Getting a bit steamed up

Dark, Satanic Mills.

Grim up north.

Where there’s muck there’s brass.

The stereotypes are many – and not very varied. Belching chimneys and squalid terraced houses. Dark, cobbled alleyways and clogs. Men in flat caps and women in shawls, their Lowry-stick-figures bent against the wind. Whippets. Ferrets. Coal holes.

It’s persistent, the old image of the north of England. Like a stubborn stain.

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Former gravel workings at Brockholes in Lancashire – now home of the Lancashire Wildlife Trust. Not so grim …

About twenty years ago I was chatting to a man who has since made his name and probably his fortune selling guides to places to stay. I was at a book launch, in fact, for his first book.

‘You haven’t got anywhere in Lancashire,’ I quibbled, being a quibbling kind of person, at least where the north is concerned. And knowing that the Inn at – well, never mind – is regarded by those in the know as a jewel in the county’s crown.

‘It’s all just mills up there, isn’t it?’ he said, not really joking.

His book’s geographical definition of the north would have set the teeth of all true northerners on edge. I think (as I recall, through the mist of righteous indignation) it included Cheshire – possibly even Nottinghamshire. And there wasn’t a single place to stay in Lancashire.

Now, as a red-rose-county native, part of me was annoyed, but part of me was secretly pleased. We don’t really want one of the country’s best kept secrets divulged, do we?

Because the truth is that some of the loveliest countryside in England is to be found in Lancashire – and across the Pennines in Yorkshire.

It’s one of the unexpected bonuses of visiting old mills, that countryside.

I used to think it was an exclusive asset of despoliated monasteries and ruined castles. Romantic ruins. But now I realise that old mills have joined their ranks. They all needed water sources, of course, so they often sit in lush valleys or atop romantic hills and dales. Not always – but often enough for pleasure.

Helmshore Mills (see ‘not even a pot to piss in’) was the first mill I visited in a recent flurry of activity – and there I met a man with a snow-white beard who suggested a trip to Bancroft Mill to see the steam engine working. How could I say no?

The mill nestles in picturesque, near-Pennine scenery just outside Barnoldswick, one of those border towns that has sometimes been a dot in the Yorkshire map, but now finds itself in Lancashire.

This mill is not under threat, not yet at any rate, because it’s run by a charity trust. Has been since 1982.

The sound of the machinery is there in the air the moment I step out of the car, along with the smell of wood-smoke and the heavier tang of coal.

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What a din these would have made

WP_20160320_15_58_29_Pro (2)A tall chimney still looms over the remains of the mill – the weaving sheds have been replaced by new housing for local people. But not so long ago, really, in the textile industry scheme of things.

Commercial production ceased in 1978. The Roberts steam engine that had driven as many as 1252 looms, producing up to 200,000 yards of cloth a week for 58 years, ran the mill for the last time that December.

The looms were broken up and scrapped, the weaving shed and warehouse demolished. But some far-sighted local men stepped in at the eleventh hour to save the engine.

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Pendle Council helped to obtain a preservation order for what remained of the mill.

Although much was saved, much was already lost, but by 1982 the mill was able to re-open to the public. Since then, every summer, the volunteers have been getting the old engine steamed up on a regular basis to the delight of experts, enthusiasts and dilettantes (like me).DSCN1475 (2)

DSCN1486 (2)As a dilettante, I can’t regale you with details of engines, weights, speeds or volumes, I have no memory for such things, but the website link’s at the end if you’d like to find out more.

For me, the joy of steam engines, of factories and mills and old buildings is in the sights, the sounds, the people – and the past.

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It gives me pain to re-create the working conditions of children and women and men, to imagine what their lives were like.

So much harder than mine has ever been and with such privations. But I find the machines themselves inspiring.

There’s something about the polished brass, the pistons pumping, the governors governing, the steam hissing, the fire blazing – it all feels so animal, in a metallic kind of way. The smell of oil and coal smoke and sweat – all adds to the anthropomorphic experience.

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A ‘Jacquarette’ attachement operated by punched cards (see right) enables the machine to lift the threads to create the name that runs through the cloth


But I have the luxury of being able to step away. The steam enthusiasts can take their tired, cold bones home to their central heating, operated by a switch.

Local children can have a childhood. Got to school. Not for them the dangerous, dirty, ill-paid toil their ancestors had to endure.

Yes, it’s exciting, seeing the polished brass and watching the great wheel flying, but the grimness is still there, just below the surface.

And it’s not so long ago.

We’re lucky, we are.

But some are always luckier than others, aren’t they?

I’ll leave the last word to Shelley.

“Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number,
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you-
Ye are many – they are few.’

What is Freedom? – ye can tell
That which is slavery is, too well –
For its very name has grown
To an echo of your own.

‘Tis to work and have such pay
As just keeps life from day to day
In your limbs, as in a cell
For the tyrants’ use to dwell,

So that ye for them are made
Loom, and plough, and sword, and spade,
With or without your own will bent
To their defence and nourishment.

‘Tis to see your children weak
With their mothers pine and peak,
When the winter winds are bleak, –
They are dying whilst I speak.”

From The Masque of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when a peaceful gathering of weavers in Manchester, waiting to hear a famous orator speak, was attacked by sabre-wielding cavalry.


Bancroft Mill’s website:

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