If you think of a ‘girlie weekend-away’ where do you imagine going? Maybe a luxury spa break in a country house hotel? Or a city break with lots of shopping and eating out? Possibly a quick jaunt off to a foreign capital or sunkissed beach? What I bet you won’t think of is a couple of days in one of England’s least known industrial towns in the north of England. Well, ladies and gentlemen, I give you Burnley, in the heart of Lancashire on the edge of the Pennines. A group of us ladies of a certain age stayed in a Travelodge (or was it a Premier Inn?) on the edge of town and had a great time!
Situated about 20 miles north of Manchester, Burnley is a microcosm of what this hard-working, down-to-earth area of northern England is all about. Originally a small farming community, ‘surrounded by manor houses and royal forests, it has held a market for more than 700 years. During the Industrial Revolution it became one of Lancashire’s most prominent mill towns; at its peak it was one of the world’s largest producers of cotton cloth and a major centre of engineering.’ (Wikipedia) Its name probably derives from ‘Brun Lea’, after the River Bru.
We met at Gawthorpe Hall built by the Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s and now owned by the National Trust. It houses a unique collection of textiles including historic needlework, lace, embroidery and costume, collected by the Hon. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth. I first visited this house with my Mum many years ago. She loved needlecraft and was fascinated with the superb exhibitions on display here.
We spent a fascinating time in Queen Street Mill and Textile Museum, the world’s only surviving 19th century steam-powered weaving mill, situated on the edge of town, surrounded by rows of terraced houses and old-fashioned corner shops. It was one of many cotton mills constructed near the Leeds Liverpool Canal, vital waterway to transport goods to and from the Lancashire mill towns.
It provides a riveting glimpse of a time when industry was at its height in Britain, times were tough and engineering ingenuity was vibrant. It was also incredibly noisy. The weaving shed has over 300 Lancashire looms and you can still hear them clattering and rattling away weaving cloth as they did for almost 100 years.
The whole factory is still powered by a huge steam engine called ‘Peace’, a favourite of Fred Dibnah. The Boiler House, Engine Room and Chimney are Scheduled Ancient Monuments and are sure to delight children, steam lovers and anyone who appreciates beautifully constructed machinery. The steam engine was being repaired when we visited so do check if it is running when you visit.
The museum tells the story of cotton weaving with regular demonstrations to show how it was done. I bought a natty cotton apron made from quality material produced by those noisy, historic, important machines.
On Sunday morning we walked up to the very quirky Singing Ringing Tree, situated on Crowne Point, overlooking the town and distant Pennines. Panopticons are unique 21st-century landmarks erected across East Lancashire, from Blackburn to Pendle. It was a windy day and the metal pipes send out an eerie tune rippling across the landscape, creating an evocative soundtrack to Burnley’s rural backdrop.
We then went on to nearby Townley Hall, set in 440 acres of beautiful parkland with a children’s playground, trails and country walks. The house is a Grade 1 Listed building, dating back to the 14th century with elegant period rooms, a Victorian kitchen, marble sculptures, textiles and decorative arts and a local history displays. There’s also an excellent art gallery featuring romantic and Pre-Rafaelite paintings.
The Long Gallery has impressive dark-wood panelling (I think it’s Elizabethan) and a massive, intricately decorated four-poster bed in one of the bedrooms. We saw the famous Towneley Bear, the Egyptian mummy and peered into the Priest’s Hole – this was a staunch Catholic family home for hundreds of years. Invaluable 15th century Whalley Abbey Vestments are on show and there is also a rather gruesome relic of one of the family in the chapel. We ended the day in the excellent cafe, where we feasted on soup, toasted sandwiches and big wedges of cake. A really grand Lancashire weekend
It is good to see Burnley getting some positive press. Although born in what is now Cumbria I grew up in Burnley, am an old-boy of the much-lamented Burnley Grammar School for Boys (killed off by educational reforms after four hundred years), and in my teens lived overlooking the parkland of Towneley Hall.
Your excellent article highlights three of the area’s visitor attractions but, if I may, I’d like to add another attractive feature. Although you make passing reference to “Burnley’s rural backdrop” the splendid walking country surrounding the town deserves more mention. Pendle Hill is just one example. This is the area where Wainwright cut his teeth, or should I say muddied his boots, as a precursor to his years of Lakeland walking.
I am slightly biased towards Lancashire, as I was born here (tho Southport is now in Merseyside – pah!) but there really is such a lot to see. The county often gets overlooked by its neighbours Yorkshire and Cumbria, but like all real gems, its treasures are well-worth searching out 🙂
Hi David – delighted to feature Burnley. You;re so right about the scenic delights of the area and Pendle Hill is a fav from childhood. Dad used to take us up there and scare us with tales of the Lancashire Witches. I’m hoping to feature them later in the year 🙂 In this article I just wanted to feature where we visited on that particular weekend and hopefully encourage those who love culture and history to try somewhere new!
That Panopticon looks like something from space!
It sounds like that too Alex! Woudl be interesting to see the others around East Lancs.
A really interesting insight into a part of the world I’ve never visited. Loved the singing, ringing tree!
Another rather more off-piste suggestion for your clients Linzi!
Gawthorpe Hall looks beautiful. I cannot believe that it was built in the 1600s. Thanks for sharing this post!
Brandon, it’s one of the historic houses in Lancashire that retains many its original features. The needlework on display is also very impressive 🙂
Update January 2017: really disappointed to learn that Queen Street Mill & Textile Museum is now closed to the general public. Cutbacks of some sort no doubt but such a shame as it is an invaluable part of Lancashire Heritage.