Big ideas afoot in Blackburn

PUBLISHED: 19:14 11 January 2013 | UPDATED: 22:37 20 February 2013

Big ideas afoot in Blackburn

Big ideas afoot in Blackburn

Martin Pilkington visits a town that thinks its a city - and with very good reasons

Visit: The Cathedral, the museum and art gallery and Witton Country Park.

Shop: The Mall for big name shops and the award-winning new market is beneath it.

Eat: Great reviews for Sprout, a veggie caf in Darwen Street, and good reports from The Courthouse.

Transport: Good rail and bus links and Saturday parking is free in council-run carparks.Ci eliquations del et augait

For Blackburn, King Cotton was dethroned decades ago and the towns future hinges on higher things - mainly aerospace. The town centre has changed radically, too, thanks some impressive developments which have been woven into the architectural reminders of its illustrious past.

The problem for Blackburn is changing perceptions, not architecture. Our reputation is not fantastic admits Dave Harling, who heads economic regeneration. Thats a real shame as we are bucking the trend economically. Weve been an old mill town but thats now history.

On a tour of the town he points out the new health centre, the new Mall, major additions to Blackburn College and the smaller touches that bring the place together. Weve had a new clock tower and the main street has been resurfaced. Theyve done a really high class job. Hes just as excited by whats to come, the rail and bus station inter-change and the Cathedral Quarter getting a significant revamp.

Loraine Jones, general manager of The Mall, the towns substantial indoor shopping complex, is equally enthusiastic. The investment has been huge throughout the town Blackburn has changed. The perception was that it was old and rundown, but now people are coming here to shop from Preston and the Ribble Valley, for example.

Old and new co-existing is seen to great effect in the late-Georgian Waterloo Pavilions between the cathedral close and the Mall, their foursquare period architecture now linked by massive structural glass.

The Pavilions are listed buildings. There were three of them with nothing between. The council and the cathedral used European money to renovate them for a number of users, and there are some fine sculptures in front of them now, say Dave Harling.

With its new University Centre and cathedral it seems strange Blackburn failed to win city status. It is unusual. Were a town with a cathedral its a source of discontent for many of us! he adds.

You get the feeling thats another aspect of Blackburn that may see a change in the not too distant future if things continue to progress. That would certainly stop outsiders referring to it as a mill town.

Flying tonight
If you suddenly see a large salmon flying through the air, the chances are you are close to Mayers, which provides free entertainment and fresh fish.

Fishmonger Anthony Brindle lobs a fish in the direction of colleague Jon Turner and explains: They do this on the market in Seattle. They ring the bell every time they sell a whole salmon and throw the fish from the storage area. It added a bit of drama.

Fish juggling is just one of the attractions at the new market beneath The Mall.
Theyve taken a run-down 60s complex and put it into the 21st century, a bold move at a time when trade is struggling in many towns and cities across the country.

Were very proud of it they won the UK market of the year for 2012, says Loraine Jones. Its 70,000 square feet of state-of-the-art space.

The new taste of Blackburn is represented by the two curry stalls and a pannini seller; the old by Alan Taylors stall selling sarsaparilla, parched peas, black pudding and other Lancastrian delicacies.

Theres a also pie stall and the tripe vendor in later life, Charlie Chaplin was nostalgic for the towns tripe and vinegar, a delicacy hed eaten there while on tour.

A river runs under it
Unsurprisingly, Blackburns name seems to come from the river that ran through the place the Blakewater. It now runs through culverts beneath the town centre. A Roman road forded this waterway and a forerunner of the Georgian cathedral may have been built here as early as 596 when Blagbourne was part of the Kingdom of Northumbria.

Wool fed the nascent textile industry as early as the 13th century with the town becoming a major weaving centre in the Tudor and Stuart periods. In the 18th century cotton replaced it and Blackburn was called the weaving capital of the world.

The town is rightly proud of its sporting history. Blackburn Rovers FC, currently in the Championship, was founded in 1875, playing at Ewood Park since 1890. The club has six FA Cup wins to its name, and three top-flight league titles.

Textiles continued to be a major employer until the 1980s, and the industry still has a niche in the town. The business drew the first wave of immigrants from the Asian sub-continent in the 50s and that community is now a significant part of Blackburns 105,000 population.

Higher-tech employers like Bae Samlesbury dominate the current industrial scene. We still have a higher proportion of people in manufacturing than elsewhere. It has declined, but weve a lot of young small companies growing - the term is gazelles and theyre the hopes of the future, says Dave Harling.

Icons and Landmarks
The towns Museum and Art gallery has one of the best collections of Russian icons in the land. More modern religious art is found at the towns Cathedral Church of Saint Mary the Virgin with St Paul, with fabulous pieces by Josefina de Vasconcellos and John Hayward. His Christ the Worker sculpture set against a loom giving a sense of industrial place, is one of several striking pieces.

Saint Marys, built in 1826, became a cathedral a century later. It was extended to reflect that new status, work running from 1938 to 1977. This is another spot due for change. Theres a hotel planned for the Cathedral Quarter plus an office development, says Dave Harling.

Where to Shop
The old shopping centre, long past its sell-by-date, was recently replaced by the shiny new indoor complex The Mall. We have 115 shops, predominantly fashion, and we are just having a redevelopment of Debenhams. Weve got 4000 extra square feet for them for a new cosmetics department, says Loraine Jones. Dont be surprised if you visit and find an event in progress. We had Ricky Whittle cut the ribbon when we opened in July 2010, says Loraine.

Weve had Michelle Keegan, and last year Chris Fountain and Katherine Kelly from Coronation Street did a big fashion show. People loved them.

Dont forget to explore the side streets. There are several interesting independents such as Decades Vintage Fashion sells clothes going back to the Victorian era.

A sound town
Theres a fine tradition of music in Blackburn. Kathleen Ferrier made her name with concerts at King Georges Hall, still a significant venue for the town.

Music megastore Reidys their guitar wall possibly the biggest with 500,000 worth of instruments on display - are teaming up with the hall to search for more local stars. After Christmas were doing a musical talent competition. The elimination rounds will be every Thursday in February on the stage at Reidys and the final in March at King Georges Hall, with a 1000 prize for the winner, says managing director Paul Nuttall, whose mother managed

Blackburns 60s chart-toppers The Four Pennies (remember Juliet?).
In September 2012 Reidys, founded in 1922, opened their new 6,500 square foot premises with 2 million of stock to draw on. Its in The Learning Zone near Blackburn College University Centre, another recent addition to the townscape. Its clever positioning given that students are the naturally drawn to music shops.

We call this a destination shop, says Paul. People come from all over the country last week Grimsby and Rugby, we had someone from Scarborough, the week before we had someone from Bath.

Those who want to buy a 100 bass or whatever may do it online, but if you are spending 500 youll come and get the feel of an instrument first.

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