Situated about 20 miles north of Manchester, the Lancashire town of Burnley is a microcosm of what this hard-working, down-to-earth area of northern England is all about. Originally a small farming community, "surrounded by manor houses and royal forests, it has held a market for more than 700 years. During the Industrial Revolution it became one of Lancashire's most prominent mill towns; at its peak it was one of the world's largest producers of cotton cloth and a major centre of engineering." (Wikipedia) Its name probably derives from 'Brun Lea', after the River Bru. On the edge of the town, surrounded by rows of terraced houses and old-fashioned corner shops is Queen Street Mill and Textile Museum, the world's only surviving 19th century steam-powered weaving mill. It was one of many cotton mills constructed near the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, vital waterway to transport goods to and from the Lancashire mill towns.
It provides a riveting glimpse of a time when industry was at its height in Britain, times were tough and engineering ingenuity was vibrant. It was also incredibly noisy. The weaving shed has over 300 Lancashire looms and you can still hear them clattering and rattling away weaving cloth as they did for almost 100 years.
The whole factory is still powered by a huge steam engine called 'Peace', a favourite of Fred Dibnah. The Boiler House, Engine Room and Chimney are Scheduled Ancient Monuments and are sure to delight children, steam lovers and anyone who appreciates beautifully constructed machinery. NB The engine was being repaired when we visited so do check if it is running when you visit.
The museum tells the story of cotton weaving with regular demonstrations to show how it was done. I bought a natty cotton apron made from quality material produced by those noisy, historic, important machines.
There are plenty of other interesting places to get a feel for Lancashire heritage. Grade 1 Listed Townley Hall, dating back to the 14th Century, has elegant period rooms, a Victorian kitchen, marble sculptures, textiles and decorative arts, an Egyptian mummy, local history displays and an excellent art gallery featuring romantic and Pre-Rafaelite paintings. My favourite part of this big house is the long gallery, which has impressive dark-wood panelling (I think it's Elizabethan) and a massive, intricately decorated four-poster bed in one of the bedrooms.
Keep your eyes peeled for the famous Towneley Bear and the Priest's Hole - this was a staunch Catholic family home for hundreds of years. Invaluable 15th century Whalley Abbey Vestments are on show and there is also a rather gruesome relic of one of the family in the chapel.
With an excellent cafe, 440 acres of beautiful parkland, children's playground, trails and walks so something for all the family, come rain or shine. On the outskirts of Burnley is Gawthorpe Hall, built by the Shuttleworth family in the early 1600s. It houses a unique collection of historic needlework, lace, embroidery and costume, collected by the Hon. Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth.
Don't miss the very quirky Singing Ringing Tree, situated on Crowne Point, overlooking the town and the distant hills. 'Panopticons' are unique 21st-century landmarks erected across East Lancashire, from Blackburn to Pendle. On a breezy day, like the one when we visited, the metal pipes send out a rather eerie tune rippling across the landscape, creating an evocative soundtrack to Burnley's rural backdrop.
You can read Zoë Dawes‘ entertaining articles on her travels around the UK and abroad in her award-winning blog The Quirky Traveller where she shares favourite places off-the beaten track. Follow her on Twitter @quirkytraveller and ‘like’ her page on Face Book. More Visit Britain articles by Zoë Dawes