As a town on top of the Lancashire Coalfield, Wigan was swept up in the Industrial Revolution and became a coalmining and cotton-spinning centre.
The collieries and mills were served by the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, a dumbfounding piece of Georgian engineering connecting major manufacturing hubs across the North West.
Relics of Wigan’s industrial period are most visible at Wigan Pier, a semi-derelict wharf, while the Trencherfield Mill and Astley Green Colliery have magnificent steam engines from these times.
There are pockets of ancient woodland around the borough, unaltered for hundreds of years, while the Haigh Woodland Park is a highly-rated family day out on an historic estate.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Wigan:
1. Haigh Woodland Park
One of the North West’s favourite outdoor attractions is inside Wigan Borough a little way north of the town.
The park belongs to the Medieval grounds of Haigh Hall, a country house last rebuilt in 1840 and now a hotel.
Amid beeches, oaks, sycamores and horse chestnuts, the 500-acre park has something for all-comers.
Kids can take on the high ropes course and fortress-like adventure play park, while there’s crazy golf, adventure golf and a miniature railway.
Grown-ups can play a round at Haigh Hall Golf Club, which has taken over the estate’s two-storey stable block.
Maybe best of all though is the Kitchen Courtyard, which has a tearoom, brewery, craft studios and shops specialising in artisan bread, ice cream and chocolate.
In summer there’s a constant line-up of child-friendly activities like archery, bushcraft, pond dipping and storytelling.
2. Museum of Wigan Life
The stately Elizabethan Revival building housing this museum was designed by Alfred Waterhouse, who was responsible for Manchester Town Hall and London’s iconic Natural History Museum.
It completed as Wigan Public Library 1878, and George Orwell came here in 1936 to research his book, Road to Wigan Pier.
The Museum of Wigan Life opened in 2010 and has more than 30,000 objects in its collections.
These relate to fields like archaeology, natural history, fine art, industrial history, social history and applied art.
This might be a German helmet brought back from the First World War, local 16th-century pewter, Roman pottery or Victorian holiday souvenirs from Blackpool.
Honourable mentions go to a 1902 turnstile from Wigan Warriors’ former stadium Central Park, a pocket watch made in Wigan at the turn of the 19th century and a late-18th-century shotgun by the gunsmith Barker of Wigan.
3. Lancashire Mining Museum at Astley Green
An enlightening half-day out can be had at the Astley Green Colliery a few miles east of Wigan.
Here you can take in the last surviving pit headgear and engine house on the vast Lancashire Coafield.
The mine operated from 1912 to 1970 and now is a chance to come to terms with a way of life that has disappeared in the space of a generation.
That 30-metre headgear from 1912 is one of the main attractions, as is the hefty twin tandem compound steam engine in the winding house, with steam supplied by 16 Lancashire boilers.
Check out the fleet of 28 narrow-gauge colliery locomotives.
The largest collection of its kind in the UK. With a rare piece of industrial architecture Astley Green is regularly chosen as a shooting location, and last appeared in the BBC2 series Peaky Blinders in 2018.
4. Mesnes Park
Thirty acres of lawns, paths and flowerbeds to the northwest of Wigan town centre, the Victorian Mesnes Park opened in 1878. On a mound in the centre is the park’s finest feature, an exquisite pavilion capped with a large glass lantern.
Like all of the park this has been revitalised in the last few years with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
Inside is a cafe, well worth a visit in summer for its real dairy ice cream.
Also pretty is the Arts and Crafts-style entrance lodge, now hired out for functions like weddings.
Wandering along the paths you’ll see a sweet old bandstand, and statue to the local Conservative politician, Sir Francis Sharp (d. 1911). The bronze on his foot is buffed up and shiny because people give it a rub for good luck.
5. Leeds and Liverpool Canal
The longest single canal in the UK, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal weaves through Wigan on its 127-mile course between its two namesake cities.
The waterway was built over the turn of the 19th century to ship coal, limestone and textiles back and forth across the industrial North West, with an international exit point at the Port of Liverpool.
Freight was long ago replaced by narrowboats for pleasure, while the well-surfaced towpaths draw a steady stream of walkers and cyclists.
You can use the canal to get to a lot of places on this list, like the DW Stadium, the Wigan Flashes, the Trencherfield Mill and of course, the Wigan Pier, which follows.
6. Wigan Pier
Now, there’s no doubt that this historic wharf where on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal is in a state of disrepair.
But if you’re drawn to industrial architecture it’s a sight not to be missed.
The towpath here has cobblestones, as well as the tracks of an old narrow-gauge railway, and there are rows of warehouses going back to the Georgian period.
Beyond that there’s a literary connection as George Orwell documented the desperate living and working conditions in this part of the world in the Road to Wigan Pier.
At the start of the 2000s a redevelopment plan kindled a lot of optimism about the wharf, but this was stopped in its tracks when the Great Recession hit in 2008. As of 2018 the site is in decay, but potential is clear as day.
7. Trencherfield Mill
One of the restored industrial behemoths on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal is the cotton-spinning Trencherfield Mill, erected in 1907. Until the mill closed down in 1968, Trencherfield’s machinery was driven by a mammoth 2,5000 horsepower triple-expansion four-cylinder engine.
