Since moving to the former heart of the Industrial Revolution, up in the North of England, I’ve become fascinated by our industrial heritage. Where I live in the Calder Valley, the hollow remnants of old mills still dot the landscape, but there’s little sense of what these places were once like in their heyday. Worse still, this important link with history is fast vanishing; forgotten ruins crumble away out of sight in wooded valleys. Industrial buildings left standing in cities are turned into empty apartment complexes by developers seeking to capitalise on ever spiralling house prices, or are simply flattened to make way for bland modernity.
So when I learned there was a steam powered, working textile mill in the form of a museum just across the border in Lancashire, I jumped at the opportunity to go photograph it while I still could. Inevitably I suppose, George Osborne’s axe looms large over the place – it’s destined to close in April 2016, as local government funding is diverted to try and keep essential public services operating. I’ll avoid delving too deeply into politics here, but this kind of shortsighted cultural vandalism, forced by the Tory obsession with gutting the state, makes my blood boil frankly.
If you’ve seen historical pictures of old mills you’ll have no doubt come across scenes like the one above. Rows of ungainly looking contraptions with masses of drive belts criss-crossing above them. It’s an impressive sight – even more so when the line shafts above your head start to spin and the room full of century old machinery springs to life in a deafening din.
The museum employs a number of skilled crafts people, who demonstrate the weaving looms and various pieces of supporting equipment. They even still make a few items which they sell in the museum shop. You can see some part woven “terry towels” below along with a loaded shuttle, the thing that noisily gets whipped back and forth to supply the horizontal threads.
Beyond the grandiose machinery, the mill is packed with fascinating, authentic details. An utter delight for a photographer – or indeed anyone wanting to get a flavour of the past, not sanitised by our modern health and safety obsessed culture. No glass display cases or signs warning of trivial and obvious dangers to obstruct your view. Most of the equipment on display is still working and in situ, just waiting for the appropriate switches and leavers to be pulled to bring it back to life.
Being a true old textile mill, rather than a purpose built museum with a few immaculate specimens preserved in some metropolitan centre, the grime and cobwebs are real rather than stage dressing.
The stationary steam engine that powers the mill is an incredible thing to behold, especially when it’s running. All that separates you from it is a friendly warning sign and a strip of black and yellow tape on the floor.
I was surprised at quite how musical it sounded, producing various beats and thumping rhythms as it came up to speed. The vibration of the massive piston shaking the floor beneath my feet as it flew back and forth with a curious mix of engineered grace and violent force.
Beyond the engine itself, the engine room yielded some lovely details – like the tool shelf and plaque pictured below.
Of course to work that engine needs steam – a lot of steam. That is produced in the boiler room downstairs, in the last working Lancashire boilers in the world.
The fireman feeding the boilers with coal needs to keep a constant eye on the water level and pressure. Both being critical to the safe operation and longevity of the equipment. The boilers themselves were state of the art in their day, employing many tricks so as to be as economical and efficient as possible.
The shot below shows the view from above the two massive boilers and the snaking pipework that feeds the steam out and fresh water in.
I had high hopes for the Queen Street Mill and I have to say I wasn’t disappointed. That it’s closing so soon is a real tragedy. I really hope somewhere down the line it gets reopened to the public and isn’t simply left mothballed until it falls too far into disrepair.
If this kind of thing interests you at all, I strongly recommend taking this last chance to go see it in person. You can find the opening times and directions here.
All images were shot on my new X-T10 with mainly the 35mm f2 and 14mm f2.8. As usual, if you like my writing and would like to help support me and the site please consider buying a print on my on-line store or through Etsy.