The echoes of Burnley’s manufacturing past can still be heard

PUBLISHED: 13:01 16 April 2013 | UPDATED: 13:01 16 April 2013

Joan Lynn at Queen Street Mill Textile Museum

Joan Lynn at Queen Street Mill Textile Museum


This former mill town is used to reinventing itself but the echoes of its manufacturing past can still be heard, writes Martin Pilkington.

Burnley is reinventing itself for the future without losing the best of its past. Art, leisure, engineering and education are all playing a part in that regeneration of the former mill-town. But then they’ve already played similar roles in its history.

Two magnificent buildings here, Gawthorpe Hall and Towneley Hall, are themselves living history. ‘Gawthorpe is very unusual in that it remained with the same family, the Shuttleworths, until it was sold to the National Trust in the 1970s, and the family still has a connection as trustees of the textile collection here,’ says Rachel Pollitt de Duran, assistant keeper of the house, which was built around 1600.

The area’s prosperity in the Victorian era for those at the top of the social tree is reflected in the unique interior of the house. ‘It’s the only country house on which Charles Barry and Augustus Pugin worked together - they collaborated on the Houses of Parliament at about the same time, the early 1850s,’ says Rachel.

If the Shuttleworths were prosperous, their neighbours at Towneley Hall in the heart of Burnley were loaded. ‘The Towneleys were landowners, and owned the mineral rights to the area, and at one point they owned the entire Ribble Valley until they sold it to the Duchy of Lancaster,’ says Ken Darwen, museum manager.

‘There was a hunting lodge here in the 1400s, then different generations of the family added to the building. What you see now dates from about 1725, though with a mix of medieval, Regency and Victorian.’

The staunchly Catholic Towneleys did well to survive less tolerant times though Francis Towneley wasn’t so fortunate – he was executed in 1746 for High Treason and was the last man to have his head displayed on Temple Bar. Several made a more peaceful mark on the world. ‘Charles who died in 1805 was a great collector of ancient marbles and sculptures. When he died the collection was bought by the government and there is a Towneley Room in the British Museum,’ says Ken.

In 1901 Burnley Council paid £17,000 for the house and its 140 acres, quite a bargain now as it offers the townsfolk a fine green leisure space with two golf courses, a massive children’s playground and beautiful ancient woodland.

The house was empty when purchased, but thanks to a £200,000 legacy from brewer Edward Stocks-Massey is now filled with fine furniture and some superb paintings. Bonhams recently valued the contents at £60 million.

That link with the arts is something the museum works hard to strengthen. ‘The British Museum has agreed to let us have some of sculptures collected by Charles Towneley,’ says Ken. And a contemporary incarnation of that love of collecting is to appear here shortly, The Antiques Roadshow coming on June 27th.

Burnley-born artist Vivien Whitaker has a three-month exhibition of her alabaster sculptures starting at the hall on September 14. ‘The exhibition is called Sources of Inspiration, partly because this is the first art gallery I ever came to, and also because this is the place that turned me on to art,’ she says. ‘I have never seen all my works together, so this is very exciting.’

It is not just the interior that is a facility for the people of the area. The NAFAS flower festival in May draws people from around the country.

There is another facet of the town’s history that should not be missed - the fine working textile museum at Queen Street Mill. ‘The mill opened in 1895, weaving calico as we still do on a few working looms today – not commercially, but enough for us to make tea towels for the shop,’ says Joan Lynn. ‘Originally there were 1,000 looms, and we’re left with 300.’

Intriguingly the future here mirrors elements of the town’s past. For instance, the engineering and manufacturing represented by Queen Street Mill is flourishing again in the town. ‘We have a particular focus on advanced manufacturing with a centre dedicated to it here,’ says Martin Brown, Director of UCLan’s Burnley campus, which had its first student intake in 2009. ‘We worked closely with Bae and Cisco Systems to develop that, and it also involved a £500,000 investment by UCLan. Advanced manufacturing is extremely important in the Pennine Lancashire economy, with twice the national average employed here in that sector.’

In our more democratic age it’s fitting that the latest addition to the town’s major buildings should be for shared use. The Woodland Spa at Crow Wood is a massive and extremely luxurious development on a 100-acre site in which entrepreneur Andy Brown has invested something like £15 million since 2001, most recently spending £4.5 million to quadruple the size of the spa facilities. ‘We promised 30 jobs to the council and actually opened with 67 staff, and soon we’ll hit the 120 mark. We’ve done everything we promised and more – 25,000 trees planted, 5km of native hedgerows; artworks and a bridleway, wildlife ponds... we’ve created some nice facilities from the gym to the equestrian centre, plus four pools and now a 100-cover restaurant,’ says Andy.

The Crow Wood site’s ancient woodland and wide green spaces have echoes of the great parks at Gawthorpe and Towneley, but another symbol of renewal stands in starker surroundings on the moors above the town.

‘I vividly remember when we installed The Singing Ringing Tree at Christmas 2006 there were two coach-loads of people to do the work, and we had to lean at 45 degrees to move into the wind up on Crown Point,” says Nick Hunt, Creative Director of Mid Pennine Arts . ‘It has been a really successful piece. One of the reasons for commissioning the Panopticons is to give a more positive view of the region, and this has certainly worked for Burnley. It has become a much-used image, for example now it features on the new Ordinance Survey Map for the area.’ The westerly winds blowing through the beautiful artwork’s pipes make a haunting sound. This is a town that has not just kept its soul, but added to it.

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