Saturday morning. 6.40 am.
Birds are chirruping, the sun has got his hat on, the sky’s forget-me-not blue. Try as I might, I can’t pretend I’m sleeping.
I give up, get up and prepare for a weekend jaunt.
Queen Street Mill, the last 19th century mill in the world still weaving cotton on looms powered by steam, is working today. It’s in Burnley, Lancashire – and it opens at noon.
I print out a map, fire-up Ms SatNav.
‘Fast, short or ecological?’ she asks, all innocence.
In no hurry, we opt for short.
I soon begin to wonder if I accidentally selected ‘Tardis’, Dr Who’s time-travelling machine. Because not far into our journey we start heading for Earnshaw Bridge.
Earnshaw Bridge is a something-and-nothing kind of place. But if your family name happens to be Earnshaw, it becomes a point of honour to hunt it down. We did, some time ago. Don’t need to do that again.
We motor on by.
Find ourselves in the town made famous by Leyland motors. There I spy, with my little eye, a Commercial Vehicle Museum (don’t worry we’re not stopping).
In the yard stands a shiny, old-fashioned fire engine – from Blackburn.
I feel a tremor of nervous excitement. I lived in Blackburn till I was seven. Looks like we’re heading that way.
There’s a sign for Pleasington Priory – we used to go to Mass there, sometimes. I liked to play in the graves filled with green glass pebbles – and was threatened with a smack, when I got home.
Now we’re passing a sign to the cemetery where my mother buried my father’s ashes. In the wrong grave. (He didn’t want to be cremated, which puts that error into perspective.)
Oh no – here comes Cherry Tree.
Sounds harmless, I know. Pleasant even. But it’s a place I revisit in the dark hours of the night, feeling pangs of guilt after more than 20 years. I brought my mother here to view some sheltered accommodation the day before she went on holiday with a friend. It depressed her – ruined her holiday. Sigh.
On into Blackburn.
It’s changed hugely since we left. I’ve been back, but only to see our old house, avoiding the rest.
But little Ms SatNav doesn’t care a fig for my sensitivities. She takes us right through the centre.
As we roll along Barbara Castle Way (MP for Blackburn from 1945-1979) a small sign points left, uphill.
The school gave my father a life-changing scholarship – and a job as history master to compound it.
At last we pull up beside a fine stone building. A little steam seeps from a red brick chimney, joining puffy, scudding white clouds.
Tea and cake set us up for a long visit.
A siren wails – the steam engine’s powered up. The looms in the main weaving shed clack and clatter into life. Deafening.
Two things strike me as we read, watch and listen.
One, the massive interdependency of industries that made a mill work.
In my native Blackburn, for example, as well as cotton mills, there were shuttle makers and manufacturers of machinery.
Wood, metal, coal were essential – as was water.
This mill’s atop a hill with no water source and relies on rain and run-off. Outside, the ‘lodge’, or reservoir, is today doing an impression of an impressionist painting.
Without water the engine can’t run, the weavers can’t weave, the master won’t pay.
John Ward, a Lancashire weaver, wrote in his diary on 28 August 1864: “There were 30 mills stopped this last week in Blackburn for want of water”.
Just imagine the hardship.
Which brings me to the second striking thing: these working people’s livelihoods hung by a thread as slender as the cotton they wove.
Graeme, our guide and expert weaver, tells us how women weavers – each tending several looms – looked out for each other. They were all ‘aunties’ who’d help out in times of trouble, tending others’ children, covering for ‘bathroom’ visits.
I travel back in time, again, to Blackburn, counting aunties. I had two real aunts, Edith and Madge. Madge frightened me – the only time I recall meeting her was in her house, a place my memory paints darkly.
I had cheerier aunties in Nell, Tisbeth, Irene, Dorothy, Barbara – a dozen at least.
Auntie Barbara lived next door.
One day, a friend who had that most enviable of playthings, a swing, said I could play in her garden when she was out.
My friend’s father had an aviary. The aviary door was open. I stepped in and the door shut.
I couldn’t get out.
I wailed, cried, called for my mummy.
Auntie Barbara came and let me out.
Long after we moved across the Pennines, when I was between school and university, I worked as a ‘relief assistant housemother’ in children’s homes. The children called me, 18-year-old me, auntie.
But I digress. Queen Street Mill made me realise what a sense of community we’ve lost with our fences and gates, blinds and locks.
We need our heritage, it tells us things.
Which is why Queen Street Mill is a ‘Grade 1’ (top grade) listed building.
Lancashire cotton kept the bread on Britain’s tables.
Between 7 and 8.30 am, it was said, its weavers made fabric for domestic consumption, the rest of the day it satisfied the world’s needs.
It was, arguably, the engine of the nation.
This mill’s the last working 19th century cotton mill in the world powered by a steam engine.
And it’s due to close in September.
Our Government has savaged Lancashire County Council’s budget. The five museums closing are just the tip of an iceberg. The savings from closing them are reported to be £1.13 million in 2017-18.
Yet, hundreds of miles away, the new London Mayor presses ahead with plans for an unnecessary garden bridge, requiring £60 million of taxpayers’ money, plus £3.5 million for annual maintenance.
And the industrial north?
Well, we’ve been promised a Northern Powerhouse. And I really believe it’ll happen.
Yeah. And pigs might fly.
Get me out of here, Ms SatNav.
I’ll be putting more pictures and information about the mill itself on my Maid in Britain blog site. I got a bit angry after we went to the other mill museum threatened with closure – if you fancy reading that post again it’s here: Helmshore Mills
If you’d like to sign a petition to try and keep them open please do sign this one:
Andf you know a millionaire philanthropist with a soft spot for industrial history, please pass this on 😉