Colne - the Lancashire market town with soul
PUBLISHED: 12:51 04 May 2017 | UPDATED: 12:51 04 May 2017
From Capital of Cool to British home of the blues, Colne shows its has plenty of soul, as Martin Pilkington discovers.
If a town has three theatres, holds the biggest, best and longest running blues festival in Britain and has a thriving arts scene to boot, you might be forgiven for thinking it would be somewhere posh in the South East. But this is Colne, the East Lancashire mill and market town with soul.
The Hippodrome is arguably the most spectacular of those three theatres, faithfully restored to its Edwardian glory – the auditorium definitely has the wow factor. Its story speaks volumes about the passion in the town for the arts. ‘We bought it in 1978 as a derelict bingo hall, then spent eight-and-a-half years doing it up,’ says Milly Greenwood, who is publicity manager for the theatre, among several other roles.
‘Three different local amateur groups got together with just four weeks to raise the £10,000 to buy it,’ adds bar manager Joe Whittam. ‘When we got in we found dry rot and damage of all sorts, but the volunteers got to work and transformed the place.’
It’s still staffed by volunteers, and is thriving. ‘We don’t owe a penny though we don’t get any grant money,’ says staging manager David Miller. ‘And we’ve recently bought the pub next door for space to make a bigger foyer, add disabled toilets, rehearsal rooms and more storage for our props and costumes.’ The Pendle Hippodrome Theatre Company now has 135 members, with 70 more in the youth section, and 200 involved in keeping the building going.
On Church Street, artist Dawn Beedell, who works across a variety of media, runs Artpad, another testament to Colne’s creativity. After returning from teaching in the Shetlands she opted not to work in schools but to open a place where children and adults can learn new craft and art skills.
‘There’s a big demand here, especially as children are doing much less creative work at school now,’ she says. ‘And more and more people are finding their wellbeing benefits from winding down by making and doing.’
At the other end of the town’s long main street is Arteology, a gallery where Dawn like many other artists – local and national – has exhibited. ‘We took the business over nine years ago,’ says David Turner, who owns and runs it with his wife Lesley. ‘It was mostly picture framing then and, as Lesley is an artist in her own right, we started to develop the gallery side by creating extra exhibition space, and it’s gone from strength to strength. We started off dealing mainly with local artists, then as we got more contacts it expanded to encompass people from further afield.’
Lesley adds: ‘There’s quite a network of artists and art groups that are all in contact with each other in the area – Horwich, Blackpool, St Annes, Lancaster... it’s surprising how much local talent we’ve got, a lot of which is not seen nearly enough.’
Arteology’s building reflects the changes that the town has been through historically and economically over the last century. Erected in 1906 as a chapel, during WWI it served as a convalescent home, and when David was a teenager he served his time as an engineer in what had become a works. Now it gives the region’s artists a showcase.
Another landmark building that looks likely to find a creative use shortly is the former Kippax biscuit factory in the town. ‘It was our market hall in the 1930s, then the Kippax biscuit factory, and because it’s a fine art deco structure it’s been saved by someone who admires that style,’ says Sarah Cockburn-Price, chairwoman of Colne council.
‘The interior is huge, and it has a vast cobbled car park. An events promoter contacted me to ask about it as a venue, not a night club, but perhaps as a “fright palace” near Halloween among other possibilities. A planning and licence application is about to be put in. It would be an amazing extra venue for the blues festival, with the capacity to host big name bands and hold the audiences to justify booking them.’
The town council has this year taken on the running of Colne’s August Bank Holiday weekend blues festival and, working with new festival director Jason Elliot and his team, they’ve made significant changes from the outset. They’ve dropped Monday from the schedule; focused on acts at the top or heading that way, rather than ‘heritage’ and tribute bands and will ticket on an event-by-event basis instead of than selling the passes that gained entry to everything.
The blues offers a major boost for the already thriving night-time economy in Colne. ‘We’ve lots of nice cafes and all kinds of interesting bars now, quirky individual places on the bottom end of the hill,’ says Sarah. ‘And there’s three micro pubs together on Market Street. People who used to go to Burnley for a night out are now stopping here.’
North meets Deep South
The Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival runs from August 25-27 and is billed as Europe’s finest contemporary blues festival.
It takes over the centre for three days, with acts from across the UK, Europe and USA playing at the three theatres and four other official venues, plus ‘roadhouse’ sites where the music is free. ‘There is a real affinity with the blues here, it might be something to do with the rural poor, something about the American Deep South and the English North, but the blues have been popular here for decades,’ says Tom Attah, who will be appearing at his fifth Colne Festival, and this year is curating the acoustic stage.
Festival director Jason Elliot, who with musical director Paddy Maguire previously ran Hebden’s equivalent for four years, reels off some of the genre’s big names appearing this August. ‘Joanne Shaw Taylor, The Delta Ladies, Janiva Magness, Lucky Peterson, King King, Aynsley Lister, Ian Siegal... We started booking much earlier than the previous organisers so we’ve secured some great international names and probably the four best contemporary UK blues acts. It’ll be hard to top next year!’
Pendle Hippodrome Theatre; David Miller (stage manager), Joe Whittam (bar manager) and Milly Greenwood (publicity officer)
The Great British Rhythm and Blues Festival; Tom Attah (curator of the acoustic stage), Jason Elliott (festival director) and Paddy Maguire (musical director)- photographed in About Coffee
Old Colne Grammar School
Lesley and David Turner at Arteology
Cllr Sarah Cockburn-Price (Colne town council chairman)
Artist, Dawn Beedell leading a children's art class at Artpad
‘It’s a massive event with some major logistics to manage,’ says Paddy. ‘In total we’ve about 100 bands, so 500 musicians, and 11 stages. Then there’s all the staff, lighting and sound equipment, and teams of volunteers.’
One logistical element made easier by a link with the town’s musical past is how easy it is to arrange road closures. ‘As a posthumous honour to Wallace Hartley, the bandmaster on the Titanic who came from Colne, there’s a byelaw that when there’s a major musical event here it allows the council to close the roads,’ says Jason. And they need to be closed. Tom adds: ‘The streets are full of people, loads of stalls, acts playing and fans dressed for the occasion, some like the Blues Brothers! It’s an amazing scene.’
It’s still cool
Back in 2014 Lancashire Life reported that the town had attracted so many trendy independent retailers that it was considered to be the county’s ‘Capital of Cool.’ Not only has it kept that title but it’s getting cooler all the time!
One of the businesses we featured was the speciality tea and coffee merchant, About Coffee, in Church Street where owners Susan and Colin Unwin had been getting rave reviews for their delicious cakes and top quality beverages.
Two years down the line, Susan tells us: ‘It’s definitely still a successful place. We’be had shops moving from Barrowford to here and there are plans to open a spa and boutique hotel.
‘We are kept busy all the time and now have two full-time staff and a couple of part-timers. Who would have thought Colne could be so cool. It’s lovely.’