Easter 2012 and Expedition No.3 took the Urban Repairs Club to a selection of Lancashire and Yorkshire Pennine mill towns. The concept was in two parts:
Firstly, to visit the regenerated Pennine valley mill town par excellence, Hebden Bridge – also known as “the Glastonbury of the North”, “the fourth funkiest town in the world”, “the lesbian capital of West Yorkshire” – to see what the fuss is about, and to try to get some clues about the process by which the town has become such a beacon of success in organic urban regeneration.
Secondly, to make a start on a survey of other Pennine mill towns to see what sign there is (if any) of any other mill towns following Hebden Bridge’s lead in making urban restoration and liveability the path out of decline and depression. Such a survey is a major project, and is going to require several trips, preferably, like this one, accomplished by rail and bus.
The Northern mill towns – a field guide
Three distinct types of mill towns can be identified.
First, there are the large mill towns: in Lancashire, Bolton, Bury, Rochdale, Oldham, Blackburn, Preston and so on; in Yorkshire, Halifax, Huddersfield, and the largest of them all – Bradford. These are all major cities in terms of population, with a formidable heritage and formidable problems, all grossly neglected by the media and little studied by outsiders. For example, the Bradford West by-election of March 2012 was deemed of zero importance and not covered at all by any national mainstream media, until George Galloway launched his “Bradford Spring”, pulled off his electoral coup and had them all scrambling up to the city to find out what the hell was going on.
Second, there are the smaller mill towns on the lower land of the coal measures. On the Lancashire side these are places built of hard red Accrington brick, such as Radcliffe, Farnworth, Heywood, and so on. On the Yorkshire side, places such as Cleckheaton and Heckmondwike. They are all grossly neglected and overlooked by pretty much everybody.
Third, there are the Pennine valley mill towns, built of millstone grit stone and squeezed into the valley bottoms and up the steep valley sides– places such as Ramsbottom, Rawtenstall and Bacup on the Lancashire side, and Keighley, Sowerby Bridge and Todmorden on the Yorkshire side. This latter category was the subject of this expedition.
Closely related but different, are the Pennine villages and hamlets: sometimes on higher land, sometimes in quieter valleys; sometimes with industry, sometimes without. Their defining feature is simply that they are smaller.
Finally, there are the two regional metropolises of Manchester and Leeds. They are not defined here as mill towns, but must be mentioned to understand the overall picture. Both have experienced massive change over the last 15-20 years, including a boom in downtown living, and will be the subject of their own Urban Repairs Club expeditions.
The Pennine mill towns –background history
The Pennines were always remote, and never dominated by aristocrats and their estates. To supplement income from hard scrabble farming, the population got into textiles production early, with spinning and weaving at the household scale, often in distinctive multi-windowed upstairs cottage rooms. The cloth produced was carried out to the wider world across the moors by packhorse, to marketplaces such as the Halifax Piece Hall (1779), a superb relic of the era of household production.
This world was famous for its fierce work ethic and fierce religion, with every last variety of nonconformism flourishing. Yet the great divide in the mill towns between the puritan self-improvers and the drunken rabble is clearly an enduring feature: every Pennine town and village revels in its entry in John Wesley’s Journal (from his several tours of the area during his long outdoor preaching career 1739-1790), in which he boggles at the barbarous mobs turned out in every place to hear his sermons, each seemingly more savage and in more dire need of salvation than the last.
The story of the Industrial Revolution is well rehearsed. Despite the best efforts of the Luddites, the handloom weavers of the moors were ruined, lost their capital, and were forced down into the valleys as wage slaves into the dark satanic mills of the early factory masters. It behoves us today to share the amazement of outsiders such as Friedrich Engels at the explosion of industrial production and technological, social and political innovation that followed, as well as to be shocked at the extremes of wealth and poverty it produced. The local historians and the tourist bureaux are absolutely right to shove this heritage down the visitor’s throat – this is Lancashire and Yorkshire’s key moment in world history. Engels’ tour recorded in The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 is a must-read, with each town surpassing the last in the horror of its working and housing conditions, bidding up the misery like the Secret Policeman’s Ball sketch.
The political revolution Engels expected never happened, and the long march of Victorian liberal reforms and improvements gave us the core legacy of the towns we see today. All the mill towns hit their zenith in the decade before the First World War. The story of the Accrington pals, mowed down before breakfast at the Somme on 1 July 1916, is also a symbolic watershed, when the story of continuous expansion and improvement flips to become one of continuous relative decline.
The 20th century story is less told by the local historians and the tourist bureaux. It’s a paradoxical tale of ever-improving health, wealth and welfare, yet set against inexorable decline in terms of relative industrial dominance. Industrial diversification in the 1950s and 60s was a success in many ways, and there was pretty much full employment throughout. Yet investment was always low: in the big mill towns, the mill owners preferred to bring over entire Pakistani villages to work the ancient machines for the old low wages the increasingly affluent native population would no longer accept, rather than to invest in modernisation.
The small Pennine valley mill towns in particular became the land that time forgot. By the 1970s places like Hebden Bridge were almost a museum piece. Residents of the big mill towns thought of their inhabitants as hillbillies. But suddenly the very lack of modernisation became a charm factor, with the best of the Victorian and Edwardian heritage preserved intact, although in dire need of restoration. Hebden Bridge acquired its hippies, lesbians, and artists; while Holmfirth had the Last of the Summer Wine.
