Sunday, 5 October 2014

Blackburn, Lancashire

The last time I went to Blackburn it was for an interview and I was on crutches.  Funnily enough the crutches meant I really couldn’t go for a wander around the shops after the interview.  This time I was crutches free, so I was free to explore.

You can get to Blackburn from Manchester three different ways: the shorter distance but longer time scenic route through Bolton on the A666; or if you are coming from east Manchester the M60, M66, M65 and off at junction 6; or what we did: M61, M65 and off at junction 4 for the A666.  I wouldn’t recommend the route we took as there was football on at Blackburn Rovers and this route takes you right past the grounds.  However I can recommend that the train is definitely the best way to get to Blackburn from Manchester.

We parked up on the edge of town at a pay and display car park on the corner of Weir Street and Mincing Lane.  Whilst there were not many spaces, it was a pleasant surprise to find out that this car park is free on a weekend – result!

Blackburn is an old mill town whose heyday was at least a good century long gone.  The streets are a mix of Victorian and modern buildings.  King Georges Hall is a pretty impressive Victorian building that spans the length of the street.  The library, although it was being refurbished, looked interesting under all the scaffolding.  The Lloyds bank has really nice Victorian ironwork and architecture too, which was worth photographing.  The council appear to have spent a considerable fortune on street art too.  It looks impressive, but there is possibly a little too much of it.
I noticed a handmade gift shop on a side street that did really nice pretty things made by local artists.  It was so new I could smell the new paint and there was no name above the shop.  I’m sure it was part of some initiative to get new businesses into the town centre.  Many of the other small shops in Blackburn are fast food places, so it’s nice to see something different on offer to local shoppers.

As we walked up Mincing Lane we caught sight of a florist which was named ‘Petallica’, which made us laugh.  I really hoped the owner was a heavy metal fan with a shop name like that.

There are still a number of Victorian pubs open.  One of these pubs has been renamed Bar Ibiza and had fierce looking, heavily tattooed blokes having a cigarette outside.  I think they must have been waiting to watch a football match on the TV.  In fact having tattoos seemed to be a big trend in Blackburn.  The most notable one I saw was on a burly, bald bloke looking after his kids – it was a large tattoo of Freddie Mercury on his arm complete with crown and autograph.  Not what I was expecting, but the guy must have been a committed Queen fan.
Obviously we were here to check out the charity shops and normally I double check my smart phone for the addresses of these places.  However this was impossible as the mobile signal in Blackburn is pretty ropey.  Normally in northern towns you can be pretty much guaranteed a 3G signal and 4G in cities, but Blackburn was cruising between no service and GPRS.  So we winged it instead and probably missed half of them.  I really liked Rebound, which is a bookshop-cum-cafĂ©.  The lady upstairs was chatting to a customer about her weight loss tablets.  It was good to see there was a real community vibe going on.  We pottered through some other shops, but Neil didn’t find anything and I regret not buying a rather nice Denby coffee jar I saw.

We headed into the Mall shopping centre and I managed to pick up a patchwork book for £1 in the Waterstones sale.  The Mall seemed to be the main draw for Blackburn as the outlying streets were very quiet and the Mall was teaming with families and screaming kids.  Blackburn is a rather multi-cultural town and this was self-evident in the market, which is in the basement of the centre. 
Often in northern towns the markets are housed in purpose built Victorian buildings, but in Blackburn they had built it in the shopping centre basement.  I have to say I was mightily impressed with this market as it didn't feel like I was walking through a market.  It didn’t have self-contained boxed in units, which gave it an airy and light feel.  It was more like walking into a nice supermarket with lots of fresh and interesting produce on display.  Weirdly it reminded me of the Whole Foods Stores in the USA.  The TCK Deli was doing some seriously good business and was definitely the most popular food stall.  It does halal food, but the whole community seemed to use it which is great to see.  Whilst I hadn’t been overawed by Blackburn at this point, this place really made me think that markets still have a place in the 21st century.  Just by altering how you present a traditional market can breathe new life into it by bringing in light and having modern fixtures.  Top marks to the Market!

I’m a bit of a magpie at heart and when I see something sparkly I gravitate towards it.  This time it was the golden carving above the door to the cathedral - it was so distinctive and eye catching.  We decided to have a wander around the cathedral and it’s different from most Church of England churches we have visited.  Whilst it looked rather traditional from the outside, inside there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on.  Interestingly it had modern art huge canvases on the walls depicting the Stations of the Cross, which zinged of colour.  I’d seen this done before at the Hidden Gem in Manchester and I think its fab to embrace the modern in such a traditional space.  There was an organist playing very avant-garde music on the organ.  Whilst most of the windows had clear glass, in the centre above the altar there was abstract stained glass, which cast coloured light into the church.  In addition, there was a crown of thorns that encircled the perimeter of the altar. As we were walking down the aisle there was a modern representation of Jesus on the cross.  Now I’ve been to many churches and have seen some very modern ones, but this one really stood out, not just for all the modern art, but something else.  I spoke to one of the helpful volunteers and he pointed out that one of the main differences this cathedral has is the amount of light the windows let in.  That was what I couldn’t put my finger on and it really doesn’t half make a difference to the place.  Interestingly this place wasn’t completed until 1977, although parts of the church date back to 1826, which explains why St Mary the Virgin and St Paul’s has embraced so much modern art into its building.
Initially I hadn’t been that impressed with Blackburn as it looked like an average northern town on first viewing, but on further investigation things are not as they seem.  It’s clear that there is a move afoot to bring Blackburn into the 21st century whilst honouring the past, which I really think they have got right in both the market and the cathedral.  However they seriously have to sort out that mobile signal. Obviously there is still a whole lot of work to do in Blackburn and it will take decades to realise, but Blackburn has made it to my revisit list and that’s a good thing.