How building of M65 changed face of Burnley

The canal aqueduct and the M65. Clock Tower Mill, right, January 1980 (s)
The canal aqueduct and the M65. Clock Tower Mill, right, January 1980 (s)

In recent articles, I have been writing about Burnley’s involvement in “The 1715”, the rebellion against the accession of the German George I.

This was 300 years ago but today’s “Peek” looks at something within living memory for most of us.

Construction of the footbridge over the M65  in 1979 (s)

Construction of the footbridge over the M65 in 1979 (s)

It was about 35 years ago, in 1980, that the biggest civil engineering contract ever seen in Burnley was nearing completion.

I refer to the building of the M65, once heralded as the “golden road” that would restore full employment and economic prosperity to the valley of the Lancashire Calder.

We all know this did not happen just like it will not happen when HS2 is built. What did happen was that Burnley, and many the places around the town, suffered disruption on a massive scale and the town lost a number of locally important landmarks which are still missed today by those who remember them.

In fact Burnley was more affected by the building of the M65 than just about anywhere else.

The canal aqueduct in use April 1980

The canal aqueduct in use April 1980

The reason is that, here, the new highway was built through one of the most populous parts of town, Whittlefield. Also affected, in a considerable way, was Gannow and there were other parts of town which were changed almost out of all recognition by the building of the motorway.

I will look at the areas of Burnley transformed by the motorway in a moment, but I want to make the point that elsewhere the route of the M65 did not affect the places within close proximity to it in anything like the same way and, at Colne, the whole project came to a grinding halt which has made the town an undeniable bottleneck which some of us predicted at the time.

I recall the people of the North Valley in Colne opposing the construction of the motorway through their community.

At the time, I understood their opposition but the North Valley was no more important to Colne than Whittlefield and Gannow were to Burnley and as the new road was, at one time, to have made a connection, through the Aire valley, to Yorkshire, it could be argued the benefits of making this connection outweighed the arguments to protect the North Valley.

The railway bridge at Gannow as it was in May 1980. Yatefield Mill and St Mary Magdalene's RC Church, left (s)

The railway bridge at Gannow as it was in May 1980. Yatefield Mill and St Mary Magdalene's RC Church, left (s)

Of course, it was clear the authorities responsible for the motorway, the Highways Agency and Lancashire County Council, were lukewarm about the project. They must have regarded North Valley residents as allies in their stated aim of keeping the costs of building the road down.

Is there a better way to achieve this than not completing the whole project while at the same time pacifying those who wanted the M65 and saw it as East Lancashire’s “golden road”? I doubt it.

When the M65 was first mooted it was planned to be three lanes in each direction. You will know, however, that this did not come to pass and long stretches of the motorway, especially in the eastern section, are only of two lanes. This was criticised from the outset and those who made the most noise in their criticism have been proved right. Two lanes are insufficient at certain times in the day and the points at which three lanes are reduced to two can be dangerous, especially to those not familiar with them.

Another thing which should be mentioned is lighting on the M65. I know the lights have been turned off, at certain times, for some time now and only presently have the authorities, after a series of accidents, decided to restore lighting at the M65 junctions. However, I think I am right when I state lighting on the M65 has never been the responsibility of the Agency. Lancashire County Council has taken this on board and the M65 would not have been built if it had not done so.

However, to get back to the project itself. The building of a Calder Valley Motorway to link East Lancashire to the Aire Valley, creating a much-needed alternative route to the M62, had been mooted for a long period of time. The scheme did not come high enough up the list of national highway projects for it to be started for some years. The authorities decided not to build the M65 all at the same time but in disconnected sections, the last of which was the one around Blackburn which, in hindsight, might easily, given the route, have been the first.

There is a historic parallel here which some of you might not have noticed. When the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, the 18th Century equivalent of the M65, was built, it was the Blackburn section that was the last to have been completed, in this case, 46 years after the first parts of the canal were finished.

