Pick the odd one out: Route 66; Biarritz to Santiago de Compostela; Burnley at Blackburn. Yeah, that’s a trick question, because all of those roads were instrumental in the story, especially the last one. Forgotten since the last carpenter hung up his clogs, the cultural riches of a 23-mile stretch of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal are now being revived by a project called Super Slow Way – named after a poem to a libretto by Ian McMillan.
The project was launched in 2016, the canal’s bicentenary, and although it’s stalled by the pandemic, this year it’s going full throttle – around four miles an hour – with the launch of a linear park from the Government-funded Lancashire and a host of community events and spaces along the towpath.
And not before time. Even in Lancashire, the region is neglected. While the northern, eastern and western flanks of Pendle Hill offer pleasant green landscapes popular with hikers, the south is densely populated, post-industrial, multicultural and economically disadvantaged. The canal, however, provides an inviting quiet space, as it meanders like a river on its journey from Barrowford in the Pendle district, through Burnley, Accrington and Rishton in the suburban sprawl of Blackburn. Built to serve factories and mines, it’s been looking for a new role for over half a century – the Super Slow Way might just do the trick.
You can explore it on foot, by bike, by running or by barge. Or a mixture of these. Here’s what to look out for along the way, whether you’re going fast or slow.
Reopened at Easter after the winter holidays, the Pendle Heritage Center features exhibits dedicated to George Fox and the Quakers, the Pendle Witches, social history and vernacular architecture of Pendle Forest; there is an enclosed garden, a wood of bluebells and a tea room. Higherford Mill, a spinning mill, built in 1824, houses artists’ studios. The Northern Light Weaving Shed, built in 1849, is the oldest such structure in the world. The town also has a 16th century pack horse bridge, used by pack horse trains carrying coal from nearby Gisburn.
The Good Life Project is a series of pop-up culture and food workshops, while artist Hannah Fincham leads a project called Eat the Canal which explores how the natural environment can be used and food production can become local and sustainable. Hannah creates a foraging map with markers along the canal so people can (safely) identify edible and medicinal plants. On Vernon Street, Unity Hall – recently renamed the Unity Well Being Center – is a former independent Labor Party socialist institute; inside is an exhibit on suffragist and pacifist Selina Cooper, part of Mid Pennine Arts’ Pendle Radicals programme. Contact Gary Webb to arrange a viewing.
Cotton heritage mill
Many Lancashire mills have been demolished, but Brierfield Mills, built in 1868 on the site of an earlier mill, still stands. Inside are chic 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 in May and June. One of the sites, Finsley Gate Wharf – at a sharp bend in the canal – is a good place to hike 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 beautiful views. It’s 2.7 miles each way, or about two hours round trip.
Coal mining heritage
Today the stretch of canal between Burnley and Accrington is positively pastoral, but it was once the domain of the Burnley Coalfield. There is a small mining museum at Smithson Farm and well-preserved beehive coke ovens (known locally as “fairy caves”) on the border between Church and Oswaldtwistle. Coal power has given way to wind farms; look for the wind turbines at the top of Hameldon Hill. The West Pennines and other outlying hills are popular with walkers; runners may want to connect with the Clayton-Le-Moors Harriers, a long-established athletics club that runs open races.
Small Bells Ring is a work of art and “living research vessel” based on a beautifully painted narrowboat called RV Furor Scribendi, created by Heather Peak Morison and Ivan Morison. It houses a floating news library, performance space and retreat for writers and readers. On May 25, the boat will sail from Barnoldswick to Rishton with Heather and a crew of volunteers. Throughout June she will be moored at No. 108A Deck near Rishton Library, with a full schedule of events. Librarians and local residents here and at the Accrington Library – a Carnegie library, opened in 1908 and an inspiration to the young Jeanette Winterson – were trained as tillers.
Homegrown Homespun is a revolutionary regenerative fashion project created by Great British Sewing Bee judge and designer Patrick Grant and Justine Aldersey-Williams of the North West England Fibreshed collaborative community. In the spring and summer of 2021, they turned unused land in central Blackburn into a field of flax, for flax, and pastel, for blue dye. The flax was harvested and retted and some was spun and woven. The group replanted April 16 at three local sites for a 2022 harvest.