Bolton Town Hall: only 11 years older than Bolton Wanderers

What to see
You’ll find accounts of Bolton’s tourist attractions in Towns of Two Halves (and of 91 other places: order the book now for £8 +P&P from Amazon). For additional information plus shopping, eating out etc there’s Visit Bolton.

This weekend…
For events coming up go to Visit Bolton‘s Events pages.

Comment and colour
This is the story of how Bolton Wanderers come to be known as The Trotters:-

Northerners are famously friendly and welcoming and will put the kettle on for a stranger at the drop of a hat. Remember that kettle – its part in the tale is not finished.
Northerners are also notoriously competitive, especially in local rivalries. For example, this is a chant said to have been heard at Spotland, Rochdale, to the tune of Que Sera Sera:

When I was just a little boy,
I asked my mother what would I be,
Should I be Bury, should I be Dale,
Here’s what she said to me.

Clean your mouth out son,
Fetch your father’s gun,
Shoot the Bury scum,
Shoot the Bury scum.

Selim Rothwell’s ‘Trotting’, Bolton Library & Museum Services

So a Bolton welcome to someone from a nearby town might not be joy unconfined. On the contrary, according to a painting in Bolton Museum, it could easily involve unpleasant deceptions. The picture records a trick played in the Swan Inn on a visitor from Rochdale. The bet was simple: who could abide his leg in boiling water the longest, the Swan regular or the man from Rochdale? In the picture the Bolton man is calmly smoking a pipe. He looks a little like George Washington in Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, except that his right leg is in a bucket up to mid-calf level. His rival seems to be bearing the ordeal with fortitude but it looks as though he has only just plunged his foot into the bucket. The trick was that the local man had an artificial leg. And this was known as ‘trotting’.

As an explanation it sounds unpersuasive, doesn’t it? If the drinkers looked more ruffianly, you’d think it might disguise a more violent reception. Who in his right mind would put his foot anywhere near boiling water, whatever the bet, whatever the threat to civic pride? And why ‘trotting’ rather than ‘hopping’? It’s just as likely that some sort of forerunner to Only Fools & Horses (possibly involving Denzil) was enacted in the picture.

Also in the Bolton Museum is a display, a shrine of sorts, devoted to Nat Lofthouse, the legendary Bolton Wanderers and England forward of the 1950s. The photographs and memorabilia make the point forcefully that it was a different era, but more telling yet was a letter written to the Guardian after its obituary of Nat Lofthouse in early 2011.
The writer recalled hoping – as a young lad in 1958 – to see his hero at the opening of a sports shop in north Manchester. But hordes of people had turned up. The boy’s friend had a brainwave: Nat lived in Bolton and would have to change buses at Radcliffe; therefore they could intercept him at the Radcliffe bus-stop. “It was market day in Radcliffe and the bus was packed with housewives, laden with shopping bags,” the letter continued. “But there in among them, sure enough, towered the Lion of Vienna, brilliantly Brylcreemed and neat and tidy in his belted-up fawn mac.”
The story will resonate with all football supporters. Footballers still do promotional work, of course, but not many would travel to such an engagement on two buses. In 1958, two lads knew where their hero lived and how he travelled. This is why fans still have a weakness for players ‘with the common touch’ – but the touch has become less common with the passage of time.

Bolton Museum: wonderfully creative

Bolton Museum, then, is well worth a visit. Apart from the attractions above, it also has on the premises an aquarium and an art gallery.

‘Henle’s Spotted River Rays, which lay around on their sandy bed like so many carelessly discarded bonnets’

Bolton Aquarium concentrates on freshwater tropical fish. The most decorative tank, for my money, contained Law’s Malawi Cichlid in its blue-and-black Inter Milan stripes and the Neon Yellow Malawi Cichlid; but the most exotic were Henle’s Spotted River Rays, which lay around on their sandy bed like so many carelessly discarded bonnets, occasionally ruffled as if by a breeze.
The aquarium keeps fish of the Madagascan Damba species that are now extinct in the wild. It makes the point that, if rainforest environments were to be sufficiently restored in Madagascar, rivers might be restocked with fish from Bolton.
Upstairs in the gallery different treasures are to be found. And in such variety: two Warhol polaroids, a Hockney etching, a Turner, Edward Lear, four Epsteins and a Barbara Hepworth. The Bolton-born American artist Thomas Moran and his wife Mary Nimmo Moran are represented, and Moran’s painting Evening on the Upper Colorado River in Wyoming is the antithesis of parochial. It wouldn’t be out of place in a collection of the golden age of American landscape painting.
Other specialities?
* Bolton’s netsuke collection – small, carved ornaments, usually ivory or wood – is a considerable surprise.
* The Egyptian galleries are outstanding, not least for some modern interpretations: Egyptian influence on design, for example; and the creative thinking that brings stuffed birds out into a display of Nile wildlife; and atmosphere, in a spectacular recreation of a tomb.
* The Worktown photographs, the result of a 1930s mass observation project.
Local history is stitched into the textile industry, and Bolton can claim two great pioneers: Samuel Crompton, inventor of the spinning mule, lived in Bolton and Richard Arkwright, of spinning frame and factory fame, moved from Preston to Bolton when he was an 18-year-old wig-maker.
Crompton’s home is now another Bolton museum, called Hall i’ th’ Wood, to the north of the town. The Tudor hall “has had a chequered past,” the brochure says; but ‘chequered’ doesn’t really do justice to its black-and-white timber framing, and the Jacobean stone extension looks solid and reliable. Inside, the museum retains some of the feel of a family house.
Slightly east of Hall i’ th’ Wood is another Bolton mansion/museum, Smithills Hall. This may not have quite the historic associations of Hall i’ th’ Wood but it lacks nothing in ghost stories.

Fred Dibnah: the Dibnah heritage centre is closed but the legend lives on

Midway between here and the town centre (or, to put it another way, between the town centre and the Macron Stadium) is the Bolton Steam Museum . “The largest collection of working mill steam engines in the UK,” it opens on Wednesdays and Sundays, but the engines tend to be working under steam only during Bank Holiday weekends.

(This is a chapter from Towns of Two Halves. To read about other football towns, order the book for £8 from

Also in Bolton:
Bolton Heritage Trails

Shree Swaminarayan Sidhant Sajivan Mandal