The early 1980s recession really smashed all the mill towns, big and small, in economic and social terms. The big towns like Rochdale and Oldham never really recovered, and despite some significant social improvements from Gordon Brown’s agenda of increased employment and welfare spending in the nineties and noughties, large swathes remain social, economic and built-environment disaster areas.
However, the Pennine villages, stonebuilt and attractive in their countryside settings, began to benefit from the completion of the motorway network, the rise in long distance car commuting, and the new popularity of heritage building restoration. They all did well throughout the non-inflationary continuous expansion (NICE) era, 1992-2008. Some of this began to translate to the valley bottom mill towns as well in a patchy kind of way. Places like Ramsbottom, which had been thought of – and were – utterly working class and workaday, absent from all tourist guides, began to realise themselves to be green and attractive industrial heritage destinations, of interest to visitors. White collar househunters began to think of them as rather attractive places to commute to Manchester from. The dining out revolution began to have an impact, with fancy restaurants popping up in unlikely places. Ribaldry about gentrification and worries about the pricing out of locals began.
The social geography across the region today is greatly polarised. Most of the Pennine villages are a success, integrated into the great car economy with a mixture of commuter gentrification and surviving – thriving – traditional working class culture. The regional metropolises of Leeds and Manchester city centres continue to thrive, and have their student and yuppie urban living thing still going on, although they have also experienced a major downtown residential property bubble burst.
By contrast, the mill towns of the conurbations are being slaughtered by recession and austerity, increasingly perceived as no-go areas (and certainly as “do not leave your car” areas), their proud town centres on a steep descent into total defeat by car-based commerce, retail and leisure.
Meanwhile, the Pennine valley mill towns are a mixed bag. Some, like Hebden Bridge and Saltaire, have changed greatly and successfully regenerated; others have struggled. Some still feel like the land that time forgot, traditional and unchanged, which can have its virtues as well as its vices. The purpose of this trip was to search to see if there are any other places that are blending the best of the past with the best of the present, and are successfully achieving organic urban regeneration.
1. The Long Good Friday: Manchester to Hebden Bridge
The trip started on Good Friday 2012 with the crossing of the great north-south divide: the traverse of Manchester city centre from Piccadilly to Victoria station. The whizzy new Manchester of a thousand café-bars has pushed the old half-derelict central Manchester back and back. Now the flavour of the old Manchester city centre is only seen in the decrepit building at the corner of Long Millgate and Victoria Station Approach, and at Victoria Station itself.
Voted the worst major station in the country, Manchester Victoria awaits its restoration to glory, which is scheduled to be completed by 2014. In the meantime, one can sit, drink in hand, under the faded grandeur of the ornate glass dome in the refreshment room, watching on as seriously scary-looking people leading devil dogs and mohican-barnetted kids go into battle against the seven-strong revenue protection team guarding the platforms, and think that Manchester has barely changed since the 1980s.
The grubby old diesel Sprinter train hasn’t changed much since the 1980s either, nor have the grim swathes of East Manchester, but a fast trip to Hebden Bridge is now offered – only 32 minutes, with two intermediate stops at Rochdale and Todmorden.
En route to Rochdale great red brick mills with their names in white brick on their chimneys exemplify those severely neglected lowland mill towns: Malta Mill at Mills Hill and Arrow Mill at Castleton are two still standing worthy of a closer inspection. At Rochdale station, the long-awaited construction of the Oldham & Rochdale Metrolink tram line is in evidence. It may be unkind to say it, but in regeneration terms, it looks like the US Cavalry appearing on the horizon not in the nick of time, but about 20 years after the ranch has been torched. A separate expedition will investigate this.
Beyond Rochdale, the train begins the climb into the Pennines. Moors! Patches of snow! Stone-built cottages! The suddenness of the change from the red brick lowland grot to the more appealing Pennine character is striking.
The train plunges into the 1½ mile long Summit Tunnel, and emerges into a different world: Yorkshire. The steep sided valley of Upper Calderdale, which seems to get deeper and narrower through Walsden and Todmorden, until the promised land of Hebden Bridge is finally reached.
2. Hebden Bridge
Arrival at Hebden Bridge and immediately one is in the pages of Simon Armitage’s All Points North. A gaggle of modern-day railway children urgently alert the station master (a dead ringer for Bernard Cribbins): “them lads are kicking the vending machine in”. “No, they’re probably just trying to get their change.” He sets off to investigate.
The welcome sign immediately opposite the station door announces straight away that Hebden Bridge is its own, different kind of place, self-aware of both its heritage and its own modern identity. One footstep into the town, and the Urban Repairs Club knows it is going to like Hebden Bridge.
The striking thing to the outsider is how steep a town it is. The streets have banisters; the road junctions look perilous. Hebden Bridge has its own distinctive hillside adaptation of the Yorkshire back-to-back terraced house: they’re four storeys high at the back, so that your neighbours to the rear are actually directly above or below you. To look at, they give the town a feeling of density and urbanity – like they are in continental Europe (or Scotland at least).
