Why the Whitaker Museum in Rawtenstall is the centre of the local arts community

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 July 2017

The Whitaker: Jackie Williams and Carl Bell

The Whitaker: Jackie Williams and Carl Bell


This Rossendale community has reinvented itself as a vibrant town full of art and independent shops. And there’s a magnificent museum, as Mairead Mahon discovered.

Mather Gallery: Karl MatherMather Gallery: Karl Mather

‘Work Hard and Climb Every Mountain’ exhorts one of the wartime posters hidden away in the attics of Rawtenstall’s Whitaker Museum. While literal mountains might be thin on the ground around these parts, the people of Rawtenstall have certainly taken the robust sentiment to heart. They’ve reinvented themselves as an artistic and vibrant town that still keeps its history alive.

That just about describes the Whitaker itself. Once the home of a Victorian industrialist and then a museum earmarked for closure, it was saved by locals Carl Bell and Jackie and Julian Williams. The trio took it over but livened things up with an exciting programme of culture, music and community events, while making it a great place to eat, drink and socialise.

‘We were a bit nervous when we got the keys but I recalled the happy times that I had spent exploring it with my mum when I was a girl. I just knew that we had done the right thing and it turns out that we have,’ says Jackie.

Acclaimed artist Caroline Johnson is glad that they took the plunge, as it is one of her favourite places both to explore and sketch. Caroline, who works in varyious mediums, has a growing international reputation with her work in many private collections.

Hop Micro Pub: Michelle MorrisHop Micro Pub: Michelle Morris

‘I think a lot of my work can be described as, “finding a rainbow in the road”. I wish I could say that I came up with that phrase. I didn’t, alas, but it describes what I do so well. You don’t need huge sweeping dramatic landscapes to find something beautiful or worth drawing. I guess I’m lucky in that I can see things worth capturing in the ordinary and even the overlooked, maybe that’s why I’m the official urban sketcher for Manchester! I always have my sketchbook with me and it’s full of things such as cracked pavements, forgotten doorways and even old sheds. I went through a bit of a phase where sheds took centre place,’ laughs Caroline.

She moved to Rawtenstall from France because there is such a strong artistic community here and because of her fondness for The Whitaker. When Carl and Jackie knew she was in the vicinity, they offered her an exhibition and she will be showing there again this August. She also runs workshops all over the country.

‘There are so many fantastic objects to draw in The Whitaker, it is stuffed full of intriguing objects. Some of them are tucked away in cases and others are absolutely unmissable, such as the brilliant oversized Victorian birdcage in the bar area. It really is amazing and exciting, as I never know what my eye is going to catch next,’ says Caroline.

Caroline hasn’t yet sketched in the attics but that is on her to do list. They are one of the areas that have changed very little over the years and, like all the best attics, you never know what you’re going to find.

‘It used to be the servants’ sleeping quarters and everyone likes to come up here for one of our attic tours. Don’t expect everything to be nicely labelled because we don’t know ourselves exactly what is up here. There are some fantastic costumes though, stuffed animals, paintings and a lady ghost. She’s another thing that not too much is known about but, apparently, she is benign,’ says Carl.

One group who could find out more about her is the Rossendale branch of the Lancashire Family History Group based in Rawtenstall. When the BBC wanted help finding actress Jane Horrocks’ local roots for the programme, ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, they were the first people they turned to. In fact, they brought them out from behind the scenes and put them on camera. Part of Jane’s story involved the mystery of a precious opal sent from a relative in Australia.

‘That was exciting. It sometimes feels as if Rawtenstall has had a hand in populating the whole world! Their descendants are always getting in touch and some actually travel from as far away as America and Australia to see us here in the library.

‘We are a bit like sleuths. Rawtenstall has plenty of clues; old newspapers, burial records, maps and the area is home to a whopping 150 war memorials,’ says society official, Wilf Day.

You don’t have to be particularly interested in history to enjoy the last remaining Mr Fitzgerald’s Temperance Bar in England. It has been going since 1899 and last year it was taken over by its newest landlord, Ashley Morley, who has added to the range with milk shakes and mocktails.

‘We still sell the drinks that have been served here since the bar opened and yes, they do you the power of good. I’m a big fan of the Blood Tonic. Granted, it isn’t the most appealing name but it is made from the much nicer sounding ingredients of nettles, raspberries and rosehip. We offer spices too. Of course, juniper berries fly out because of the current fashion for gin, although you will have to get your gin elsewhere,’ laughs Ashley.

One such is the micro pub, Hop, opened last Christmas by Michelle and Andy Morris. Michelle comes from a local brewing family, so she really does know her stuff when it comes to ales and it also has one of the largest selections of gin in the area.

Customers come from all over the North West to but this is something that many business owners in the town are experiencing, as Marcia Potts from the eclectic emporium, Luvinit explains.

‘There’s a real buzz around Rawtenstall at the moment. New businesses are moving in and sitting comfortably alongside well established ones,’ she says. ‘I think people like to drive out to experience our genuine picturesque high street which is mostly populated by independent shops.’

As well as selling gifts, clothing and some upcycled furniture, Marcia also uses the shop to promote the work of local craftspeople and artists, something which Karl Mather of The Mather Gallery also does.

‘We originally opened to showcase the works of my wife, Elaine Mather,’ says Karl. ‘Her reputation grew and so we needed a space where people could come and see them. Now we have a reputation for selling the work of other, mostly North West, artists. I’m actually a European mountain guide by profession but this has now taken over.’

You could say Karl, and Rawtenstall, are now hitting different heights.

How the arts are thriving in Rawtenstall

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