Archive | August, 2012

“Lovely, little, dirty Darren.”

31 Aug

  Pick a town – any town. Now visit it. This was what Chris and I more or less did in the summer of 2012, when we travelled around North-West England by public transport. One of the towns we visited, almost at random, was Darwen in east Lancashire. On the map it’s a dot between Bolton and Blackburn. On the nearby motorway ( the M65) you could speed by it without realizing its existance. It’s simply a small town nestling in a Pennine valley.

  In 1878, the Darwen News printed a poem in local dialect:

                                                                              ” ‘Tween two hillsides, both bleak and barren,

                                                                                  Lies lovely little ” Dirty Darren.”

  In Lancashire dialect, the name Darwen is pronounced Darren and locals still refer to themselves as Darreners. The poem sums up the paradox of the place. Although it became known as a centre of industry with many polluting factories and mills, it is also in a beautiful moorland setting and is much loved by the people who live there. Darreners keenly guard their distinct identity especially against any enchroachment by the much bigger town of Blackburn just to the north. So it was to Darwen, Lancashire that we travelled, not Darwin, Australia, as some people had assumed when we told them of our “holiday” plans. What would this little town have to offer?

  Darwen might be a bit down at heel now but along with its neighbours it shares a glorious past by being an important jewel in the crown of “King Cotton.” Darwen was an archetypal cotton town. When I was a kid I used to imagine that such mysterious places were actually built from the soft material reserved for shirts and sheets! Now I know it’s a term reserved for places involved in Britain’s and the World’s first large scale industry — the manufacture of cotton ( and woollen) cloth. A perfect climate ( ie  wet!), the easy availabilty of raw materials, fuel and power and a nearby large market for the product, laid the foundations . Then came the invention of textile machines and the entrepenarial spirit of northern businessmen who concentrated the workforce, materials and equipment in one place to create the world’s first factory system. So, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries the landscape of Lancashire and adjoining counties was transformed into a region of almost 300 factory ( or mill) towns, forming the vanguard of Britain’s Industrial Revolution. The industry went global and was the source of much of  Britain’s wealth and power in the Victorian era. Lancashire mill owners used to boast that they met the needs of the home market before breakfast, before devoting the rest of the day to lucrative exports.

  So, Darwen and its neighbours became “Mill Towns” dominated by huge, square topped, brick mills with their square towers ( for dust extraction) and their tall, circular chimneys. They dwarfed every other building. The church was no longer the commanding focus of these towns. Workers, including many women, flocked in from the countryside to work in these new cathedrals of industry. On a work day the overwhelming sound in the streets would be of clogs clattering on cobblestones as the mill-workers flocked to their jobs on the spinning and weaving machines. I learnt all about this era at school, both as a pupil and as a teacher. Thus I was fascinated by the idea of visiting Darwen and other ex-mill towns. We got there in the nick of time! Chimneys and mills once dotted Darwen by the dozen, but now only one remains. First the American Civil War of the 1860’s dried up the supply of cheap cotton, then later, in the 20th century, foreign competition and boycotts largely killed off a once spectacularly successful industry. It seemed that we had missed the funeral and were only just in time for the fag-end of the “wake.”

  Mill closures averaged almost one a week throughout the 1960’s and 70’s. Explosives experts such as “Blaster Bates” ( no relation) became briefly famous for blowing up chimneys. Films and records were even made of their exploits. I actually watched and listened to some of them, not realising that they were really about the destruction of part of our country’s  heritage. By the 1980’s the Cotton Industry in much of Lancashire, including Darwen, was a mere memory. The mills had closed and the campaign for clean air had gathered pace, such that there was no big objection to hundreds of chimneys and factories being reduced to rubble. Fortunately, the heritage/conservation movement came along at the eleventh hour. In the case of Darwen, it secured the preservation of the town’s most successful textile factory along with its impressive Venetian- style chimney. The India Mill still has a powerful presence in the little town. It has now been transformed into a modern business centre and stands as a lone memorial to the days of “King Cotton.”