Walking down into the town centre, crossing the River Calder and the Rochdale Canal, a series of decent quality restorations and re-uses of old stone buildings can be seen. The converted industrial buildings look light and airy compared to the dour, heavy look of the classic Northern Victorian civic and commercial buildings of first shopping street reached, Crown Street.
The centre of town is St George’s Square, close by the eponymous pack-horse bridge over the Hebden Water stream, and a fine job it is. It’s the best of the old North – one can easily imagine Count Arthur Strong heading across the square into The Shoulder of Mutton for a pint clutching his bag of kidneys from Woodhead’s family butchers– but which has also been brought into the 21st century in a tasteful and attractive way. Everywhere little touches appeal: look, someone has thought to grow ivy up the side of an old mill converted into small craft shops and restaurants.
The sight of a large crane and a big construction project under way along the riverside is a surprising one – surprise which turns into delight when it is realised that this is a community-led public project under way: the extension of Hebden Bridge Town Hall to provide a community meeting space and the development of the Hebden Bridge Creative Quarter. The wider significance of this groundbreaking project is being recognised when it hosts a national conference in July 2012.
A further poke around the town reveals more gems: a genuine independent cinema (the Picture House), a traditional working mens’ club of national status for breaking new bands (the Trades Club), and an alternative technology centre in a mill conversion by the canal.
Although famous for its counter-culture of “hippies”, new agers, artists, socialists and anarchists, Hebden Bridge also benefits from standing at the crossroads of two other huge English sub-cultures: canal narrowboating and long-distance hiking, as represented by intersection of the Rochdale Canal and the Pennine Way.
It refuels all with real ale at its freehouse pubs, or with tea and cake at its various cafes. All these sub-cultures, and Hebden Bridge itself, seem to stand resolutely outside corporate-dominated clone town culture. Paradoxically, it’s also the free market as it was meant to be – full of independent traders and small businesses, offering choice to a well-informed consumer, rather than corporate mega-monsters brow-beating the flock into the overconsumption of trash.
It is often observed that gentrification and money follow the distinctive, quirky places created by the counter-culture, and often end up spoiling the place they take over. The outdoor gear shop Rohan on St George’s Square sums up one take on Hebden Bridge’s journey: from a bunch of Tolkien-worshipping ramblers in the 70s, to the expensive boutique product you can’t afford of today. No doubt different views abound, but from a superficial view this is not true of Hebden Bridge. The original working class mill town, the hippy colony and the yuppie commuter base all seem to co-exist happily side by side, in an interesting diverse ecology. And anyway, you can criticise Rohan, but it is in fact a very high quality technology product, and the best of English enterprise.
So much for the town, what about the townspeople? The streets seemed quiet. As it happened, being a Good Friday, they were all up at the top of the hill, in the village of Heptonstall, to watch the performance of the traditional Easter “Pace Egg” play. So it was up to the top of the long, steep footpath-cum-stairway linking the two settlements, called “The Buttress”, to go and participate.
3. Heptonstall Pace Egg
Heptonstall is like Hebden Bridge’s venerable parent. Its heyday was in the 18th century, at the time of the household-based handloom weaving industry referred to earlier. It has a parish church (with the shell of its 13th century predecessor, and Sylvia Plath’s grave, in its churchyard), an octagonal Methodist chapel (1764), two pubs, one café, a post office and a small museum.
It’s a fabulously preserved place, and having a poke around its nooks and corners is pure delight. And, best of all, it’s also a real and thriving community.
The Pace Eggers are men of the village who perform a traditional mummers’ play at various times and locations throughout the day. The play features a heroically bumbling St George, who reluctantly but reliably dispatches a series of blackguard challengers, including Bold Slasher, the Black Prince of Morocco, Hector and the King of Egypt, with his well-tempered blade. A quack doctor is on hand to resurrect the slain with a tot of his “Nip-Nap”. The performance gets more and more bawdy and shambolic as the day wears on, and the players and audience have consumed more and more nip-nap.
Genuinely traditional, genuinely raucous but also knowing, it is fantastic fun, and a big local audience enjoy both the laughs and the seeing of the annual ritual successfully performed. Then straight into the pub. It’s the perfect 21st century folk event.
A nice Heptonstall moment was going to the museum after 5pm, and finding, happily, that it was still open. The curator had decided to keep it open after the official closing time because it was a big day for the village. It’s hard to imagine another local authority museum in the country where that would ever happen. It’s a good museum, with much fascinating information – for example, that Calderdale was a centre of counterfeit coin production in the 18th century.
4. Hebden Bridge – evening reflections
Down The Buttress and back into Hebden Bridge. The pint of Yorkshire bitter served at the White Lion was as fresh and tasty as any I have ever had (it was Timothy Taylor of Keighley’s Landlord).
Great value overnight accommodation was at the Hebden Bridge Hostel, aka Mama Weirdigan’s, an independent hostel providing an important staging post for hikers tackling the Pennine Way. The proprietor is quite clearly an angel who has come down to Earth to help us see the error of our ways, and to teach us how to live simply and work together to save the planet. She had just returned from a whole winter camped out at Occupy London at St Paul’s, the subject of the Urban Repairs Club’s Expedition No. 1.
