Withnell Fold - Lancashire's secret village

PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 March 2016

There are still cobbled roads

There are still cobbled roads

Glynn Ward

A haven of tranquillity just a hop away from the busy M65. Martin Pilkington spends the day at Withnell Fold. Photography by Glynn Ward

The last remaining mill chimneyThe last remaining mill chimney

Circumstances, care, and community spirit have preserved the model village at the heart of Withnell Fold as well as any such settlement in the county. And it is worth keeping, as a reminder that not every Victorian factory owner was heartless, and because it is a very lovely spot known to few outsiders.

‘Standing at the stocks looking across the village square, if you take away the cars, and the occasional porch, it could be 1850.

‘Externally, the houses are pretty much the same as when they were built,’ says Boyd Harris, a local historian whose boyhood was spent here.

Both the paper-mill and the village were the creation of Thomas Blinkhorn Parke, the son of a cotton magnate, just 19 when building began in 1843. ‘He was a Methodist and a sympathetic boss to his workers. All the cottages had an outside earth-closet toilet, all had a front garden, and it’s very leafy and green,’ Boyd says. ‘The money he paid his workers was about double the national average, and the women in the 1840s were paid as much as men were elsewhere.’

A lane, the part through the village still cobbled, joins Withnell Fold to the A674 quarter of a mile up the hill, but when the village was built it was the Leeds-Liverpool Canal that brought rags and coal in and shipped paper out. The canal is quieter now, these days the graceful bridges of Parke’s era passed by leisure craft not barges.

The stone cottages Thomas built remain, but most of the mill was demolished in the 1970s. One chimney from an 1854 addition to the factory was saved from demolition and still dominates the skyline and, in keeping with the rest of the place, it is in fine condition, lovingly re-pointed within the last few years.

Many of the buildings that served the plant still stand, however, converted now to very desirable residences. ‘The social centre of the village since 1890 was the old reading room, built by Thomas’s son Herbert. They had all the current newspapers, a billiard table and upstairs there was a sprung dance-floor - my parents came to dances here in the 1930s. And sometimes Kathleen Ferrier played piano here,’ adds Boyd. In fact, she married Bert Wilson who lived at 9 Withnell Fold, now a very substantial family home.

Boyd points out other homes that once fulfilled different roles - a couple of the old stable blocks that housed the horses used to haul goods to and from the canal; the old mill offices and laboratory where his father worked; the mill canteen. Careful development has occurred around the Victorian village, but feels organically linked to it. Parke Mews follows the line of one part of the mill and some large and elegant 1960s houses back onto one of the mill lodges.

The people have changed, but the spirit remains. ‘Everybody still knows everybody else, people stop and talk. Quite large groups do organised rambles together, then go back to the cricket club for tea and cake,’ says Boyd. The playing fields that date from 1904 still serve the village for cricket, tennis and for, the last few decades at least, a place for a social drink – Methodist Blinkhorn Parke would not have approved.

‘In 1966, standing on the cobbled roadway up from the mill at shift change, we’d have been trampled,’ recalls Boyd: ‘The mill emptied, a sea of black as they all shot up to the bus stop. Now the big danger is the school run! It’s a very popular school.’

A very popular place to live too. ‘When they auctioned off the houses after the closure they almost gave them away,’ says Boyd. ‘One of the larger end houses – they were for department heads – went for £500. Even one of the smaller ones would be around £250,000.

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