End of an era as manager of Burnley's Towneley Hall who was responsible for putting it in the TV spotlight steps down after two decades
"A heritage asset of exceptional significance."
There couldn't be a more fitting description of Burnley's Towneley Hall and Ken Darwen is the hall's custodian.
But in March he will retire from his role as manager after two decades during which he has transformed Towneley Hall from a rather staid museum to a stately home that hosts hundreds of exhibitions and events, runs family based activities and attractions and, most significantly, has been the venue for around 300 weddings.
This includes Ken's own wedding in 2019 to his partner, Michael. And Burnley born actress and former Coronation Street star Julia Haworth also held her nuptials at Towneley Hall.
"I was only ever a temporary custodian and I feel the time is right to pass on the mantle to the next generation," said Ken.
He came to Towneley from Granada Television where Ken carved out a career that led to him rising to the position of head of corporate sales. Originally a shoewear designer, Ken fancied working in the hospitality industry and was just one of 40 successful candidates out of 4,000 applicants to work at the Granada Studios Tour.
He actually had to audition for the role and proved to be such a natural Ken was chosen to be part of the team who took care of the all the VIP visitors who included Prince Charles, Margaret Thatcher and Norma Major.
Ken applied for the role of manager at Towneley Hall when he saw the job advertised in the job centre of his hometown of Rawtenstall. Rich in history and home to priceless antiques and works of art, the hall was the home of the Towneley family from around 1200.
In 1901 one of the daughters, Lady O'Hagan, sold the house together with 62 acres of land to Burnley Corporation and the family left in 1902. Burnley Council still own the hall and Ken said its support has been invaluable as he has worked to bring more visitors through the doors.
The figure stands at 60,000 a year at present and, with the many major events Ken has organised Towneley Hall has attracted thousands of visitors.
Ken said: "The remit for me was to come up with plenty of ideas that would bring people through the doors, events that would attract families and bring the history and beauty of the hall alive. It has had to move with the times.”
One of the most popular events is the mouse hunt where children have to find tiny wooden mice hidden around the hall through a series of clues.
An exhibition of football shirts through the years also drew a staggering 6,000 visitors.
The Burnley Business Awards are held every two years at Towneley and it is also the venue for many civic events and Ken has introduced guided tours for schools and groups from outside Burnley to show off the halll.
Thanks to Ken's connections the Antiques Roadshow came to Towneley in 2013, a real coup, and it also regularly hosted the BBC 2 panel programme Antique Masters.
The National Association of Flower Arrangers has held several events at the hall, attracting thousands of visitors from across the UK. Towneley Hall has also been the setting for a number or period dramas including Casnova, the 2005 drama starring Peter O'Toole and David Tennant.
Ken, who is 66, was responsible for setting up a team of volunteers who act as guides to visitors to the hall. There are currently 24 in the team. He also paid tribute to the Friends of Towneley Park and the Towneley Hall Society who work tirelessly fund raising for the benefit of the hall and the beautiful grounds.
Ken's retirement coincides with a major programme of repairs at the hall that could last until 2024. The extensive repair work includes alterations and repairs to the North Wing roof and reconstruction of the parapet to the west elevation of the West Wing. Repairs and conservation works to the roof, stonework, rainwater goods, windows and internal plasterwork are also needed.
Ken said: "It really is the end of an era and the beginning of a new one for my successor who will bring with them their own ideas for the hall."
Ken is planning to do some travelling when he retires and also plans to volunteer with his local hospice and the Rawtenstall Civic Pride group.
And it's certainly not a final goodbye to Towneley Hall for Ken as he has agreed to return to help conduct guided tours.