Call it the spell of new age Hebden Bridge starting to take serious effect, but this is the kind of thing that seems possible in the town. Perhaps only the Hebden Bridge Times’ resident astrologer and divine Ruben Skyjuice could really advise on the reality or otherwise of such perceptions.
The historic thread running through Hebden Bridge seems to be nonconformism: in the sense that whatever one’s precise theology and ritual today, be it indie bands, motorbikes, narrowboat living, or the healing power of moorland hikes, the unifying characteristic is an independence from the diet the modern-day established church of the corporate media is dishing up.
This version of the Pennine mill town is comfortable in its own cultural skin, and is thriving. Both traditional and radical, occasionally boisterous – a southern phoney could still get thumped if they misbehaved too badly, one feels – Hebden Bridge is a template for regeneration that is attracting increasing national attention (a flurry of interest from the media has surrounded the publication of Paul Barker’s Hebden Bridge – A Sense of Belonging).
The inevitable question is, are any other mill towns copying the example? If people are being priced out of Hebden Bridge, where are they going? Where is the next Hebden Bridge?
5. Easter Saturday: to Todmorden
The obvious places to look would be the neighbouring towns upstream and downstream the Calder, Todmorden and Sowerby Bridge respectively. But this would have been too easy for the Urban Repairs Club. Instead an appointment in Clitheroe focused the search onto the Lancashire side of the Pennines, and a tour taking in Bacup, Burnley and Clitheroe.
However a brief look at Todmorden was possible when changing between buses, before passing through the Lancashire-Yorkshire border control and passport check at Todmorden bus station.
The efficient bus service heading out of Hebden Bridge is well used, including by traditional carefully-permed, blue-rinsed northern old ladies chatting away to each other. They appear to be absolutely identical and unchanged to the northern old ladies of the 1980s, but must in fact be their daughters.
For renovation enthusiasts, the road through Upper Calderdale seems to have an unlimited supply of old mills, terraced cottages, hillside villas, all crying out for restoration and investment. Some opportunities have been taken, for example at the Stubbing Wharf pub on the Rochdale Canal.
Todmorden itself is bigger than Hebden Bridge, and clearly poorer. The very same design of terraced cottages that looked funky and cosy in Hebden Bridge, look rather more dour. Instead of a full set of original teeth, Todmorden has had to infill some of its former industrial sites with modern shed redevelopment such as Lidl’s. The planners have clearly battled with some success to make the developers adapt their standard design templates to the environment, and so stone cladding and landscaped parking is in evidence.
A key battle for the independent retailers of Todmorden is over planning permission for a new Sainsbury’s superstore, currently refused, but going to appeal. Entrepreneurialism at Todmorden market is currently thriving, but on a cursory look, its continuing health under active assault from the supermarkets looks fragile.
But in general, Todmorden town centre is intact, and has a very distinct chance of following Hebden Bridge’s recipe (although no doubt local pride would deny that such a thing was ever desirable). The town famous for its Incredible Edible Todmorden urban gardening project clearly has the necessary ingredients. A dedicated Urban Repairs Club expedition is called for.
Instead, it was over the hill into Lancashire, and the valley of Rossendale, source of Manchester’s River Irwell. Although about the same size as Hebden Bridge, Bacup is a very different kettle of fish.
Although it has the accolade of being “Lancashire’s best preserved mill town” from English Heritage, the preservation does appear to be a function of the lack of any kind of capital investment, rather than of a thriving restoration scene. An example of the remarkable built heritage is the old market hall on Bank Street, up for auction in April 2012 at £125,000, but with little prospect of a viable use.
What is striking to the outsider is the poverty. People have very little money and it shows. In the town centre, independent retailers dominate because there is not enough money in circulation to entice the chains here. To the Londoner, the prices seem incredibly low, but these are the prices that people can afford. The third world phenomenon of “subsistence retail” is in evidence: little shops with barely any stock, selling low volumes at low prices, but keeping going because there is little else to do.
Lyn’s Café on St James Street is a friendly haven, but its collection of retro recycled chairs and tables is not artfully contrived as it would be in Camden Market, it is what could be afforded with minimal investment capital available. Its eclectic display of “found items” around the walls are actually random bits of stuff on sale, to boost revenues. The food however, is good.
But people tend not to be scandalised by the general poverty. The “in your face” problem is the vice, anti-social behaviour, and worse that follows from an entrenched underclass population living on welfare.
Bacup last reached national attention in 2007 when 18 year old goth Sophie Lancaster was kicked to death by a gang of five teenage boys in the town park. Its entry on the Chav Towns website gives a flavour of the town as experienced by the young (although to be fair, almost all towns in England get a similar negative report on Chav Towns).
The town centre, like those of almost all the mill towns, has become a perpetual territorial struggle between the traditional “respectable working class” perplexed and depressed that their town has gone to the dogs and the profoundly alienated, drink and drug-sozzled lumpenproletariat. For the middle classes of the valley, the town centre is a simple no-brainer: stay in the car, and avoid.
The political dynamic is that the working class, working long hours for low wages, are infuriated both by the chavs and by the public sector with its army of good, secure, pensioned jobs based on dealing with the welfare-dependent population. Always a bastion of working class Toryism, the electoral battleground is over who can most credibly promise to bear down on anti-social behaviour, and to fly the flag for local small business and jobs.
