A train to Wigan, a bus ride and I’m in West Lancashire armed with my latest walking guide, A Lancashire Monastic Way. Not the best of starts – my first monastery, the remains of Upholland Priory – is a wall in the car park of the local Conservative Club.
I was exploring the grounds of St. Thomas the Martyr Church in Upholland. The church grounds were extensive, I’m always amazed by the number of graves in some of these old churches. In fact, there were so many graves that the stones have been used to pave the area around the building. The Benedictine monks established a priory here in 1319. Monasteries served as hospitals, schools and places of refuge for the needy and homeless but by the Dissolution, the priory here was only helping two elderly and two school children. The chancel of the priory became the nave of today’s Parish Church and the rest of the monastery dispersed, apart from that wall. Due to my early start, I was unable to see the interior of the church which apparently has a window made from medieval glass found in the ruins.
As this is a ‘Monastic Way’ I’d better educate myself on the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries was a process instituted by Henry VIII between 1536 and 1541 where monasteries, priories, friaries and convents were appropriated by the Crown. Henry wished to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for failing to give him a male heir. The Pope refused to grant the divorce so Henry set up the Church of England breaking from Rome along with the Reformation throughout Europe. Apart from religious changes, the idea was to increase the income of the Crown. Much monastic property was subsequently sold off to fund Henry’s military campaigns in France and Scotland. The gentry and merchants, Henry’s sympathisers, who bought the land prospered. At the time there were nearly 900 religious houses in England with thousands of monks, nuns and friars. The majority of these were given money or pensions. Some abbots refused to comply and were executed, their monasteries destroyed. The fabric of English society was changed almost overnight.
The usual suburban, hemmed in paths led to a deserted golf course and out into fields with a misty view across the flat landscape to Winter Hill. A ravine appeared alongside the track and I dropped down to the water below, Dean Brook. All was autumn colours and splashing waters, a joy for the next mile or so. At one point I climbed out of the valley only to drop back down to a muddier path crisscrossing the Brook. A hidden unexpected gem that makes these walks memorable. The Brook discharges into the River Douglas where I have a little detour under the motorway and railway at Gathutst to join the Leeds – Liverpool Canal. The Douglas rises on Winter Hill and goes into the Ribble estuary near Tarleton. Back in 1794, it was made navigable between Wigan and its mouth for small boats mainly carrying coal. It was soon superseded by the Canal opened in 1783 although apparently the remains of several locks can be found on the way to Parbold. The Navigation Inn here has suffered the ignominious name change to The Baby Elephant.
I’m on the towpath for the rest of the day and once under the motorway and railway into open countryside. I had to think which direction I was going in. Several swing bridges in varying states of repair were passed, the minor ones still giving access to farmers fields. I was welcomed into West Lancashire although I thought I was already there.
Once past Appley Bridge, there were double locks built to speed transit when the traffic was heavy, now only the one is in use. On the map nearby is Prior’s Wood Hall, a C17 listed building with possible associations with the Upholland Priory, I am kicking myself for not diverting to see it.
At the next stone bridge, a cobbled lane goes between cottages to reveal a stone cross marking the site of Douglas Chapel. There was a chapel on this site from C13, rebuilt in 1420 possibly by the Knights Hospitallers as a catholic place of worship. It continued in service until 1875 when its replacement, Christ Church higher in Parbold, was consecrated. Around that time it was demolished and its pulpit and font moved to the new church. I have found some old pictures before demolition, notice the wooden pews.Further along the canal, Parbold was bustling with a cafe and pub alongside an old windmill, built at the time of the canal, truncated and now an interesting art gallery. Shortly afterwards the River Douglas, which has been running parallel goes off under the canal towards the Ribble. I caught up with these two…The countryside here is flat and fertile and there was an almost surreal view across fields with the remains of the recent pumpkin crop. Nearby was the “Lathom Fish” by the talented Thompson Dagnall which provided a good seat for a brew.
Leaving the canal at the Ring O’Bells I had a minute to spare before a bus arrived taking me to Burscough Junction where my mad rush down the forecourt was watched by the guard of the waiting train, he kindly held things up until I’d collapsed aboard. Who says we can have trains without guards?