  So what is Darwen like? Well, it’s an average northern industrial town. It is not particularly pretty but neither is it particularly ugly. It has a few grand civic and public buildings — the Town Hall, Market Hall, Library and Museum — all echoes of a more prosperous era. It has some very nice large houses on the edge of town near the countryside, while closer to the centre, the terraces built for the original factory workers, still march dramatically up the hillsides. Many are now being restored and modernised. Darwen, like many other similar places, is hanging on by its fingertips following the traumatic collapse of its main industry and source of income. It is trying to re-invent itself. The old market hall now has a modern shopping centre next to it, the old Victorian Art College is being converted into apartments, and as I’ve mentioned, the only surviving mill has been reincarnated as a business centre. Many of the churches and chapels that served the spiritual needs of the mill workers and the miners have now either closed or been amalgamated. We visited St Peters Church, which, as the warden, Bill, pointed out, is actually 3 churches pushed into one. He took great delight in telling us which features — the font, the pews, the pulpit etc — came from which church. I think he enjoyed having some interested “tourists” to talk to. But behind all the fascinating detail was the story of declining congregations which reflected the wider decline of the town itself. Even the dead have played their part in the re-invention of Darwen. In order to create a large green space in the middle of the town, something which is in short supply, the graves in the churchyard have been cleared and their inhabitants reinterred in the main cemetery. At first, when we asked about the absence of graves, Bill told us that Darreners were so miserable that they were too mean to die! That’s another good thing about the place — a dry sense of humour.

  Darwen is a friendly place. People are open and welcoming. Older residents were very happy to talk about  their town’s history, which they are proud of. Not only did it have the once thriving cotton industry, but it also had mining, a rail link and some of the first steam trams in the world. I tried to imagine them chugging up and down the hills taking the Darreners to and from their work. Now all this has gone. However the locals retain a strong sense of their identity and Blackburn is almost a taboo word. It must grate that their local Municipal council is now officially called ” Blackburn with Darwen”, rather than “Blackburn and Darwen” or just plain Darwen. People are determined to retain their town’s individual identity and to not just become a suburb of their bigger neighbour.

  One thing that everyone is aware of and proud of, is that the famous Indian independence leader, Gandhi, came to their town. The Mahatma visited Darwen in May, 1931. He had been invited up by local mill owners, the Davies’s, to witness the hardship caused by India’s boycott of British goods as part of its independence campaign. They thought Gandhi would be moved by the suffering throughout the Lancashire mill towns that had been decimated by the embargo. Gandhi got a warm reception. He empathised with the unemployed workers: “They treated me as one of their own.” It was as if the workers realised it was not India, but their own greedy and irresponsible mill owners who were really responsible for their plight. Although he was moved, Gandhi refused to change his country’s stance.  When some old weavers told him how bad things were, he simply replied: “My dears, you have no idea what poverty is.”

  The severe suffering of the 1930’s Depression has now gone but the pride of Gandhi’s visit lives on. Even the man serving us in Bolton’s Waterstones had heard about it! Blackburn may have once won the Premier League but it never had a visit from Gandhi!

  However for me it’s Darwen’s history as a cotton town and its magnificent setting beneath the high Pennine moors that make it special. As our bus chugged down Bolton Road into the centre, Darwen announced itself through two eye-catching landmarks on either side of us. To the left, on a high, bare hill- top stood Darwen Tower. This tall observation tower was erected to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 but also to commemerate the freeing up of the moors to public access. We climbed up to it later on in our visit and the views of the hills, moors, reservoirs and the towns in the valleys, are wide-ranging and magnificent.  Meanwhile to the right stood the 300 foot India Mill Italianate chimney and the giant mill itself. Surely this wasn’t right? Weren’t we supposed to be visiting a dingy little town devoid of charm and interest? It was a promising start to our mission to be tourist trail-blazers in a town virtually ignored by most other holiday-makers.

  India Mill was once just one of scores of others employing hundreds on its spinning machines. Opened in 1868, it was reckoned to be one of the finest in Europe. By some miracle it survived the wrecking- ball. It was actuaaly in operation until as late as 1991. The mill and its chimney are prime examples of the flamboyant confidance of the Lancashire Cotton industry in the middle of the 19th century. As its name suggests, it mainly served the Indian market. It was opened by a Marquis with many lords and ladies in attendance. A vast exhibition of art covered 3 floors including paintings by Gaindborough, Van Dyck and Durer. The ornate red-brick chimney took 14 years to build and cost £14,000. An ex-Mayoress of Darwen told us that they had a dinner dance on top of the chimney when it was finally completed, with food, equipment and people pulled up by pulley! It was in a bad state of neglect when it was inspected in the early 1990’s. A monumental pointing job was urgently needed! Today it looks splendid and is apparently the home of a nesting pair of Peregrine falcons.
  Places like the mill, the chimney, the Observation Tower, the Victorian public buildings and the ranks of terraced houses, give Darwen its sense of history and atmosphere. As well as Gandhi, it has  been visited by Charlie Chaplin who performed at the theatre in the early 20th century. The Beatles also played there in 1965, headlining “The Greatest Teenage Dance” organised by Darwen Baptist Youth group at the Cooperative Hall. George Formby found his wife there and it has been the setting for the TV sleuthing series ” Hetty Winthrop Investigates”. Now Chris and I have included it in our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass tour of 2012. So it has had more than its allotted “15 minutes of fame” It may never be the classic tourist destination and will not provide glossy pictures for magazines, but it’s still has quite a lot to offer for those willing to dig just below the surface. We enjoyed it anyway!
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HILLS and MILLS by BUS-PASS — an Experimental “Holiday.”

