red roses, grit & northern lights
It’s not the London sprawl; it’s not a Home County; the places we find safety in.
Nor is it that metropolitan. No ginormous city of international, corporate proportions; there’s no Birmingham, or Glasgow, with no disrespect to Preston and its c.100,000+ population.
It’s northern, gritty, hard-working, diverse, scarred, joyful… and by that definition, salt of the earth.
And the Ordance Survery ordains that the Whitendale Hanging Stones in the Forest of Bowland represent the very centre of Great Britain.
Lancashire is a wildly bucolic place with a noticeably sweet, and comforting, farmyard smell hanging on the air; large swathes of rural lowland are given over to crops–spuds, cabbage, kale; milk fields provide crumbly, creamy cheese, and the uncultivated moorlands on higher ground feed beady-eyed, unkempt sheep. A series of rivers drain westward from the Pennines to the Irish Sea; estuaries flow into a bleak, melancholic coastal plain where shrimps, cockles, sea trout flourish; and to the North lie steep limestone scrambles and deep, dark woods. Nearer the key conurbations Victorian brick mills nuzzle alongside canal-side banks in undulating valleys; and the old coalfield stretches down to the outskirts of Manchester; a remnant of powerful industry turned fallow.
It’s a county of broken borders; once mightier, but stripped of 709 square miles, or two-fifths, of its land mass in 1974 (although the historic county palatine boundaries remain). These large swathes were apportioned to Merseyside and Greater Manchester. And with them went rich parts of Lancs cultural heritage: not least the Sixties music legacy, and Corrie. It’s a county that has weathered strikes, picket lines and shutdowns, witch trials, immigration tensions, segregation, race riots… And seaside towns like Blackpool still highlight human hardship: faces obliterated by tattoos, bodies disabled by obesity, tattered guesthouses and simmering anger. This can be a harsh, forbidding and lonely county for many everyday people.
Heritage, power and strong conviction are vital underpinnings of this ancient duchy. The War of the Roses stands testament. Key to the Lancastrian identity is defiance. On George R. R. Martin’s map of Westeros, Lancashire would probably lie somewhere to the south-west of Winterfell which one assumes is Yorkshire. Bloody Yorkshire. But Lancastrians are more Storm Born than Iron Born. After all, it took Margaret Beaufort’s son Henry VII to successfully unify the red and white roses under the great Tudor Rose. In a similar storyline, all 14 of Lancashire’s districts voted for Brexit in 2016. Maybe this is a prediction of positive, unifying change to come; a stoic belief that things will work for the better in the British Isles when we join forces to push forward together.
Lancashire has resolve. There is a strong sense of purpose. Great things have been made there, industries full of people that have helped form the backbone of the UK economy over time. It’s about doing gritty work, hard work, and supporting the making of stuff that works hard. From spindles and looms to aircraft, aerospace and trucks, manufacturing has always been at Lancashire’s heart. And now the landscape is marked by new forms of bio energy creation; from the wind farms at Heysham to farmyard anaerobic digestion. There is a very real sense of progress in the county. Blackburn’s Festival of Making seeks to revive industrial tradition with the promotion of entrepreneurs, artisans and visionaries who ‘have the guts to make’; from embroidered mattresses to craft paper and fusion pies made in front-room factories.
And sturdy planning goes into all this. Note the feisty county council, the guilds and the small trading associations like ESTA–the Ethical Small Trading Association. The county motto is ‘in consilio consilium’–in council is wisdom, and there is a very real sense of a close knit, and practical-minded, community that enjoys getting good civic stuff done. Indeed shiny gongs have most recently gone to Lancaster University – voted The Times & Sunday Times University of the Year 2018 – and Blackburn’s RIBA-awarded bus station.
Quite simply, they don’t like to do things by halves in Lancashire.
Nor do Lancastrians slavishly follow fashion or influence from the States or London, preferring to foster their own regional culture. And in that culture there is huge pride. Craft breweries like Lancaster, The Borough and Bowland, and the larger Thwaites, are omnipresent in the county’s pubs and hostelries. And Accrington’s very own Holland’s Pies (never Pukka, ta) reign supreme as the choice of the discerning chippy. From Eccles cakes and Bury black pudding to tea bags and Fishermans’ Friends, the semiotician will note that all these brands proudly wear the stamp, or hue, of the red rose in some shape or form. Rose red signals that they are ‘Made in Lancashire’ #northernpowerhouse #magnificentcounty #wearelancashire.
Talk to everyday people and you will get a very real sense of community-spirit. The football teams sound like a sporting version of the shipping forecast–Accrington Stanley, Burnley, Blackburn Rovers–full on ‘jumpers for goalposts’ stuff, reminiscent of crowded days huddled on cold sidelines with a chip barm. Possibly because it's a series of small towns rather then big cities with suburbs, or multitudes of villages, families and friends talk of a real banding together. Although suffice to say this spirit has lacked in areas like Blackburn with Darwen where cultural tension is well documented over the years. 31% of Blackburn's 150,000 population are of a BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) heritage, which is more than double the national average ethnic mix. But one senses, and is able to witness, a very real attempt to celebrate multi-cultural vitality and cohesion with, for example, the Blackburn Regeneration Project. Lancs does, after all, claim to be ‘a place where everyone matters’.
A spade is a spade. There’s a directness of speech, a lack of conversational frippery. People don't dress things up, they get to the point, and importantly, don't shy away from difficult or sad topics. And because things don't get dressed up they get dealt with faster, more openly. Although there's also a lot less politically correct speech, we’re assured this isn’t necessarily because people are less tolerant, it's more because there's no point in dancing around an issue when you can just meet it head on. Quit mithering as they say. Get on with it. Make it happen.
And with this directness comes a straight up sense of humour that helps diffuse difficult topics. 'Lankys' are reputed to be of a more jovial disposition than their Yorkshire neighbours thanks to the warmer westerlies that blow in on their side of the Pennines. People love to laugh at everything and nothing. As they say, “It’s grin up north!” And let’s hand it to Lancashire, they do empathic comedy very, very well. From Morecombe & Wise and Les Dawson, to Victoria Wood, Diane Morgan and Peter Kay, to Tez Ilyas, there is a gently deadpan streak in Lancastrian humour that gets us all roaring in the aisles. This is a county of tremendous character from drag queen matriarchs to ballroom dancers who ensure the rest of us Brits always remain lightly entertained.
And the most powerful impression of this county?
It would have to be the wintry northern optimism.
Perhaps the most striking thing about a culture trip here is the chance meetings with mysticism. You can’t help but read stories about the Pendle Witches, the 12 women hanged in 1612 for supposed dabbling in the dark arts on Pendle Hill. And like Hilda Ogden reading tea leaves, you can’t help but notice the kitsch tarot card readers like Gyspy Petulengro on Blackpool North Pier. You might even bump into a medium, or two, now putting their spirit-channelling powers to good use in the wellbeing space. Lancashire, it seems, is looking for orientation; a brighter read on the future. Probably like many Brits in these uncertain times. And, regardless of any hocus-pocus at play, it's in Lancashire’s celebration of light that there is something forward-thinking, and very nordic in spirit. The Lightpool Festival in Blackpool and the whole Light Up movement in the North are emblematic of how light can come out of the dark, breathing life into forgotten spaces, and predicting a warm future for us all. Even the Lumidogs dressed up in fairy lights parading on the promenade leave a sense of joy that this community heartily embraces.
And to that end, Lancashire is quite a revelation.