Thank God, it did not take 46 years to build the M65! If that had been the case we would still be enduring the effects of the construction process. Mind you, that said, it is my opinion the M65 is incomplete and that, sometime, the North Valley problem is going to have to be tackled to make that connection to Yorkshire which is so important and not only in the context of the over-used M62.

Another thing you might not have thought about is that the two other major civil engineering contracts – the canal, of the 18th Century, and the railway of the 19th – were both completed. The canal actually links Leeds to Liverpool. The railway, when it was completed (ie before Beeching got his hands on it) linked North-east Lancashire to the cities of Lancashire and Yorkshire. The M65 is the motorway to nowhere coming to a sudden halt at Boundary Mill and degenerating into a very annoying traffic jam in, and around, Colne.

When the M65 was constructed, in the 1970s and 1980s, along our part of the route, it had, as the illustrations I have chosen to use today, indicate, an impact on the canal and railway. The canal was undercut by the motorway in the Whittlefield area in one of the most astonishing construction projects undertaken on the M65.

The illustrations I have do not show what happened but the aqueduct which carries the canal over the M65 was built from the top down! Normally a structure like this is built from the bottom up, but the canal was already there and the engineers decided the best way to ensure the continuance of the canal was to build the aqueduct at surface level and remove the material below the new structure, making the aqueduct with which we are now familiar.

Incidentally, in many of the previous projects where a canal was in the way of a new motorway, the canal was often cut off at the point at which it met the motorway. This did not happen here as the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was in pretty good condition and, at the time, was being opened up to walkers and pleasure cruisers.

I know this as it was not all that many years before the coming of the M65 that I, with some teacher friends, produced what was to be my first book. It was called “Along t’ Cut: A Towpath Trail through Burnley” and it was published as long ago as 1977. I am still proud of that booklet and enjoyed working with everyone involved who shared, in a very real way, in what was achieved.

“Along t’ Cut” heralded a new age for the canal in Burnley. Since then the canal has been opened up and it is a real asset for the community. Its importance increases, almost on a daily basis, but that might not have been the case if the motorway had “done” for the canal, as similar projects had done for canals elsewhere in the country.

So, what did we lose when the motorway was built in Burnley? To me the most important thing we lost was the small railway town that was Rosegrove. The M65 goes right through Rosegrove goods yards leaving only the passenger station and a couple of lines whereas, once, there was quite a railway centre at Rosegrove.

I know it could be argued that Rosegrove facilities were already on their last legs when the M65 came. The famous engine sheds had already closed and the goods facilities, like those at Burnley Central, now the site of the Asda store, were decaying, but I still miss Rosegrove as it was.

The next thing I miss is the massive Haslam, or Yatefield, mill at Gannow. This was one of Burnley’s most impressive cotton spinning mills. The building remained in production until 1929/30 when Haslams moved the whole of their spinning operation to Waterside, Colne. The closure in Burnley came as a great shock, especially so because the great Dugdale mill at Lowerhouse closed at the same time.

Many of you will know it took the coming of the M65 for Yatefield Mill to be demolished. In the interim, the mill was used by the now almost forgotten tea firm Brook Bond. Next to the mill was St Mary Magdalene’s RC Church and Schools which I know are missed by locals.

Of course, lots of landmark buildings and streets were lost when the M65 came. The motorway finally did for the Barracks and Barracks Road which was one of the most interesting roads in “Old Burnley”, if you see what I mean.

The coming of the M65 also did for large parts of Padiham Road, especially the Gannow Top area which was a distinctive part of town. Boat Horse Lane was also fascinating and, though its route can still be traced, this, too, is only a shadow of what it once was.

Lastly, Whittlefield was destroyed by the building of the M65. I was talking, only the other day, to a gentleman who remembered Whittlefield as it was. It was a typical mill workers community and it is clear we lost something when the motorway was bulldozed through Whittlefield.

Perhaps it was necessary, the M65, I mean. Possibly, it is incomplete. However, there is no doubt that when it came, some 35 years ago, all our lives were changed.