Lancashire moors and working cotton mill

Many of you will know that I was born in Lancashire, North West England.  It has many claims to fame, being the home of the Newton Heath Lancashire/Yorkshire Railway Football Club (more recently known as Manchester United) and an old ’60s musical group, The Quarrymen (who became The Beatles).

But geographically and historically, it is known as the land of the “Dark Satanic Mills” – factory chimneys dominating the landscape – the origin of the Industrial Revolution.

Apparently, other places also claim the title of “Cradle of the Industrial Revolution”; of course there was no single event that could be called the starting point. Still, Lancashire was the first region where there was widespread impact, with large numbers of people leaving the countryside and heading to work in factories; the cotton mills.

Even though the age of Lancashire cotton was almost over by the time I grew up (switching first to artificial fibres and then dying out altogether), I did have my first job in a textile factory.

The impact is still there as there remain large numbers of the factory chimneys, which provided the draft for the steam engines, dotting the landscape. Queen Street Mill, near Burnley is the last of the original cotton mills, from the late 19th century.  It still operates, although as a museum, and still produces cotton fabric. It is powered by a single steam engine; the power is distributed to the hundreds of power looms through the factory by a complicated system of rods, belts and pulleys.

Here is the weaving shed:

The Weaving Shed at Queen Street Mill

Imagine the noise in here when these hundreds of looms are going.  Since the whole idea is that a big metal hammer whacks a large shuttle so that it flies across the breadth of the cloth, even one loom is rather loud.  Since the factory started up while I was there last month, I had the privilege of being reminded of how loud they were; even louder than the winding shed I worked in, where conversations involved taking turns yelling into each others ears.

My father was, for a good part of his working life, a fitter; he went round and put the machines up in the factories around Lancashire (and even Poland).  He also worked on a steam engine at another mill.  The mill workers all got holidays at the same time, during which the engineers could bring the engine back up to par.

My dad enjoyed working in the mills, in spite of the noise and dust, for the camaraderie. At Queen Street, the camaraderie must have been particularly close, because this mill was a cooperative.  Unlike most mills, usually owned by a single capitalist family, this one was owned by ordinary people, with the board of directors including several weavers.  When it closed, 92 years later, some of the workers were relatives of the people who built it.

He took pains to let me know that his machines were in better shape than those at Queen Street, but I reminded him that since he was working half a century after these were built, some improvements could have been expected.  Here is the steam engine.  It was quite hypnotic, watching it work.

Steam Engine at Queen St

Those of you used to Detroit’s idea that you need 8 cylinders for power may be surprised that this only has one main cylinder and another smaller one in line with it for the condenser.  How to get smooth power to run this huge mill, with all that friction and the erratic need to hit shuttles?  A huge flywheel is the answer:

Steam Engine Flywheel

Of course, for a steam engine you need steam, provided by a large coal-burning boiler.  For which you need a large chimney:

Factory Chimney at Queen Street
Factory Chimney at Queen Street

In the towns and along the valleys, there were hundreds of these, but although they dominate the landscape, there is no arguing that the Lancashire moors remain a place of beauty:

Moors from Burnley
Moors from Burnley

and don’t forget, we are in the North; Scotland has no monopoly on heather:

Heather on the Trough of Bowland
Heather on the Trough of Bowland






Milkweed freedom day

Although the winds blew many of the leaves off the trees over the last week, the milkweed has been hanging on to its seeds:

Milkweed Seeds
Milkweed Seeds

But today there was a light breeze and they made their bid for freedom:

Milkweed Seeds 2
Free the seeds!

Off to make more Monarch caterpillar food.

On the subject of feed seeds, I don’t know what animal made this cache of pine cones.  Squirrel?  It obviously didn’t know that “cache” means “hidden”.

Pine cone cache
Pine cone cache

Not all the leaves are gone, though. The beech keep their dead leaves all year, and the oaks hang on to theirs for a while longer:

Oak leaves - Poplar background
Oak leaves – Poplar background


For Peat’s Sake – Down the Old Bog Road

Anyone who knows about Ireland at all will have heard of the peat bogs.  Peat is still used extensively for heating.  On our previous trip to Ireland, in 2007, we had a peat fire in our rented home:

Peat fire
Peat fire

It is quite a warm fire and lasts longer than wood, but not quite as long as coal.  Near Clifden, where we stayed on both trips, there are lots of bogs.  One of the roads across the bogs is called “The Old Bog Road”, so naturally, there is lots of peat to be found there.  It is very actively cut.  Here are some piles, drying:

The Old Bog Road
The Old Bog Road – peat, drying.

It is still cut by hand (and foot).  They use something like an ordinary garden spade except it has an extra blade at right-angles sticking forward from one edge of the main blade, so that it cuts the chunk of peat off cleanly.  Here is a face in the bog that they got these piles from:

The Old Bog Road
The Old Bog Road – Peat Works

There is so much burned that when we last went through Limerick, the whole town was blanketed in a thick, yellow fog.  We got lost crossing the road, unable to find the other side because even our fingers were lost in the fog when held at arms length.

The bog is only about 7-10,000 years old, beginning with the end of the last ice age.  Some think it was caused by the advent of humans to Ireland, as we cut down many trees and started cultivating land, which started blocking streams and filling the land with water.  The peat is just thousands of years of growth of moss and reeds, which did not rot away because the soil and water is so acidic.  This preservative quality also leads to many fascinating archaeological discoveries because anything falling into the bog, including humans and other animals, are preserved very well.  In fact, for a while, a lot of the timber used in western Ireland was recovered from the bogs and reused.

Unfortunately, human activity has now used up about 85% of the peat and the rate of cutting is still close to its peak so soon it will all be gone except that there are now conservation areas where cutting is forbidden.  In addition to the loss of the habitat which supports a large number of unique plant species, the loss of all that stored carbon into the atmosphere is a large contributor to climate change.

Ireland’s green echo of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock)

Benbulbin – Ireland’s green version of Uluru

Unfortunately, I’ve never been to Australia, but I’ve seen lots of pictures and that was the first thing that came to mind when I saw this hill standing by itself. We drove all the way around and it looked a bit tricky for a casual climb and in any case it would have been dark before I could get up and back.