave out free ’99 flakes to kids who cycled all the way up.

– Simon Vincent 

From Henderson jetty to Wigan pier.
From Henderson jetty to Wigan pier, in a moment of reflection.

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