7. Easter Saturday Coconut Dance
A little bit harsh on Bacup, then. To be fair, the above analysis could apply to almost every Lancashire mill town, and Bacup is much better than some, in the sense that it has a strong community and hasn’t been half-demolished to accommodate the car.
In fact, Easter Saturday is probably the most joyous day in Bacup’s annual calendar, as this is the day that the famous Britannia Coconutters perform their traditional ritual morris dances at venues all across the town and its surrounding villages.
The Urban Repairs Club hooked up with folk-punk poet Oatcake Joe, the Rochdale Ranter, to catch a performance in the heart of the town centre, outside “Th’ Owd Con Club” (the Conservative Club). A large and partly dutiful, partly enthusiastic crowd flowed down from the residential areas to gather to watch the performance.
The dance is a morris dance with added clicks and knocks from the men’s Lancashire clogs (leather uppers, wooden soles) and “coconuts”, which are actually discs of maplewood, rather than anything from the BBC sound effects department. The men’s blacked faces are the subject of much discussion and debate; why precisely they are wearing pom-poms and a red stripey tutu, less so. In both cases, it is probably simply to do with the concealment of identity.
Various civic groups and charity projects had assembled to reach out to the crowds, including Inspire – Overcoming Addiction and Rossendale Enterprise Anchor Ltd (REAL). Bacup Pride had a stall at the kids’ party and jumble sale at the AB&D Club. A self-organised group with a straightforward and action-orientated programme to go out and tidy up various civic spaces. Their motto is: Let’s rebuild the reputation of Bacup; support and encourage activities for our youth; clean up the image; develop respect and community spirit. Admirable.
Whether it is a Christian or a pagan tradition, Easter Saturday seems like a good day to have faith that, as long as the Coconutters dance out their ritual, and Bacup Pride continue to organise, the possibility of resurrection and salvation will remain for Bacup. However, it feels like it is a long way from being the next Hebden Bridge.
Urban Repair suggestion No.1 – Bacup
It seems wrong to recommend any particular urban repair for Hebden Bridge, not because the place is perfect, but because the town community seems to have such energy and good mechanisms for identifying and rectifying things that need improving.
At Bacup, any particular urban repair suggestion also seems superfluous, because of the scale of the town’s challenges. It doesn’t seem helpful in the depth of recession to make the blanket suggestion that the stock of heritage buildings be defended at all costs, when it is difficult to suggest any fundable, viable re-uses of them in the current circumstances. But looking ahead for the long term, this is exactly what must be done, as this, along with the strength of its traditional community spirit, is Bacup’s u.s.p.
The suggestion offered here is to wonder whether some kind of town-twinning between neighbours Bacup, Todmorden and Hebden Bridge could be arranged, to see if there could be any cross-fertilisation of ideas between the three communities. Just comparing the three towns’ community websites of HebWeb, Todmorden Pride and Bacup Pride, it is hard to believe that they have nothing to offer each other.
8. The Forest of Rossendale
The next leg of the tour was the no. 8 bus to Burnley. The A671 Burnley Road heads up the last section of the Irwell Valley through the settlement of Weir, to Irwell Spring at 1,335 feet. Outside of Bacup Town Centre, greater wealth and investment in property is apparent, as is the health of Lancastrian evangelical Christianity – a big banner advertising an impending full immersion Believer’s Baptism service at the Weir Baptist Church was seen.
At the top of the hill snow had drifted against dry stone walls in various stages of decay, with ramshackle patching using bits of plank and barbed wire. The “Welcome to Rossendale” sign at the city limit had blown over, whilst at the New Deerplay Inn, another banner announced Christmas Bookings were being taken.
Lancashire County Council’s landscape character assessment describes the particular “enclosed upland” landscape of the Rossendale Hills plateau (around 1,000 feet altitude). Pre-First World War this was an intensively farmed and quarried landscape of small wall-enclosed fields, but now (quoting Lancashire CC) “…the overall impression is of a somewhat derelict landscape with rush-infested pastures and tumbled stone walls. Views of the prominent high tension power lines which cross the plateau top reinforce the sense of bleakness”.
A campaign placard, “Say No to Weir Windfarm”, gives a possible clue to the Council’s rather disparaging assessment. Windfarms are like public art not only in that their beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but also in that they are an indicator of a depressed area: places where they are welcomed by the council must be in difficulties.
One windfarm is already operational at Coal Clough on the no. 65 bus route between Bacup and Todmorden. This is also where Treesponsibility’s admirable Midgelden reforestation project is under way, on the bare shale of a mine tip and former pipeworks site. (Treesponsibility are a Hebden Bridge-based organisation, you might have guessed.)
Unfortunately, the Singing Ringing Tree, a public art project that also harnesses the area’s “wind resource”, and which looks very interesting, could not be seen.
Coming down into Burnley, the attractive, leafy, clearly prosperous suburb of Towneley comes almost as a surprise, but quickly one is into the very different landscape of Burnley Wood, a “Housing Renewal Pathfinder Area”. This programme, suddenly cancelled in 2010, has been a great saga that can’t be dealt with in this report. Enough to say that, on a quick look, the “renewal” of Burnley Wood does not appear to be a completed job just yet.
