to 29 Feb Bob Lord: Burnley Born & Bred
to 29 Feb Cross-Stitch Exhibition
What to see
You’ll find accounts of Burnley’s tourist attractions in Towns of Two Halves (and of 91 other places: order the book now for £8 from firstname.lastname@example.org). For additional information plus shopping, eating out etc there’s Visit Lancashire or Burnley.co.uk.
Comment and colour
When I read somewhere that Burnley’s claims to fame included a fine collection of marbles, I was prepared to be disappointed on Burnley’s behalf. If a few glass alleys was all they could find to say for the place…
But these are not marbles that would be contested in the school playground. No, we’re talking about marbles of the kind Lord Elgin would have borrowed. In Burnley, at Towneley Hall, are Discobolus, the discus thrower (though not Discumbobulus, the baffled discuss thrower); Clytie, the blousy wench; and many others. The British Museum has most of the collection, including the proto-mibster Astragalizontes the knuckle-bone player, but Towneley has Johann Zoffany’s painting of the collector, Charles Townley, among his treasures – and plenty of the pieces illustrated.
The Townley Marbles were first displayed in London in 1778 after several shopping trips by Charles to the Continent. When he died in 1805 the British Museum bought them and put them on show in newly-built galleries. But the arrival of the Elgin Marbles in 1816 put them in the shade. Apart from anything else, Townley’s pieces were not from classical Greece – most were copies made by Roman sculptors in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
Charles was by no means the first notable Townley (or, prior to that with the now restored vowel, Towneley). In 1746 Francis Towneley was convicted of sedition against George II and beheaded. Francis had raised a regiment in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The Towneleys down the ages were Catholics of great determination. In the reign of Elizabeth I, for “professing the Apostolic Catholic Roman Faith”, John Towneley was imprisoned successively in Chester, London, York, Hull, back to London, Oxfordshire, Ely and finally, at the age of 73, to a form of house-arrest at Towneley Hall. Fined repeatedly for not attending Protestant church services and charged with his own maintenance during imprisonment, his costs were estimated at £5,000 – a tidy sum in the 16th century.
One of the less surprising features of the Hall, then, is a priest hole. In fact the only surprise is that it isn’t bigger. The entire family, for several generations, might have needed to shelter there.
Towneley Hall’s volunteer staff are exceptionally good with that kind of detail and will make sure – without being pushy – that you get as much from your visit as possible:
* In the Great Hall, they’ll show you the mark on the ancient table on which distant generations played shove-ha’penny (or farthing, or groat, as the case may be)
* On the way to the Family Dining Room, they’ll suggest you pause in an unlit antechamber to let your eyes become accustomed to the dimness: for here are the oldest complete set of pre-Reformation high mass vestments in the country
* And they will point out the origin of the expression ‘sleep tight’ illustrated in one of the bedrooms off an exceptional Long Gallery.
A stuffed bear presides over a staircase; in the art gallery, a live great tit is quietly looking for a way out. There are other bonuses in the exhibition rooms: Stuart Roy Clarke’s Homes of Football when I was there; a moving commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the WWI armistice; some Egyptiana. And then you’ve got the café, and the grounds – a visit to Towneley is time and money well spent.
Towneley Hall has a ghost, naturally – it’s a particularly Lancastrian elemental known as a boggart. Harry Potter fans will know the word, but it’s also part of English folklore. It’s such a frankly funny word that the idea of a boggart offering any kind of menace is difficult to take seriously. You only have to say boggart repeatedly and people will begin to laugh. Mention, for example, that the Boggart Hole Clough park in north Manchester was home to several boggarts, and that nearby residents would discuss the malign doings of their local boggart, and the sting is drawn. And that, of course, is when the boggart is at its most dangerous. Another Burnley boggart lived under a bridge, and anyone crossing the bridge must give the boggart a living creature or forfeit their soul. What the boggart would do with the soul is not known. Nothing good, you can reckon.
Another Burnley distinction is the Straight Mile. There are plenty of Golden Miles, more or less tarnished, in England: Blackpool’s sea-front, a row of shops in Leicester, a race at Goodwood and, apparently, an impromptu urinal at Cheltenham. The Straight Mile is a section of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal running along the east of the town centre. It’s known as one of the seven wonders of the British canal system.
The canal’s encirclement of Burnley is odd. If it were a river, Burnley would be said to sit in a meander. The canal approaches roughly along the line of the railway from the direction of Accrington. It takes a sharp right-hand turn to skirt the western side of Burnley, then more than 90° sharp left into the Straight Mile, trending easterly through Thompson Park on the town’s northern side and then it continues roughly along the line of the railway. It goes round three sides of a square. But it manages this with no locks, while the railway needs about 400 metres of viaduct to cut the corner off.
Thompson Park is worth a mention, not least for its 7.25” gauge miniature railway. Queens Park, across the canal and the Nelson road, has bowling greens, sports pitches, skate park, cycle track, playground, cafe and an arboretum.
The Straight Mile flows into what is known as the Weavers’ Triangle, a neat variation on the modern urban obsession with Quarters. The Visitor Centre is just down the road from Manchester Road railway station, and the ‘Triangle’ describes an irregular quadrilateral in the southwest corner of the town. The Visitor Centre has displays, tableaux, a working model fairground and the Inn on the Wharf. Not far along the canal is Oak Mount Mill, where an original mill engine (now adapted to run on electricity) can be seen in action on a few days a year.
Downtown Burnley is highly individual. It has the grand public buildings of many a northern town, but some of them have an oddly hunched, Egyptian look. The cluster at the base of Burnley’s Civil Servants’ Triangle is a curious collection. The library is Beaux-Arts with a roof like a squashed step-pyramid. Off to the side the old Burnley Building Society headquarters is a bunker with Greek adornments. Across the square – in which there are memorials to Diana Princess of Wales, and to prisoners of conscience – the Magistrates Court could be a low-slung mill but for its mighty Greek entrance (although the website Legal Cheek named it one of the 12 most charming court buildings in England and Wales, and captioned its picture: ‘When Britain was great’). Around the corner, the Mechanics Institute is a palazzo with a Corinthian portico. The Town Hall, set apart slightly higher up the hill, is described as being in the Renaissance style with three storeys (and a basement).
To the north of the town is Woodend Mining Museum, recalling another significant part of Burnley’s industrial past.
Further out from the centre – in fact halfway to Nelson – is the Queen Street Mill Textile Museum. According to Lancashire County Council (in October 2018) the 35-metre high chimney needs strengthening and so only the weaving shed is open to pre-booked visits.
And halfway to Bacup is the Singing Ringing Tree. This remarkable sculpture, 3 metres high and made of galvanised steel pipes, takes the form of a tree distorted by the wind, in which it hums absent-mindedly. Completed in 2006, it won the National Award of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) for architectural excellence the following year and has been voted one of the 21 landmarks that best define Britain in the 21st century.
Surprisingly, it can take a bit of finding on a gloomy day. Don’t expect anything as helpful as a sign with a large arrow pointing to a Singing Ringing Tree; the signs from the A682 indicate a ‘Tree Panopticon’ and point up an unpromising lane called Crown Point Road. Eventually there’s a small car-park at the foot of a short path to the sculpture.
(This is a chapter from Towns of Two Halves. To read about other football towns, order the book for £8 from email@example.com)