Pick the odd one out: Route 66; Biarritz to Santiago de Compostela; Burnley to Blackburn. Yes, it’s a trick question, because all of these routes have played seminal roles in history, especially the last one. Overlooked since the last millworker hung up her clogs, the cultural riches of a 23-mile stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal are now being revived by a project called the Super Slow Way – named after a poem set to a libretto by Ian McMillan.
The project was launched in 2016, the bicentennial of the canal, and while stymied by the pandemic, this year it revs up to full speed – about four miles an hour – with the launch of a government-funded Lancashire Linear Park and a host of community-focused events and spaces along the towpath.
And not before time. Even within Lancashire the area is overlooked. While the north, east and west flanks of Pendle Hill boast green and pleasant landscapes popular with hill walkers, the south is densely populated, post-industrial, multicultural and economically deprived. The canal, though, provides an inviting calm space, as it meanders like a river on its journey from Barrowford in the Pendle district, through Burnley, Accrington and Rishton, into the suburban sprawl of Blackburn. Built to service mills and mines, it’s been looking for a new role for more than half a century – the Super Slow Way might just do the job.
You can walk it, cycle it, run it or barge it. Or a mixture of those. Here’s what to look out for en route, however fast or slow you go.
Reopened at Easter after the winter break, Pendle Heritage Centre has displays dedicated to George Fox and the Quakers, the Pendle Witches, social history and the vernacular architecture of Pendle forest; there’s a walled garden, bluebell wood and tea room. Higherford Mill, a spinning mill, built in 1824, houses artists’ studios. The north-light weaving shed, built in 1849, is the oldest such structure in the world. The town also has a 16th-century packhorse bridge, used by packhorse trains carrying coal from nearby Gisburn.
The Good Life Project is a series of pop-up growing and food workshops, while artist Hannah Fincham is leading a project called Eat the Canal which explores how the natural environment can be utilised and food production can become local and sustainable. Hannah is creating a foraging map with markers along the canal so people can (safely) identify edible and medicinal plants. On Vernon Street, Unity Hall – recently rebranded as Unity Well Being Centre – is a former independent Labour party socialist institute; inside is a display about suffragist and pacifist Selina Cooper, part of Mid Pennine Arts’ Pendle Radicals programme. Contact Gary Webb to arrange a visit.
Cotton mill heritage
Many of Lancashire’s mills have been torn down, but Brierfield Mills, built in 1868 on the site of an earlier mill, is still standing. Inside are swanky apartments but you can still admire the Grade II listed building. In Briercliffe, two miles from the canal, the Grade I listed Queen Street Textile Mill Museum still has working looms.
Wetlab Canal Kitchen is a floating laboratory that brings together artists, architects, scientists, engineers, technologists, cooks and members of the public to explore the biological and social ecology of the canal. Workshops are planned at three sites during May and June. One of the sites, Finsley Gate Wharf – at a sharp bend in the canal – is a good place to set off on a hill walk if you need some non-flat exercise. Head south to the top of Crown Point to see the Singing Ringing Tree, a wind-powered musical sculpture, and take in the fine views. It’s 2.7 miles each way, or about two hours there and back.
Coal mining heritage
Today, the stretch of canal between Burnley and Accrington is positively pastoral, but this was once the realm of the Burnley Coalfield. There’s a small mining museum at Smithson Farm and some well-preserved beehive coke ovens (known locally as “fairy caves”) on the Church/Oswaldtwistle border. Coal power has given way to wind farms; look out for the turbines on top of Hameldon Hill. The West Pennines and other outlying hills are popular with fell walkers; runners might want to hook up with the Clayton-Le-Moors Harriers, a long-established athletics club that organises open runs.
Small Bells Ring is an artwork and “living research vessel” based on a beautifully painted narrowboat called RV Furor Scribendi, created by Heather Peak Morison and Ivan Morison. It’s home to a floating short-story library, performance space and writers’ and readers’ retreat. On 25 May, the boat will cruise from Barnoldswick to Rishton with Heather and a volunteer crew. For the whole of June, it will be moored up at Bridge No 108A near the Rishton Library, with a full programme of events. Librarians and local residents here and at Accrington Library – a Carnegie library, opened in 1908, and a source of inspiration for the young Jeanette Winterson – have been trained as tillers.
Homegrown Homespun is a groundbreaking regenerative fashion project created by Great British Sewing Bee judge and designer Patrick Grant and Justine Aldersey-Williams from collaborative community North West England Fibreshed. During spring and summer 2021, they turned unused land in central Blackburn into a field of flax, for linen, and woad, for blue dye. The flax was harvested and retted and some was spun into thread and woven. The group planted again on 16 April on three local sites for a 2022 crop.