In all the uproar of the last few weeks (war, cuts and terrorism) only a handful of people outside Burnley seem to have noticed that Queen Street Mill is closing.
This small mill on the edge of the moors never had the grandest architecture nor connections to famous people. It is in fact a few sheds, a millpond and a tall chimney on the edge of the Lancashire moors. But what it does have in bucket loads is that most magical of things – atmosphere and more than 300 weaving machines, every one of them in working order, and pretty much as they were left when they locked the doors to the Mill in 1982.
Queen Street Mill is the perfect example of what we lose when we close a heritage site. Because – much as I love words – there are some things that are better learnt – maybe only learnt? – through feel and touch and things, learnt by listening, learnt by feeling, learnt through the soles of your feet and the tips of your fingers, leant by being there in the place where something happened.
And so when we close Queen Street Mill we lose the knowledge of the noise and power of the weaving machines, the sense of all the different parts working together in a clunking, whirring, deafening cacophony of movement. We lose the ability to look inside the cubby hole where the engineers sat and drank their tea, and into the boiler room where the boiler man named the boiler after his wife Prudence. And we lose the ability to step outside and feel how cold it is up there in winter and how icey cold the mill pond looks in the twilight, and how the darkness swallows up the streets from half past four each evening.
‘As many of you will now be aware, your Directors have reluctantly decided that the Company should cease trading and close down its business . . . ‘
Queen Street Mill, started by the Queen Street Manufacturing Company back in the 1890’s was closed in 1982, defeated by cheaper imports from abroad – and then reopened four years later as a place to visit. It’s amazing how fast we all forget. Round the corner from the Mill are the terraced houses of Harle Syke. These were once the workers’ cottages but are now much-sought-after housing for Manchester commuters. We may know the history of Lancashire from books, but do we really know the past until we stand there and feel it?
And to put all this in a bigger context: – the Museum of Marco Polo’s Business Correspondent has been unpicking the Spending Revue and tells us that although the DCMS-funded museums have got off better than expected it’s another story for those funded by the Local Authorities. Here the cut in central government funding will be 56% and although there have been gains – such as the right to keep the money from the sale of assets – this will only help councils who have assets in the first place. Some of our best museums are in the north where money made from the Industrial Revolution was spent on museums that look like Greek temples and have stunning artefacts inside them. (Try Preston or Blackburn Museum, for example.) Now many of these museums sit in post-industrial towns, which are facing big bills from social care and have no assets to sell. And so the winding down of their heritage will continue.
One thing is for sure, there will be other Queen Street Mills.