What the locals really think of Blackburn

PUBLISHED: 00:00 09 May 2016 | UPDATED: 09:05 09 May 2016

Blackburn's Cathedral Quarter

Blackburn's Cathedral Quarter

not Archant

This Lancashire town has always earned its industrious reputation and it’s now embarking on a new era of success, writes Mairead Mahon

Harry Catherall, council chief excecutive, Canon Andrew Hindley, Denise Park, Canon Ian Stockton, Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft, of Northcote Group, Dean Christopher Armstrong, councillor Peter Riley, Claire Arnold and Laura Wiggins, of the Northcote Group, council official Clare Turner and Ruth Connor, chief excecutive of Marketing Lancashire.Harry Catherall, council chief excecutive, Canon Andrew Hindley, Denise Park, Canon Ian Stockton, Nigel Haworth and Craig Bancroft, of Northcote Group, Dean Christopher Armstrong, councillor Peter Riley, Claire Arnold and Laura Wiggins, of the Northcote Group, council official Clare Turner and Ruth Connor, chief excecutive of Marketing Lancashire.

The Beatles famously sung about ‘4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire’ in their song, Day in the Life, the final track on the Sgt Pepper album. It’s generally accepted to be a reference to a newspaper report about the poor roads in the town.

If Blackburn is anything like the rest of Britain it still has more than its fair share of potholes, but much else has changed for the better. There is a determined effort to make Blackburn one of the top towns in the UK - a destination for visitors and businesses alike.

Most dramatic is the development of the iconic Cathedral Quarter in a project costing £36 million. If you haven’t been along lately to see what all the excitement is about, now might be the time to pay a visit.

This development coincides with work involving business leaders across Blackburn with Darwen, supported by the council and other public and voluntary organisations, to create a new marketing strategy designed as a catalyst for reviving the area.

Patrick Grant, who has put his faith - and his money - into BlackburnPatrick Grant, who has put his faith - and his money - into Blackburn

They have created The Blackburn with Darwen Story, part of a promotional campaign which aims to attract investors, visitors and residents to ensure they are well placed to get their share of opportunities created by the Northern Powerhouse.

But don’t run away with the idea Blackburn is about to become unrecognisable, one of those identikit towns of concrete and glass. The spirit and heritage of the place remains high on the agenda.

The new and the old sit comfortably side by side and that’s something that can clearly be seen in the Cathedral Quarter. It will house the first domestic accommodation to be built at any English cathedral for over 400 years and will also include a new hotel, offices, beautiful gardens and accommodation for the clergy. The Bishop himself laid the foundation stone for this new venture, so we’re pretty sure it’s been blessed. For those who need physical nourishment as well as spiritual, the wonderful Cafe Northcote at the Cathedral can provide. The clue is in the name: it’s owned and run by the team from the Michelin-starred luxury hotel of the same name and it has a central place in the new development. As owner Nigel Haworth points out, it is going to ‘stay loyal to local food producers and suppliers and champion both local produce and Blackburn’s heritage’.

Nigel is proud of that heritage and he’s made sure that it’s reflected in the cafe’s decor. A three dimensional honeycomb wall will echo the town’s history using its symbol - the bee. Three of them feature on the town’s coat of arms.

The arms also reflect Blackburn’s long association with the textile industry. Contrary to popular belief, it didn’t spring into being, fully formed, in the Industrial Revolution. Textiles have been important here for centuries. Like everywhere else, the industry has suffered in recent years but there are strong signs that the patient is far from dead.

One of the most high profile people to become involved with it is Patrick Grant: Saville Row designer, a judge on the BBC’s Great British Sewing Bee and someone who has been named one of the world’s best dressed men. So why has Blackburn captured his attention?

Well, for the very good reason that he’s bought Cookson and Clegg, the Blackburn clothing manufacturer. He has offered apprenticeships to local young people, as well as working closely with Blackburn College and launching a not-for-profit fashion brand and business is starting to boom again.

Patrick believes the Blackburn textile industry has life in it yet but what does he think of the town? ‘It’s cool and I can see myself living in the town centre,’ he said recently. ‘There are beautiful old buildings and I’ve met many people here with talent and drive.’

Paul Nuttall and Dale Gardner besides Reidys famous wall of guitarsPaul Nuttall and Dale Gardner besides Reidys famous wall of guitars

One of his most famous sayings is that although he owns more than 100 pairs of trousers, he generally dresses in one of two ‘uniforms’. In which case, he might have an interest then in visiting Grays, the genuine article in supplying uniforms, albeit of the school variety. Grays is one of several shops in the town that have been family owned for generations, supplying uniforms since 1920. Their fame has spread far and wide with London schools among their clients.

‘I’d love to have a conversation with Patrick Grant and hopefully that will happen,’ says Paul the third generation of the family to run the shop. ‘Blackburn thrived on its reputations for textiles, we always try to source locally and it’s a good thing that they’re coming to the fore again. Mind you, when I was a lad, I wasn’t keen on the fact that we had a uniform shop as my dad always checked my uniform was perfect as a matter of professional pride! Of course, I now find myself doing the same with my children.’

Reidy’s Music Store opened two years after Grays in 1922 and, like them, are still owned and run by the family. News of Blackburn’s Great Wall of Guitars has even reached the USA, with visitors travelling to see what is reputed to be the largest of its kind in the world. They have over 4,000 instruments on display and American guitar legend Paul Reid Smith flew in by private jet to see it.

If heart strings are more in your line, then the oldest family business in the town, Ainsworth’s Jewellers, might be worth a trip. Here since 1870, their heritage is important to them. Timelines and old photographs have pride of place and there’s hardly a Blackburn family to whom they haven’t supplied jewellery.

‘I’m an old romantic and it always feels good when a couple come along to choose an engagement ring and tell me that their great grandparents made the same trip way back when. Sometimes they even bring in the ring to show me and that’s always special,’ says Phil Ainsworth.

As well as the old family businesses, the buzz surrounding Blackburn means that new enterprises, like Daniel Coletta’s Chocolate Emporium are also attracted to the town. Handmade chocolates with names such as Deadly Absinthe and Roses Red have been such a success that Daniel is opening an extra manufacturing space in order to keep up with increasing demand.

Of course, one of Blackburn’s main attractions is its famous market. And where else but in Lancashire would you find a market with a beautiful grand piano, ready to be played by visitors?

None of your piped music here and you’d hardly expect it in a market which has just won the national Coach Friendly Shopping Destination award of the year.

Now located in the heart of The Mall Shopping centre, it’s been described as having changed the face of market shopping for ever. Harrods used to boast that there was nothing that they couldn’t supply and Blackburn Market could probably make the same claim.

Blackburn has held fast through many changes, maintaining its pride and heritage while always finding a place for the new. Now, it’s on the threshold of becoming a town fit for the 21st century and there are no holes in that plan.

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