Ten reasons to visit Blackburn
PUBLISHED: 00:01 19 August 2013 | UPDATED: 23:18 23 October 2015
This famous Lancashire town has reinvented itself as a destination for shopping, eating and even the great outdoors. Martin Pilkington reports
Those who don’t know Blackburn may think in terms of dark satanic mills, but aerospace engineering long ago surpassed textiles here, and major redevelopment has changed much of the centre too. Many positive legacies of King Cotton’s reign remain, however, providing a fine contrast for more contemporary elements, nowhere moreso than in the first of our 10 reasons to visit Cotton Town:
1. The Cathedral of St Mary’s the Virgin with St Paul is set in a little green oasis at the heart of the town, but it is the interior that has to be seen. Built in 1826 and much extended since, the building’s solid traditional architecture contrasts beautifully with the large-scale artworks by 20th-century sculptors Josefina de Vasconcellos and John Hayward, his corona over the altar particularly striking.
2. The shopping: this includes a Mall where teenagers can hang out to their hearts’ content, with loads of big-name fashion-stores like Bank, a two-storey Primark, New Look, H&M, and Next. Loraine Jones, General Manager of The Mall is understandably enthusiastic about what the recent £66 million investment there has meant: ‘Blackburn has changed; the perception was that it was old, rundown, but now people are coming here to shop from Preston and the Ribble Valley.’
There are independent stores of note too, most notably one of the gems of the north west music scene, Reidy’s music shop (sited by Blackburn College University Centre, students being the natural prey of the guitar store). This family business began in 1922, but the vast new premises complete with a £750,000 display of guitars are a far cry from the original. As MD Paul Nuttall says: ‘We call this a destination shop.’
3. What the marketing types want us to call Blackburn’s ‘Gateway to Asia’ district (around Barbara Castle Way and Whalley New Road) has begun to rival the more famous Curry Mile in Manchester, the food ranging from cheap-and-cheerful takeaways to classier restaurants like Mai’da.
4. For a more eclectic eating experience head to the indoor market. You’ll find curry here too, but you can treat the heat with sarsaparilla and milk shakes or tuck in to older Lancastrian fayre like black pudding, parched peas, tripe with vinegar, and steak pies (now that’s a menu). Or go continental with pasta dishes, pannini and posh coffees.
5. Walk off your lunch in one of the town’s green-spaces that include the 480 acres of Witton Country Park, an amenity secured thanks to a donation by local businessman RE Hart. The 19th century stables of the long-gone stately home here are now used as visitor centre. Stretch your legs with a stroll or test your stamina on the six-mile Beamers’ Trail hike. Off-road tramper-scooters are available for hire so less able visitors are not excluded from the fun.
Corporation Park, which opened in 1857, is on a smaller scale, but merits a visit for its late-Victorian conservatory and the 21st century Colourfields, part-artwork part viewpoint beneath which the townscape spreads.
6. Mr Hart, whose generosity helped secure Witton Park for the town, had a hand in enriching another of its glories, Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. The philanthropist donated his collection of illustrated manuscripts, rare coins, and early printed books to the museum, but it’s best-known for its dazzling display of Russian Orthodox icons - it has 61 of these religious images, 31 from two collections bought with national funding, another 27 arriving in a less saintly manner, seized from smugglers by HM Customs. The building – appropriately enough on Museum Street, also houses a renowned collection of Japanese woodcut prints.
7. There’s plenty of art outdoors here too - public art is a key component in Blackburn’s regeneration strategy. Don’t miss Transitions on the pedestrianised Church Street, or (especially when it’s dark) Simon Watkinson’s magical light-sculpture The Braid at Suddell Cross.
8. The Leeds Liverpool Canal. The waterway and the towpath alongside it give different perspectives of the town and its surroundings, from industrial landscapes to quiet countryside. The section between Whitebirk and Rishton is particularly scenic.
9. The bound to rise again Blackburn Rovers Football Club, where last season a manager of the month award was due to anyone lasting that long. Ewood Park, the club’s home since 1890, is a fine stadium of Premier League standard where in 1995 that competition’s domination by London and Manchester clubs was interrupted by this proud East Lancs institution.
10. There’s free on-road parking on Saturdays!