Then, sweeping past Burnley FC’s Turf Moor complex, it was into town and the end of the ride: Burnley bus station.
Burnley belongs to the category of the large mill towns, rather than the small Pennine valley ones. Its population of 74,000 is about five times that of Todmorden or Bacup. It is one of the most depressed of all the mill towns, and often tops charts for the cheapest house prices in the country. It also has racial segregation issues resembling Bradford and Oldham, being 92% White British and 7% Pakistani British. The BNP enjoyed some success here in the noughties, having 8 councillors at its high water mark, but its last councillor lost her seat in the May 2012 election.
Burnley bus station is brand new, works well, and is a good gateway to the town. But, as with Bacup, it’s the poverty of the people that is immediately striking to the outsider. A whippet-thin young Mum was playing very lovingly with her toddler on the bus station mall, but it was hard to avoid the judgement that she was a hopeless drug addict, off her face in a bus station on a Saturday afternoon.
Like all the mill towns, Burnley town centre has a fine legacy of Victorian and Edwardian civic and commercial buildings. It also displays a 20th century heritage of efforts to modernise and update the town centre. Some of these look rather tired today, particularly those of the 1960s modernist vintage, but they all show evidence of a civic commitment to Burnley as an urban centre – trying to bring it up to date and keep its place in the league.
Even the 1980s legacy has these virtues. The main shopping street, St James Street, is a pleasant environment, a mix of old and new buildings, tastefully paved and planted. A busker’s pitch and a fairground ride have been encouraged in to add life. The Charter Walk shopping centre is not the greatest architectural jewel, but it has a sensible urban design: multi-storey car park to the rear, using the topography, shop fronts facing the high street, a covered mall area for inclement weather.
But, despite all this, in 2012, Burnley town centre is clearly and visibly dying on its arse. Many shop units are empty or not trading; those that are look pretty desperate. On Easter Saturday at 1.30pm, the main shopping drag St James Street felt quiet. The busker and fairground ride, both with no customers, gave off a melancholy air, like a seaside resort in winter. Boot Way, a historic alley with a little gem like the Jireh Baptist Church (erected 1853 by the “Strict and Particular” Baptists, or Gadsbyites), one might expect to contain some interesting independent shops. It does not.
Other than struggling retail, Burnley’s central commercial offer is binge drinking. Whatever its problems with heroin and so on, Burnley’s drug of choice is undoubtedly alcohol. Vertical drinking establishments advertise with the modern day equivalent of the “drunk 1d, dead drunk 2d” sign in Hogarth’s Gin Lane. In the beautiful Co-op Buildings on Hammerton Street the serious business of separating the people from their disposable income, and the charitable work of picking up the pieces, are found side by side.
Unfortunately the timetable did not allow the Urban Repairs Club to test the temperature of Burnley’s evening economy, and see first hand how the policy to create a more relaxed and continental drinking culture by loosening the licensing laws is working out for the town.
In towns like Burnley the central area empties out around 5pm, with the town centre shoppers and workers hurrying home either to take cover (if older), or to get tarted up for the evening’s revelries (if younger). For an hour the streets lie deserted before the onslaught commences.
The big puzzler in Burnley was why the place already had this feel at only 2pm. Then, the likely culprit was sighted by chance: a giant Tesco Extra on the inner relief road. Tesco Extra is Britain’s answer to America’s Walmart, a giant supermarket also selling clothes and most other non-food consumer products, carefully designed to grab the revenue from every other High Street retailer in the town.
In a town like Burnley, the combination of low prices, free parking and insulation from the risk of encountering aggro in the town centre is a completely winning combination. A Tesco Extra is unquestionably what the people want (as defined as what they do when given the chance to vote with their feet); it indubitably creates inward investment and new jobs; it cannot be denied that it can be reached on foot from the bus station. And Tesco and its army of hired consultants are not easy people to defy. So it is easy to see why Burnley’s civic leaders felt inclined to permit the scheme.
But by doing so, they signed Burnley town centre’s death warrant.
Maybe it was dying anyway, and Tesco Extra just put it out of its misery. Maybe Tesco in fact ensured that Burnley residents’ non-food retail spend at least stayed somewhere in the town rather than heading off down the M65 to Blackburn or Preston. These arguments would no doubt be made, and the Urban Repairs Club hasn’t enough information to judge. But dying it clearly is.
The next stop was the Weavers’ Triangle, billed as one of England’s architecturally most complete industrial heritage townscapes. The Triangle is on the edge of the town centre, with the mills clustered along the course of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. Although the Council’s own tourist information centre was closed (from 5pm on Maundy Thursday through to 9.30am on the Tuesday after Easter), pleasingly, the Weavers’ Triangle Museum and Visitor Centre was open, staffed by volunteers.
All the mill towns have struggled for years with what to do with the architectural legacy of the mills, once the looms and spinning mules had stopped. With their large floor areas, other industrial uses sometimes followed, but ultimately, as heritage buildings, they could not provide the right kind of space for any serious modern industrial use.