20 Aug

 ” Are you enjoying your holiday in Darwen?” asked a cheeky kid, as Chris and I waited at the bus stop ( We were in Darwen, Lancashire, not Darwin, Australia.). When I replied that we were, he declared in a loud, mocking voice: ” I can’t imagine anyone coming to Darwen for a holiday!” His friends sniggered as they walked off. Obviously, growing up in this old Pennine mill town has led to a severe case of familiarity breeding contempt. These lads could not think of any reason why anyone would freely choose to visit their town, a place that is well off the tourist trail. However there we were. We were in Lancashire, not Lanzarote. We were visiting cotton towns not the Costas. Why? Well the answer is that this “holiday” was an experiment.

  I have this idea that nearly every place is interesting if one allows oneself to be interested. So, in theory, I could enjoy a holiday just about anywhere. Obviously I would avoid going to Chernobyl or trying to have a relaxing fortnight in the middle of a war zone. However with that important safety proviso in place, the sky’s the limit. Another point is that I believe you don’t have to fly off to an exotic, far-away destination to have a stimulating and enjoyable time. Fascinating experiences and interesting places could be waiting just down the road, round the next corner, without the need to endure airport queues or onerous security checks. It’s surprising how many people deliberately deny themselves potentially enjoyable experiences by refusing to consider a whole raft of destinations. They won’t go there because it doesn’t have a decent beach. They cannot go there because the weather is too cold. They don’t want to go there because the locals don’t speak English. They avoid visiting that place because it is not pretty and photogenic. This seems to me a blinkered way of approaching holiday planning. As I’ve said — almost every place has points of interest. All one has to do is seek them out. Some people might describe this as “thinking outside the box.”

  That is why this summer ( 2012) Chris and I decided to go on “holiday” to an area that is not featured in most tourist brochures, travel programmes or guide books. We went to the South Pennines on the Lancashire/Yorkshire border in northern England. According to the Rough Guide to England, this is a region which most tourists figure is “unlikely to offer much in the way of cultural promise or light-hearted diversion.” It mentions the historical signifance of the old mill towns but concludes that :” It’s still hard to propose a serious tourist investigation of the region.” It’s a mysterious place that resides in a gap between the Yorkshire Dales, the Peak District and the Lake District. It’s an area one passes through while travelling from Leeds to Manchester or en-route between one National Park and another. It’s a sort of north of England no-man’s land. The National Park architect, John Dower, dismissed it as the “Industrial Pennines.” Thus, despite containing a lot of scenic beauty and historical importance, it failed to achieve National Park status or mainstream tourist recognition.

  So, what attracted me (us) to this largely ignored destination? Well I blame 2 famous writers, a well known artist and a history teacher. First of all, my teacher instilled in me a fascination for the early years of the Industrial Revolution which originated in the 18th and 19th century textile mills of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The moist atmosphere was ideal for handling and working thread and the fast flowing streams and rivers provided water power for the first machines. The thousands of sheep on the hills provided the wool and cotton was imported through the ports of Liverpool and Manchester nearby. Later the area was well placed to develop steam power because of the ready availability of coal, and huge chimneys were erected to get rid of the smoke from the furnaces. Later, I became a history teacher myself, and over the years the names and achievements of the inventors who kick- started the World’s first large scale industry achieved almost legendary status in my mind.  There was John Kay’s Flying Shuttle, Richard Hargreaves and his Spinning Jenny, Richard Arkwright’s Spinning Water Frame and Samuel Crompton’s Spinning Mule, to name but a few. These inventions led to mass- production processes in the textile industry leading to the World’s first factories ( or mills) and factory towns. These were the very places we were due to visit. These atmospheric mill towns scattered across the backbone of  northern England are beautifully described in the opening chapter of J B Priestly’s ” The Good Companions” and memorably depicted in the match-stick men pictures of L S Lowry. Priestly talks about ” the high moorland which thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” This is an area where one can wander for miles without meeting a soul and hear nothing apart from the wind and the “curlews crying in that empty air.” Forming a blackened edge to these moors are the “host of tall chimneys, the rows and rows of little houses built of blackening stone, that are like tiny, sharp ridges on the hills.”

