Arts and historic waterways add to the culture of Burnley

PUBLISHED: 00:00 21 August 2017 | UPDATED: 16:26 13 January 2018

Canal running alongside Sandygate Square, Burnley

Canal running alongside Sandygate Square, Burnley


Whether it’s preserving heritage or creating new memories, there’s real passion in this former mill town, as Rebekka O’Grady discovers.

You can take to the water at the festivalYou can take to the water at the festival

‘There’s a general feeling that Burnley’s canal towpaths are special, hidden gems. Some local people are dimly aware that they’re there, so since the beginning, the festival has had the intentions to celebrate them and the town’s heritage,’ said Nick Hunt, the creative director of Mid Pennine Arts. The commissioning agency, which develops projects across Lancashire and beyond – including the now iconic Singing Ringing Tree sculpture – is one of the partners involved in bringing to life the annual Burnley Canal Festival, which takes place from August 26-27.

First held in 2012, the multi-site event offers residents and visitors a free and unique way to explore the town’s towpath environment, while having plenty of fun along the way. Driven by a volunteer committee, it is supported by Burnley Borough Council and the Canal and River Trust, alongside other partners.

‘At one point it was possible to attend the festival and not see the canal at all, so a key aim last year was to ensure people were exploring the towpaths,’ said Melanie Diggle, finance and admin director at MPA. Because of the 200th anniversary of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, last year’s festival secured additional money to enable organisers to celebrate across three sites, as opposed to just Burnley Wharf, and in the process, drew in 12,000 people.

‘The whole idea is to get people to visit the different sites, as each has their own feel, as well as further afield. The festival is a real mix of contemporary and heritage. The canal is a superhighway of both the past and future, it was a way of transporting goods in the past, and today there’s a digital infrastructure that runs underneath the tow paths – so our high speed internet comes from the canal, something very much linked to the future.’

Visitors enjoying traditional festivities at the Burnley Canal FestivalVisitors enjoying traditional festivities at the Burnley Canal Festival

The festival hub at Sandygate Square is contemporary, with dance workshops, theatre and street food. Walk along the towpath to arrive at Burnley Wharf, which has a traditional, Victorian feel with funfair, brass band and insect circus. Finally, Finsley Gate Wharf, which was derelict until a few years ago, is where you can wind down and take part in various arts and craft workshops. On your route to each destination you may also come across the Towpath Explorers, who need your help solving puzzles, or see people out on the water itself in canoes or the free waterbus.

‘There is a challenge to be economical this year, as we still want to keep this same footprint but don’t have the same level of funding,’ said Nick, who explained that they do have a reasonable baseline to make it happen, but additional funding and sponsorship is always appreciated to boost the festival and the activities. ‘There will still be a great mix of performance, food and as many free activities. It’s a very important aspect that this is a free day out for all of the family and is accessible to all. We won’t undermine the quality of what we are doing, but it just may be slightly smaller.’

To find out more about the Burnley Canal Festival, get involved in sponsorship or become a volunteer, visit

Jackie McCree, Shaun McCree and Sophie Gibson outside the Burnley Empire TheatreJackie McCree, Shaun McCree and Sophie Gibson outside the Burnley Empire Theatre

Restoring glory

From Charlie Chaplin to Harry Houdini, many entertainment icons have performed at the Burnley Empire Theatre. However, the building has lain empty since closing as a bingo hall in 1995, with many people not even knowing it exists.

‘From the word go, since it opened in 1894 as a purpose built music hall, headline acts from around the world would perform here,’ said Shaun McCree, acting chair of the Burnley Empire Theatre Trust and magician. ‘As a variety performer myself I find it very interesting the assortment of things they would have here. People walk past here now and have no idea what it was or that it was there, until we started to promote it.’

The trust was formed in late 2015 to raise public awareness of the grade II listed building and undertake the steps necessary to preserve and renovate it. At the time it was listed on the Theatres Trust ‘Theatres at Risk’ register at number 22 (it’s now gone up to number five, thanks to the campaign), and the group of volunteers knew they had to act fast if there was a chance to save it.

Ken Darwen, Towneley Hall managerKen Darwen, Towneley Hall manager

‘We set up a stakeholder group with UCLAN, Burnley College, Burnley Borough Council and the Civic Trust so that we could launch the project. The first phase was the commissioning of a feasibility study to establish the work needed to be able to restore, as well as looking at its future as a performance venue,’ said Shaun. This phase was completed in November 2016, and they are now waiting for the imminent results of phase two, which was commissioned via a grant from the Architectural Heritage Fund thanks to the Theatres Trust, which will establish what now needs to be done and how the BETT can proceed.

‘It’s been done with the likes of The Grand in Blackpool and the Stockport Plaza, this is how buildings like this are saved now, and worse ones than the Empire have been restored. We have high hopes that it will go ahead but nothing is certain. A lot of the campaigning for us is to raise money and to get people aware of the project, so that they can be involved in taking care of it.’

Although from the outside the theatre may look like a crumbling building, a lot of the interior features, designed by renowned theatre architect Bertie Crewe during a reconstruction in 1911, is in good condition, with original stained glass windows bricked up and elaborate plasterwork having survived remarkably well.

If they are to go ahead, the BETT would like to secure the building as an opportunity for training and apprenticeships throughout the restoration process, with on-site learning and experience for those at Burnley College and UCLAN. Once the theatre is complete, the space would act as a centre for the community and a performance venue for students at the colleges, as well as professional and amateur theatre companies.

Towneley HallTowneley Hall

‘We hit the ground running as we knew it needed to be done fast, so we pushed hard and the Theatres Trust have been brilliant at helping us. We’re just in limbo now, but we have our fingers crossed.’

Culture vulture

It’s ironic that what used to be the servants’ quarters now hold some of the most important items in Towneley Hall. Today the North Wing is home to a substantial collection of Victorian oil and watercolour paintings, ranging from J.M.W. Turner to Burnley artist, Noel H. Leaver, and what you see on display is only half of what’s on offer.

‘The paintings are shown on a rotational basis because they are susceptible to light,’ explained Ken Darwen, who has been manager at Towneley Hall for 15 years. He left his previous role at Granada after the job opportunity arose in Burnley – what he describes as a dream come true. ‘Some of our paintings go on loan to New York and China, and a lot of the statues from Charles Towneley’s collection of Roman antiquities are now on display at the Museum of London. A lot of people, visit here because our art collection is of such importance. As a regional art gallery, we have one of the best collections in the North West.’

Set in over 400 acres of beautiful parkland, Towneley Hall was home to the Towneley family for over 500 years, but in 1901 it was sold to Burnley Corporation.

The park was opened to the public a year later and in 1903 the council decided to keep the hall open as a permanent art gallery and museum. Today, there is a regular changing exhibition programme (which are planned up to two years in advance), as well as fabulous permanent displays such as Egyptian artefacts and 20th century ceramics.

‘When I joined, I brought more of a commercial attitude to the team and introduced things like weddings and events, as well as more elements of family fun,’ said Ken, who this year has launched a series of free origami and arts and crafts workshops.

As well as activities inside the hall, the parkland hosts events from classic car shows and festivals to craft fairs and fireworks.

‘We’re trying to give added value. We now run two free visitors tours around the hall a day, offering an insiders perspective, and children love the Pendelfin wooden rabbit trail and the Bill the Bear adventure backpacks, named after our Himalayan bear who originally arrived as a rug. I wanted to change what could be viewed as a boring museum into something very family friendly.’

Comments have been disabled on this article.

Latest from the Lancashire Life