In the 1980s/90s the architectural masterpieces in the right areas, such as Salt’s Mill at Saltaire, were converted into museums/galleries and studios/yuppie flats/start up space etc. But in a town like Burnley, where the population is falling and housing is being demolished, the options for commercially viable conversions are thin. There are literally hundreds of thousands more square feet than any currently conceivable market could absorb.
Typically, if the big mill towns have found anybody willing to invest the cost of knocking an old mill down to redevelop anything on its site, they have taken it. Which has proved to be a shame, not only because the old mills had great character, but also because the quality of the replacement development the property industry and highway engineers have contrived to build has been so shockingly bad.
This means that many old mills still standing are stranded in a townscape which in urban design terms has already gone to hell. What seems to have happened at the Weavers’ Triangle is that civic leaders (vocally supported by Prince Charles, amongst others) have taken the brave step of saying that the area, the best of its remaining heritage, will be declared a conservation area, and defended. They have then taken flak and brickbats as for years they have been unable to conjure up very much actual progress in building restoration.
At the Weavers’ Triangle there is the museum, a decent pub, and a warehouse conversion into office space overlooking a well-restored canal wharf. The rest is just ideas and masterplans shot out of the water by the recession, and the reality of Burnley’s decline. The latest plan is for a technical college for 14-19 year olds, teaching skills and trades for manufacturing industry. We wish it well.
Urban Repair suggestion no.2 – Burnley
It is so difficult to think of a realistic urban repair suggestion responding to the extent of Burnley’s problems. It is easy to think of frivolous ones: turn the M65 into a wooded cycle path; convert Tesco Extra into a state of the art factory, exporting textiles to China; put some Strict and Particular Baptists onto the licensing committee and launch a massive culture war against the vertical drinking industry.
Probably the best suggestion for the town would be to encourage sticking to the long term vision for the restoration of the Weavers Triangle. In China, city mayors build a model of their crazily ambitious civic plan and exhibit it as a statement of their intent. An architectural model – or perhaps a computer visualisation – could be built of the most wildly ambitious dream for the full conservation restoration of the Triangle (with, say, the full gamut of Hebden Bridge-style quality businesses and cultural facilities), and put into a suitable exhibition space in the Triangle. Then dare Burnley’s people to share the dream.
Polish civic activists meticulously recorded the architectural legacy of Warsaw’s Old Town before it was systematically razed to the ground by the Nazis. They did this with no great expectation that the Old Town would ever be rebuilt, but reasoned that it was a worthwhile effort in itself anyway. Similarly, setting out a quality dream for the Weavers Triangle area is worthwhile, even if Burnley realities ultimately make it virtually impossible to imagine being realised.
So, just do it, and – like at Warsaw – the act of civic faith might become the inspiration to actually getting it done .
Then it was hotfoot out of Burnley on the no. 27 bus for the final leg of the odyssey, to Clitheroe.
The bus passed through Padiham, the Shuttleworth Mead Business Park and the ancient abbey village of Whalley, making en route the transition from depressed, post-industrial East Lancashire, to prosperous, rural, true blue North Lancashire. An exciting detour was made to the village of Sabden, in the Pendle Hill exclave of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, in the first scenery yet seen vaguely reminiscent of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s Trip.
Pendle Hill is an important place in the history of the Quakers, but the history everybody is keenest on is that of the Pendle witches. Sabden’s “Sandwitches” sandwich shop, a typical example. Of Sabden’s two attractive old mills, one appears still to be in industrial use, and the other has been converted to become the Pendle Antiques Centre.
At Barrow, between Whalley and Clitheroe, a dense Barratt-type new housing development caters for people who want to move into this economically successful area. The Eagle at Barrow had all the outward trappings of belonging to a seriously affluent area, but the Italian restaurant La Taverna was boarded up. Perhaps with Barrow in mind, a placard strapped to a lamppost in Whalley announced “Whalley Says No to More Houses”.
Clitheroe (population 14,000) is definitely historically a mill town (it had 13 in 1891), but it is, and has always been, also the main market town of the agricultural Ribble Valley district, with distinctly un-milltown-like features such as a real Norman castle keep, and a livestock market. It looks rather more like one of the small country towns of North Lancashire or Westmorland than it does a mill town.
In commuting range of the main North West metropolitan economy, and offering a small-town environment to those who want out of the big towns and cities, Clitheroe is on a path to change and gentrification.
This could work in the old town’s favour, if green belt and other planning policies restrictive of new housing estates ensure that newcomers are encouraged into renovating old property. It appears on a quick glance that the town has a sufficient supply of older houses at reasonably cheap prices to avoid prices going stratospheric and choking off younger newcomers.
The interesting question for the Urban Repairs Club is to what extent there is/could be an organic urban regeneration flavour to Clitheroe’s gentrification, or whether it is doomed to follow a more conventional path towards becoming a more typical stolid, car-based, middle England dormitory town.
Mike Kneafsey of Clitheroe-based band Sweeney Astray kindly provided a whistle-stop tour of the town’s organic urban regeneration highlights.
The castle mound is a must, providing an excellent overview of the town and across to the brooding, iconic Pendle Hill. Down at street level, there are intriguing signs of a developing organic urban regeneration scene.
