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.

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