Blackburn Heritage Festival – a Helter Skelter afternoon

Oo I feel a bit dizzy..
Blackburn was a boom town of the industrial revolution and one of the first industrialised towns in the world. But like many a boom town, once the gold rush was over it has struggled to get back on its feet. It lies to the north of the West Pennine Moors on the southern edge of the Ribble Valley about nine miles from the Greater Manchester border.  Blackburn would have been at the heart of those ‘dark Satanic Mills’ depicted in the anthem Jerusalem, using the words of William Blake. In its heyday, weaving was BIG in Blackburn. Wool and textiles were in demand, and James Hargreaves, the inventor of the Spinning Jenny, was a weaver in the town. This last nugget of information will probably be lost on you unless you did the history curriculum at an English school when you were thirteen.
In case you weren’t sure..
This weekend was Blackburn Heritage Festival and we set off to investigate on a sunny September morning along the M65. This particular road was originally conceived as another cross Pennines motorway to relieve the congestion on the M62 but they ran out of interest (and money) at Burnley so it doesn’t go all the way. There has been an attempt at regeneration in Blackburn with a motley collection of retail parks in evidence on the outskirts and the town centre is currently undergoing a full face lift. 
On this weekend the Heritage Festival was gathering momentum to celebrate the town’s proud past.
There were steam engines on Church Street and ladies clog dancing in a rather relaxed manner. Their feet were moving alright but their faces looked like they were in an arm chair at home with a cup of tea and a biscuit. Glee, it was not. 
I am enjoying myself
The Thwaites brewery is still one of the biggest employers in Blackburn and a couple of the beautiful shire horses that used to deliver the barrels are still used for promotional purposes. They are obviously used to being patted and stroked by people and were remarkably calm and tolerant despite the prodding of numerous little hands.


Horse power rules


There was a vintage market which billed itself somewhat optimistically as a ‘carnival of curiosities’ and a character called Twydall Crumblepatch tried to scare me with his dead fox puppet.  Animals, either dead or alive, never scare me. People are the scary things in this world. There was supposed to be a mermaid at the fishmongers in the market but all I could see were a few lacklustre fish  fillets.
Fox off!
We enjoyed the Blackburn and Darwen brass band. The sound of a brass band can powerfully evoke Britain’s industrial past.  If anyone’s ever seen the movie (or the play) Brassed Off you’ll know how moving that can be, there really is nothing quite like it. 


A grand band
We had a look round the Lancashire cathedral which has a very handsome interior and is a mixture of old and modern styles. There was a helpful sign explaining how you could tell whether the service was happy or sad by the colour of the priest’s outfit. This was obviously for religious beginners but I found it very helpful.


What happens at ‘other times’ ?


Blackburn indoor market was voted market of the year in 2012. Although who voted it that, wasn’t specified. There was a lot of Black pudding on offer – a true Lancashire delicacy – and we were offered ‘lean’ or ‘fatty’ back pudding. Traditional black pudding has big globules of white animal fat in it which isn’t really my cup of tea so we opted for the lean version. There was also an inordinately large selection of different pies on offer. We are deep in pie country here and a Wigan kebab involves several small pies on a skewer apparently.


A pie kebab – fantastic!
People from Blackburn seemed generally surprised to see anyone from outside Blackburn making a voluntary visit into it. But once they got over the fact that we were first time visitors they seemed very friendly and wanted to tell us all about the history of the town and about the Blackburn giant, a young man of nearly eight feet in height who had a life in the travelling circus, was a prisoner of war in WWI, and finally succumbed to influenza in a Blackburn hospital aged 29. A theatre group of young Blackburnians were performing a story about him in the town square with a huge puppet, representing the unfortunately large Mr Kempster.


Not looking well, the Blackburn giant..

My favourite thing was the old fashioned red and white wooden Helter Skelter curling up into the sky in the town square. It’s still a fun ride.  Also I loved just listening to the rich and quite unique Blackburn accent with its rich, rolling ‘l’s. Accents are one of the things I like best about our country. Despite us all living in a global village these days, in England, accents can still change dramatically within a matter of just a few miles. They are direct aural links to our past and our history and they can delight and confound the ear.  For example, Blackburn is the home of ‘bawrled  were’ which is ‘balled wire’ to you and me. What, you’re telling me you don’t have regular conversations in which you discuss balled wire? Surely not.  Is Blackburn a Phoenix rising from the ashes? It remains a moot point, but it is certainly having a go at getting out of the fireplace.. 

Old times were good times


  1. Thanks for visiting the Blackburn Heritage Festival and writing such a comprehensive review. We love the "rising out of the fireplace" summary. Blackburn is undergoing massive change and by the time of the festival next year the town will have a new festival square along with new restaurants and shops in the Cathedral Quarter. We would love to welcome you back next year and it would be fantastic to compare the reviews. Keep your eye on Blackburn! 🙂

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