The Grand http://www.thegrandvenue.co.uk/About is a privately-owned arts centre with a good live music programme: Essex pub rock legend Wilko Johnson was in town on Easter Saturday. Key Street Bar of Music http://www.keystreetmusic.co.uk attracts young people from across the county. The Emporium http://www.theemporiumclitheroe.co.uk/ is a Methodist church conversion with an upmarket flavour.
Apparently there is a place in Mexico City that offers a better range of rare fine coffees than the Exchange Coffee House on Wellgate. But that may just be a rumour, so why risk leaving Clitheroe? Its deli offers local delicacies from local farms and is very much part of the thriving rural Lancashire foodie scene.
We then moved on to the open-mic music session at the New Inn, Parson Lane. The New Inn is an excellent traditional northern pub, and deservedly very popular.
Clitheroe lost its rail service to Blackburn and Manchester in 1962, but fought hard to get it restored, and in 1994, it was. The last train back to Manchester is at the usefully late hour of 22:40, and so it was on to the train, for the slow sprint back to Manchester Victoria.
Urban Repair suggestion no. 3 – Clitheroe
Clitheroe is not, is not going to be, and no doubt does not want to be, the new Hebden Bridge. It will remain the main market town for an attractive and prosperous rural area, and could easily simply double that up with becoming a upmarket commuter dormitory (or indeed, retirement home) for the nearby major conurbations. However, it does seem to have some elements of a young population that wants to see an organic urban village lifestyle in Clitheroe – which is hard to define, but let’s say the defining feature is being able to live in town and walk to your activities, rather than driving in from your housing estate to Tesco Extra – and this is a good thing for the town.
The Urban Repairs suggestion tentatively offered is that one next step Clitheroe could make on the journey from being a normal middle-England rural market town towards being a full blown English funkytown would be for one of the independent café-delis in the town to try putting on an evening shift, and so provide an alternative hang-out to the pub in the early evenings for those who don’t just want to go home to watch the telly. If that place could also provide a meeting place for the Transition Town Clitheroe organisation, then it’s possible that many interesting community projects could flow from it.
The purpose of the expedition was to get some clues about Hebden Bridge’s recipe for organic urban regeneration and to see which other small Pennine mill towns were putting the same ingredients together.
The first conclusion is that Hebden Bridge is great: high expectations were surpassed in a little town that mixes the best of the old North with the best of a “funkytown” vibe. It exudes cultural self-confidence and civic activism, and its glorious independence from the diet served up by the mainstream media and retail/leisure industry has a wide, not narrow, appeal.
Hebden Bridge may be the best example England has of the Urban Repairs Club’s contention that 21st century green, urban village living can be for everyone and needn’t be exclusively a high income lifestyle.
The second conclusion is that the secret of Hebden Bridge’s success has clearly been its incomers: green/left-minded, (mostly) university-educated, and above all active, energetic and enterprising.
Gentrification is inevitably a controversial issue in small towns, but the conclusion of this trip is that Hebden Bridge is a better place for anyone to live in – incomer or native, at any level of income – than the places that are not assembling its ingredients. The incomers haven’t spoiled traditional Hebden Bridge; they’ve allowed it to survive. The mill towns without incomers, such as Bacup, are the ones where the traditions are in trouble.
The third conclusion is that you have got to defend your town from Tesco Extra & co: they will destroy it. Easier said than done under current laws, and this is a political campaign matter (as pioneered by the New Economics Foundation, for example) that now needs to go mega. In French law, small traders are protected and supermarkets are not licenced to sell certain products that would drive the town centre independent shops out of business. This approach could easily be copied in UK if only Tesco could be dethroned in the way that Murdoch has now been.
So, where else is following Hebden Bridge’s path? The conclusion here is that the Urban Repairs Club needs another visit to the Pennines to provide an answer to that question, and will be targeting Todmorden, Sowerby Bridge and the Colne Valley towns of Marsden and Slaithwaite.
Can the Lancashire mill towns keep up with the Yorkshire ones? That remains to be seen: Ramsbottom and Rawtenstall need to be investigated before that question can be answered.
Fundamentally, is there an adequate supply of arty/greenie/lefty enterprising types willing to live in places of abysmal weather to allow other mill towns to follow its path? The answer to that question is surely yes. The supply is effectively infinite, because the example of the pioneers is contagious. Public sector austerity may cause some of the income sources to dry up for purveyors of arty/crafty items, but in general going for green enterprise is a good strategy for all places hit by the recession, and the current crop of talented graduates who can’t find conventional careers, but want to have an enjoyable life, are looking for places to go.
The most difficult unanswered question from the expedition is whether there is anything that the larger mill towns, like Burnley, can take from the Hebden Bridge story. At the moment it seems that social and economic polarisation is favouring the smaller places (like Hebden Bridge, or Clitheroe) and the regional capitals (Manchester and Leeds), whilst the large mill towns like Rochdale or Burnley are going to hell with no clear view of any way to turn that round. That vital question will be returned to.
In the meantime, Hebden Bridge flies the flag for a viable, sustainable, enjoyable future for the Northern mill towns, and let’s celebrate that.
The Dream Academy: Life in a Northern Town (rare original version of video shot in Hebden Bridge)