Celebrating the history of Burnley’s parks

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At the end of this week there is to be an event which inspires this column.

The event is the Forest Park Festival which is to take place in three of Burnley’s parks on Sunday, from noon to 4pm. Let’s hope we get some good weather on the day.

The parks involved are Queens Park, Thompson Park and the Brun Valley Forest Park. The event has been organised by Burnley Council with Trees for Burnley, which is a “branch”, as we like to call it, of Burnley Civic Trust, the Friends of Queens and Thompson Parks and the Friends of Rowley.

If you have not heard of the latter, you are missing something. The Friends are interested in the Brun Valley Forest Park which covers the valley of the River Brun from Heasandford to Brownside, near Pike Hill. Of course, Rowley (pronounced “Rooley” from the ancient spelling of Rhulie) is part of the area covered by the Forest Park. We know it today for its lovely lake but, in the past, the area was merely a “rough field”. A spelling, noted in 1324, is given as “rouley” which means “rough field” from “rou or row” – rough – and “ley” – a field or a clearing in a wooded area.

There are plenty of “rough fields” in this part of town to this day and, although the area has an interesting and varied history, it became somewhat over-industrialised in the late 19th and 20th Centuries. Rowley is close to Heasandford which was once dominated by the huge quarry which provided clays for Burnley Brick and Lime Co’s brick kilns which were on the site of the Victoria Inn, in Queen Victoria Road.

The quarry has now gone and I was not a little concerned when the council supported the building of Burnley Youth Theatre on its site. I need not have worried but there are few people left who will remember just how big the Heasandford Quarry was when it was in use for about 70 years to the 1950s.

Heasandford Quarry was very well known, not only because of the clays that were extracted. Clay deposits are interspersed by coal measures. These carried a wide variety of the fossils typical of these deposits. They were of very high quality and, more importantly, perhaps, they were very accessible. Amateur geologists, and naturalists, would turn up at the quarry in search of fossils which became prized specimens in their collections.

I understand many of the fossils were of plants which, when they died eons ago, fell into the deposits which ultimately would become coal. Lots of local families had such fossil collections, including my own, but now fossil hunting, like stamp collecting, is not as common a hobby as it used to be. These days, fossils and colourful stones can be bought in shops. I visited one, not that long ago, in Bridlington, and I suppose the one I used to see in Whitby is still there.

It was not that mere amateurs visited Heasandford. Geology is, largely, a British science and early geologists knew about the quarry and the Burnley coal seams where they could collect fossils. I have thought that if ever a Visitor Centre was built in the Forest Park, there should certainly be a geology section.

There was, of course, a large coal mine at Rowley. Rowley Colliery dates from 1861 when Burnley’s biggest mining company, the Exors of John Hargreaves, founded in the 18th Century, sunk a shaft to the Dandy Mine. This latter was a seam of coal 310ft down. Later the seam was extended so coal from the Arley Mine, over 100ft deeper, could be brought to the surface.

This information comes from Jack Nadin’s great little book “The Coal Mines of East Lancashire” which was published by the Northern Mine Research Society in 1997. Jack gives an interesting history of the colliery so I will not publish that information here. Suffice it to say Rowley Colliery closed in May, 1928.

It was, of course, worked out, but the history of the colliery does not end there. Rowley closed in the days before nationalisation and it would not be incorrect to say the workings were virtually abandoned. Over a period of time, the underground workings flooded, the water washing out the ferrous materials which are found close to the coal measures. Eventually, the water became a bright orange colour and it found its way into the river Brun which became polluted on a grand scale.

Of course it was not only the Brun that was polluted. As that river flowed in to the Calder it too became polluted and the same happened, to a lesser extent, with the Ribble. In fact, a whole river system, which had once been vibrant with fish, was affected by pollution. It ought to be emphasised that Rowley Colliery was not the only offender. Other coal mines contributed to the problem as did waste from other industries. The impact of domestic waste should not be forgotten either.

For almost 50 years pollution from the flooded workings at Rowley affected the Brun. I recall the clean River Don, and the equally clear Swinden Water, merging into the dirty Brun at Heasandford. It was a teacher at St Theodore’s, when I was at school, who pointed this out to me and I remember being horrified and angry.

It was not until the other great colliery of this part of town, Bank Hall, closed in 1971 that a project was commenced to clean up the valley of the Brun. This has been a gigantic project carried out mainly by Lancashire County Council working with partners including Burnley Council, the Mersey Basin Trust and, recently the Ribble Rivers Trust.

Over 40 years of work has been carried out at Bank Hall. There a park has been created on the site of the colliery. At Rowley, where there was much more to do, work has involved the re-routing of the Brun and the creation of a splendid cascade of water which takes the river away from the galleries at the colliery. Also, at Rowley, the lake has been made and the huge waste heap is being converted into a feature.

This latter has not been completed and it is not open to the public as gases are still being extracted from the site. The gases come from material dumped in the huge colliery tip but, when they have been syphoned off, it is intended paths will be made to the top of the waste tip so walkers can enjoy the splendid views that can be had from the peak.

There are other things to note about the Brun Valley Forest Park. It is rich in the histories of other industries as well. Near Heasandford the remains of a medieval monastic corn mill can still be found. Close to Heasandford House, another early industrial feature can be detected. This is the remains of the water supply to the original Heasandford Mill which stood where the bridge over the Brun now stands, at the bottom of Queens Park Road.

Then there is the modern Heasandford Mill, which dates from 1905, the first cotton mill in Burnley to be powered by electricity. The building was built by the Altham family and still provides the space for the famous Altham Travel Services, founded by one of Burnley’s great Victorian industrial and commercial pioneers, Abraham Altham.

We should not forget the two historic houses of the area, Heasandford House, which dates from the end of the 13th Century and Rowley, the ancestral home of the Burnley Halsteads.

So the Forest Park Festival takes place on Sunday and there will be lots to do in all three parks. I have been asked to tell you about an event that links all the parks – a guided walk, led by myself. It will start at Burnley Central Station at noon and will finish at the Thornton Arms, whenever we get there! Fortunately, the Thornton Arms will be open and we might even catch the barbecue.

Look for the posters which advertise the Forest Park Festival for information about where individual events are to be held. You won’t go wrong at any of the venues – and it is all free!