  Taking all this into consideration, it’s a mystery to me why this region is so neglected by travellers. There are so many startling contrasts. Juxtaposition is a good word to use here. I find it hard to resist a mighty mill with its giant chimney stack, juxtaposed against the majestic background of a bleak, bare hill. It’s like a living Lowry painting and obviously where he got a lot of his inspiration from. A short, sharp walk can take one from an old industrial town, heavy with historical atmosphere, up to the liberating, open moors, festooned with heather and sprinkled with shining reservoirs. Someone else who appreciated the wild escapism of the Pennine moors was Emily Bronte who lived in the cobbled mill town of Haworth. Thanks to her, these uplands will forever be associated with Heathcliff trying to connect with Cathererine and escape the suffocations of society, in the memorable novel ” Wuthering Heights.” Charlotte Bronte wrote of her sister Emily: “She found in the black solitude many and dear delights, and not the least and best was liberty.”

  Yet another writer, William Blake, immortalised the “dark satanic mills” of this region in his poem/hymn “Jerusalem”, comparing the World’s first centres of mass production, with their deafening clatter of machinary, clouds of choking dust and belching chimneys, with hell on earth, and comparing them unfavourably with “England’s green and pleasant land.” Well the old mills are mostly silent now, following the collapse of Britain’s once all-conquering textile industry in the mid 20th century. They stand there like ghosts from the past. Many have been demolished along with their iconic chimneys. Others hang on in a sad, neglected state, defaced by graffiti and punctured with broken windows. For a time, it looked as if the whole lot would be destroyed and the reminders of a whole era lost for ever. Thankfully, attitudes to conservervation changed just in time for some mills to be rescued, restored and preserved. They are now living out new lives as : museums, apartment blocks, warehouses and shopping malls.

  To me, this contrast between the giant mills, tall chimneys and wild, surrounding hills creates a unique and fascinating environment. It might not be conventionally pretty but it certainly serves up dramatic vistas, some man-made, some natural and others: an intoxicating mixture of the two.

  Another slightly unusual element of this vacation was that Chris and I chose to travel around on public transport. It would have been a lot easier and quicker to have used the car but we decided to leave it in the garage. We could also have gone on a coach tour and saved ourselved the trouble and worry of figuring out how to get from A to B. However, I thought that the car or a coach would act as a barrier between us and the local comminuty. Maybe we would get more of a feel for the place if we were waiting at the same bus stops as the locals. It worked like a dream! If we had simply jumped into the car or boarded a private coach we would never have chatted with the 95 year old lady who lived on her own and whose daughter lives in California and visited her just once a year, in September. She liked to get out for a change of scene and to meet people. She met us — at our very first bus stop! We would similarly never have talked to the ex-mayoress of Darwen who had gone down to the Palace to meet the Queen in the 1950’s and was now moving around with the aid of a wheeled zimmer frame, and still catching the local bus down the hill into town. She told us that she had enough stories to last all the way to Blackburn!

 Finally,  there was another important reason why we caught the local buses. One of the few perks of being over 60 years old is gaining a bus pass which allows free local travel after 9-30am throughout England. It’s one of that rare species — the Universal Benefit, ( along with the Winter fuel allowance and free prescriptions which I am also very grateful for.) More and more benefits are now being scrapped or means-tested by the cost-cutting Coalition government which came to power in 2010. Actually Chris and I were “lucky” to get our passes around the age of 60, whereas people hitting that age now have to wait longer and longer as the qualification age is being raised in stages up to 65 and beyond. A friend, merely 3 years younger than me, recently explained that he would have to wait until 67 before he got his pass ( if ever.)

  Ever since the austerity programme began with savage cuts in public spending, I have expected that the free bus pass system would be an obvious target for the Chancellor’s axe. However, by some miracle ( or pressure from Mr Clegg and the Liberals), Mr Osborne has not stopped it yet. Therefore, I had the idea of doing the bus-pass trip, now rather than later, before, like the mills, it passes into history.

  This then became the final ingredient of our experimental holiday. Chris kindly agreed to give it a go. Actually, I sold it to her more as an ” experience” than a “holiday.” We wouldn’t be doing much lazing around on sun lounges or diving into enticing pools. We were not to be pampered at a spa resort or being waiting on hand and foot at a luxurious, posh hotel. Instead, we would be waiting at dusty, draughty bus stations and trundling from one declining town to another in a rickety old bus. It’s not exactly the glamorous end of the travel trade! However, we did it. We travelled to an area that is avoided by most holiday-makers, and we used the most inconvenient means of transport available. But it was great! We met lots of interesting people, saw striking scenary and learnt a lot. What’s more, our bus-passes can now add Manchester and East Lancs to their lists of conquests. ( next time we plan to go to the Yorkshire south Pennines.)

  I think the experiment and the experience was a big success and much of it was for free. It’s not often one can say that these days. Now that we’ve done it, I have a great feeling of satisfaction. No future Coalition – cut can ever take away the fond memories of our “Hills and Mills” bus- pass odyssey.