Serendipity in Blackburn (of all places)

STEVE McKENNA The West Australian
Blackburn Cathedral and Gardens.
Steve McKenna
Camera IconBlackburn Cathedral and Gardens. Steve McKenna Credit: Steve McKenna

One of the lovely things about travel is the serendipitous opportunities that sometimes present themselves. To call in at places you’d never planned to visit before. For me, there’s Blackburn.

Nestled between Manchester and the Ribble Valley in Lancashire, this former mill town hardly registers on tourists’ radars. Some associate Blackburn with its soccer team, which shocked the footballing world by pipping Manchester United to the English Premier League title in 1995.

Blackburn Magistrates Court.
Camera IconBlackburn Magistrates Court. Credit: Steve McKenna

The Beatles mentioned the town in A Day in The Life (“4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”). And this psychedelic tune floats through my head as I ride the train to Blackburn from Manchester Victoria, savouring the change in scenery from urban sprawl to picturesque countryside, with the rolling green and brown moors of the Pennines spiked with the chimneys of defunct old mills and other relics from when Lancashire was the world’s biggest cotton-manufacturing region.

You may wonder why I am taking this 50-minute trip, why Blackburn of all places is on my itinerary? Well, it’s because of my COVID vaccine. When I was offered the chance to book my first jab, there were no available slots in my neighbourhood for some time, so I was given other possible locations. Blackburn was the closest, with the vaccination centre in the crypt of the cathedral opposite the railway station. So why not go, I thought?

After the year we’ve had in the UK, being in various pandemic-enforced national and local lockdowns, going to Blackburn seemed almost exotic. Mindful that I may not be feeling 100 per cent, post-vaccine, I arrived a few hours before my appointment, allowing time for a wander.

It’s an interesting place, is Blackburn; in many ways, your typical post-industrial textile town: a mish-mash of the beautiful and the bleak, the mundane and the quirky.

Street art in Blackburn.
Camera IconStreet art in Blackburn. Credit: Steve McKenna

If you’re feeling peckish after your journey, make a beeline for Blackburn Market, just past the cathedral’s leafy gardens. Dating back to 1848, this covered market has had a contemporary makeover as part of an overhaul of Blackburn’s central shopping district. Open six days a week, the market boasts more than 120 stalls selling all and sundry, from Asian fashions and street food to fresh Lancashire produce and a terrific selection of pies served by cheerful vendors who call you “love”. The scent of coffee drifts from the cappuccino bar of Exchange, a roasters and tea merchants (which has another branch in the elegant Exchange Arcade in a side alley near the market).

Clutching a takeaway flat white, I stroll through Blackburn’s compact town centre. There are some eyesores for sure (high-rises from the second half of the 20th century and boarded-up shop windows that hint at the economic deprivation that has blighted many English towns in recent decades). But there’s plenty to cheer the mood, too. Adding colour and flair to Blackburn’s streetscape are some brilliant murals and artwork, daubed on walls and building-sides, and depicting everything from birds and bees to industrial heritage and the planet’s indigenous people. These are the fruits of the Blackburn Open Walls Festival, which has attracted creative talents from around the world and was founded by Hayley Welsh, a Blackburnian artist now based in Perth, WA.

Ambling around town, you’ll also be struck by some magnificent Victorian and Edwardian architecture that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, London or Liverpool. Stand-outs include the Italianate-style Town Hall, Blackburn College’s Victoria Building with its intricate terracotta-clad facade, the neo-Gothic former Cotton Exchange, and grandiose Classical-style affairs, the Central Police Station and Court House and the King George’s Hall — an entertainment venue that has staged David Bowie and Queen concerts and marks its centenary this year. Another fine Grade II-listed building is occupied by the Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery, whose eclectic collections span everything from Japanese prints to the looms that drove the town during the Industrial Revolution.

Blackburn's historic market is sporting a modern facelift.
Camera IconBlackburn's historic market is sporting a modern facelift. Credit: Steve McKenna

Blackburn was a textile hub long before this, as early as the 14th century, when Flemish weavers settled here. Wool was woven in people’s houses in the woollen cottage industry before the factory system took hold and mills mushroomed, with Blackburn, and neighbouring Darwen, part of a network of mill towns that spread outside Manchester, or “Cottonopolis” as it was dubbed. At its peak, Blackburn is said to have had 120 mills in operation, making it the biggest weaving town in the world.

Mahatma Gandhi toured the area in 1931 while on a study trip of Lancashire’s textile manufacturing — an industry that suffered from the boycott of British goods by Gandhi’s Indian independence movement. Following the end of the British Raj, Lancashire’s mills briefly recovered and over subsequent decades an influx of south Asian immigrants arrived to work in the mills. By the 1980s, however, the county’s textile industry was in its death throes and many mills were closed and demolished. Several of these hulking red-brick piles remain, though, repurposed into other businesses or arts ventures. Some overlook the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, a 205km-long trans-Pennine waterway that helped kick-start Blackburn’s industrial boom prior to the railway’s arrival.

You can enjoy leisurely walks along the canal towpaths. Head south about 2km from the town centre and you’ll be near Ewood Park, home of Blackburn Rovers FC. Established in 1875, the club became a founding member of the Football League in 1888, but is currently languishing in the Championship, English soccer’s second tier (some fans say it’s still suffering a hangover from its 1995 EPL triumph, which was bankrolled by local steel magnate Jack Walker). Potter just north of Blackburn’s town centre and you’ll find the large, well-kept Victorian-era Corporation Park (weather-permitting, and we’re in Lancashire remember, it’s a nice spot for a picnic).

A hodge-podge of architecture, good and bad, peppers Blackburn.
Steve McKenna
Camera IconA hodge-podge of architecture, good and bad, peppers Blackburn. Steve McKenna Credit: Steve McKenna

Beyond the sloping streets of Blackburn’s quintessentially northern English terraced houses, stirring hikes await in the grasslands and woodlands of Witton Country Park, and perched in the Yellow Hills of the nearby village of Pleasington is the Alfred Wainwright Memorial and View Point. This lofty monument honours the Blackburn-born rambler, who was best known for his illustrated books about the Cumbrian Lake District, but also loved to stretch his legs, sketch and explore the countryside closer to home, including the Ribble Valley and Forest of Bowland, two scenic, village-speckled rural regions a short drive north of Blackburn.

They’ll be on my itinerary the next time I’m in this neck of the woods, I tell myself, as I board a train back to Manchester after receiving my COVID vaccine. My upper left arm is beginning to feel a little sore, but my mind is swirling — not just with that Beatles song again (“4000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire”) but with thoughts of a return to “normality” and all the soul-rousing potential that travel will bring as we embark on our journey through the tail end of the pandemic.

FACT FILE

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