Bolton lies ten miles northwest from Manchester, east of Wigan, on the edge of the West Pennine Moors. Once one of the wealthiest cotton mill towns in the world, today it's very much no longer that, more a service-led suburb with a proud heritage. I was in town on Saturday lunchtime, and explored three Bolton icons...[10 photos]
The very centre of Bolton is atypically grand, and one of the very first public spaces in England to be pedestrianised. Victoria Square started out as the town's market place, then in the 1860s proved the ideal gap to plonk a neoclassical town hall. Its baroque clocktower is visible across town, and will reappear in today's post in two paragraphs' time. Round the back is Le Mans Crescent, a top-class 1930s civic addition, named after the most famous of Bolton's twin towns. Its sweeping curves house the courts, police station and library, plus the town's museum, which obviously is where I headed.
The town's museum is alas currently closed while an Egyptian gallery is magicked on the upper floors, so all I got to see were some temporary lesser collections in the basement. Those and the famous aquarium, one of a handful in Britain to contain only freshwater fish. It's neither huge nor in any way modern, but it's always great to be able to pop in and see catfish and piranhas while you're out doing your shopping. The remainder of the town centre doesn't really compare, but that said, nowhere else have I been accosted by Muslims Against Terrorism, two Mormon elders and a free bottle of Ribena in the space of a minute. I also stumbled into a statue of this chap...
If you're of an age, you'll remember Fred Dibnah as TV's go-to steeplejack. He got lucky while repairing the clock at the top of Bolton Town Hall when a BBC North West film crew turned up seeking an interview. His enthusiastic delivery led to the commissioning of a full documentary, which won a BAFTA in 1979, then a series of other shows of an industrial heritage bent. This cheery Lancastrian could often be seen riding steamrollers, dodging collapsing chimneys or waxing lyrical about boilers, there being considerably fewer TV channels in those days. Fred lost his battle with cancer in 2004 at the age of 66, but his memory lingered on after a fan bought up his house in Bolton and opened it up as the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre.
Alas the Fred Dibnah Heritage Centre has recently closed. The owner is seeking to retire, and couldn't find any buyer to pass the collection on to, so last month put the entire contents of the site up for auction. Most of the big stuff went, mostly to fans or museums, but plenty of smaller bits remained and these were returned to sale in a one-off open day the other weekend. And when that failed to shift everything he opened up again last weekend, before the entireproperty is auctioned off next month, and that's how fortunately I got to go inside.
Fred's home was a converted Victorian gatehouse on Radcliffe Road, unusually quirky from the front, and considerably larger from the rear. Out back are an extensive hotchpotch of sheds and workshops, perched on a bluff above a wooded river, creating quite the most adorable place for tinkering. I can't imagine what it was like with all the engines, ladders and heritage machinery lying everywhere, but at least the pithead gear Fred planned to drill his garden with hadn't yet been packed up and trucked away. Instead the workshop was open with the final leftovers, and boy did it feel strange rifling through a dead celebrity's yard sale.
Fred's spade heads, Fred's whiteboard, Fred's surplus masking tape, Fred's chairs, Fred's chock for steamroller, Fred's vacuum cleaner, several of Fred's grimy clamps, all these (and more) lay strewn about. Many were labelled "Make an offer", with the owner sat outside while a handful of us shuffled round mulling over the possessions. A lot of the Heritage Centre's souvenirs were now surplus to requirements, including DVDs and coasters, even branded bodywarmers, but I carried on scouring the worktops for something properly Dibnah. It took a couple of circuits, but finally in amongst the used tools and innumerable spare parts I found what I wanted, a bit grimy and only 99% functional, but perfect all the same. Which is why I am now the proud owner of Fred Dibnah's pocket calculator, and that was my Saturday made.
Hall i' th' Wood
One stop north of Bolton, astride the A58 bypass, is a railway station with the most evocatively Lancastrian name - Hall i' th' Wood. What's more this twin-apostrophe'd curio is a relatively recent addition to the network, knocked up on the cheap in 1986, and earned its name from an astonishing historical building hidden just up the road. Cross the housing estate, pass through a patch of lowly bungalows and there at the top of the park is a Tudor woollen merchant's house, intricately bedecked with black and white timbering. It shouldn't have survived, but a famous invention and a wealthy soap magnate saved it, and the council now maintain Hall i' th' Wood as a museum.
You don't often get to wander around a 500-year-old middle class home, with all its beams and precipitous staircases, so that's already interesting enough. But the set of rooms above the porch was home in 1779 to a certain SamuelCrompton, whose invention of the spinning mule revolutionised Britain's burgeoning textile industry. It built on the earlier invention of the spinning jenny, a first step towards industrialisation, but which could only produce weaker types of yarn. Samuel's hybrid frame generated finer thread, but he never managed to make a profit from it after manufacturers spied on his design, then ripped it off, and he sadly died a pauper.
Step up Lord Leverhulme, founder of Lever Brothers, who was born in the town a century after Crompton and used his influence to buy the house. Hall i' th' Wood became a museum as early as 1902, which saved it from demolition, and both men are now remembered within. The original spinning mule is long gone, neither can you peer into the attic to see where Samuel hid it when anti-industrialisation riots spread across Lancashire. But even if that is only a replica in the corner, to be able to walk into a room that changed the world is always an evocative opportunity.