The four-storey factory was revitalised as part of the Wigan Pier regeneration, and that humungous engine is like new.
You can come and see the mill and its engine every Sunday, but for the full experience pick a “Steaming Day”, normally twice a month between March and December when this 110-year-old giant is brought back to life.
8. Church of St Wilfrid
The parish church in the nearby village of Standish has a Grade I listing, and in the 20th century was described as “one of the most interesting churches in Lancashire”. The church was first documented at the start of the 13th century, but is thought to have been founded much earlier.
The architecture in place today stems from a Tudor rebuild in the 1580s, blending elements from Gothic and Renaissance styles.
This transitional style is on show in the nave, where the arches are semi-circular, with just a hint of a point and are supported by Tuscan columns.
In the nave and chancel look up at the ceiling, which has richly moulded beams from the Tudor rebuild.
In the chancel there’s a pair of 16th and 17th-century chest tombs, the older of which (for Richard Moodie) has an effigy first carved in the 14th century and reused.
9. The Old Courts
The handsome Victorian courthouse on Crawford Street has been converted into a multidisciplinary arts centre run on a non-profit basis.
The Old Courts is a labyrinthine complex with a few performance spaces in its walls.
The largest is the Grand Vault, which has standing space for 300 spectators and used for gigs – added to these are the ceremonious Courtroom and the cosier Bailiff Bar.
A glance at the website will make clear just how much is going on at the centre: There are craft workshops, plays, live bands (with a lot of tribute acts), parties, poetry readings, lectures, comedians and talks by cultural figures and sports personalities.
10. DW Stadium
Wigan has a bold modern arena for its two sports teams, Wigan Athletic and Wigan Warriors.
the DW Stadium was built in 1999 at a cost of £30m and can seat more than 25,000 fans.
As of 2018 the football team, Wigan Athletic play in the Championship, the second tier of the English game.
But they did have an extended spell in the Premier League in the 2000s and even won the FA Cup in 2013. The Rugby League team, Wigan Warriors, shares the stadium, and plays its matches in the summer months.
Perhaps the more successful of the two tenants, the Warriors have won the Super League championship (previously RFL Championship) 21 times, with three victories since 2010. Outside, get a photo of the statue of Dave Whelan, the Wigan Athletic owner who helped clinch the FA Cup win.
11. Wigan Flashes Local Nature Reserve
Flashes are a landform peculiar to coalmining areas.
Here depressions caused by subsidence from mining have become flooded.
A happy consequence of this unintended change to the landscape is the way nature has adapted.
At the Wigan Flashes, minutes from Wigan Town Centre, there’s a diversity of habitats around eight flashes, including scrub, swamp, reed beds and woodland.
There are more than six miles of walking paths in the reserve, installed with six bird hides.
The banks are a breeding ground for the willow tit, while if you keep an eye on the reeds in spring you may spot a bittern, a rare wading bird on the RSPB’s Amber List.
12. Wigan Little Theatre
A lovable producing venue, the Wigan Little Theatre has been a fixture of the town’s arts scene since 1943. What’s special about this place is how much work is done by volunteers, both on the stage and behind the scenes.
The shows are mainly musicals and productions of classic plays.
So for a snapshot, the 2018 programme had History Boys by Alan Bennett and an adaptation of Peter James crime novella, A Perfect Murder.
In 2016 the venue opened the Next Door bar, which helped bring the theatre up to accessibility standards.
13. Three Sisters Circuit
Marketed as the North West’s most challenging race circuit, Three Sisters is somewhere for petrolheads young and not so young to get a hit of high-octane fun.
For youngsters there’s outdoor karting, which can be organised in groups or on “Arrive ‘n’ Drive” days on certain weekends and school holidays, when kids aged 8-15 can simply show up, put on safety gear and start racing.
There are separate “Arrive ‘n’ Drive” days for adults, as well as pre-bookable “Karting Blasts”, in which first-time drivers can familiarise themselves with a kart.
Three Sisters is also a full-size racing circuit, and organises Road Car Track Days when people can bring their own vehicles to see what they can do.
On Drift Days you can take the back seat in a rear-wheel drive car for a high-speed taxi ride you won’t soon forget.
14. Borsdane Wood
To the east of the borough is a big tract of semi-natural ancient woodland that has survived since the 17th century.
Among the tree species in this 85-acre wood are birch, ash, oak, hazel, cherry, hawthorn, dog rose and blackthorn.
This was once all part of the Hindley Hall Estate, the magnificent Georgian mansion of which is now the clubhouse for the Hindley Hall Golf Club.
Borsdane Wood is prettiest on the banks of the Borsdane Brook, which feeds the nearby Pennington Flash, surrounded by a 500-acre country park.
15. Fairy Glen
Further away, to the northwest of Wigan, there’s a parcel of secluded West Lancashire countryside tucked into the slope of Parbold Hill.
Here the Sprodley Brook has whittled away the sandstone to form walls of rock, waterfalls and cascades.
This is all in the shade of fresh broadleaf woodland, with oaks and ashes dating back centuries, and scattered with younger birches and alders.
The brook is followed by a single trail that has benches to admire the falls.
Try to come in April or May when the blue bells and red campions bring lots of colour to the forest floor.