Touring ’bout my generations: a photo-essay

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Panoramic pic of our campsite in Great Langdale. The table reveals evidence of our typical level of preparedness – we failed to check the level in our gas bottle but at least we had a back-up, pound shop burner for a cuppa. 

One of the best bits about a holiday is the journey home. We had a few very happy days in the Lake District last week, camping amidst glorious mountainous scenery, allowing our Patterdale terrier Maude to get overexcited by sheep, and reading lots of books. The journey up was grim – a vehicle fire in the roadworks at Knutsford, plus a complete closure of the M6 at Lancaster. But the journey home is always great, there’s no time pressures, we go off the beaten track to find stuff (as my better half calls it, “the see-wheres”), and there’s a comfy bed at the end of it.

This time we took a detour to find some of the sights I had found out about in the recent series about Lawrence Britcliffe. Lawrence, an eighteenth-century ancestor of mine, is probably the most infamous of the Briercliffe line – in 1739 he committed a murder in a drunken rage at the Holme Wakes, ran away to sea to escape but eventually returned home and died on the gallows at Lancaster Moor. We actually got distracted on the way, however, by another site from Briercliffe history – Abel Street, in the Daneshouse area of Burnley.

111 Abel Street was occupied by William and Susan Briercliffe and their eight children. Regrettably (for me at least), it seems that house has been recently demolished, at least since 2009 when Google Street View’s capture dates from. It’s now empty green space with new homes opposite. This is modern day “slum” clearance I suppose – the houses are certainly boarded up and grim looking on Google, but actually the surrounding streets were bustling and full. This is one of the most deprived, as well as most densely Asian-populated wards in the entire country (90.85% Asian or British Asian in 2001), and there seems plenty of life. Quite to what extent these small but solid homes had been abandoned, and to what extent their abandonment was thrust upon them, is disputable and complex. Either way, I never got to see William’s house.

William moved into Burnley to work at the mills – probably those that lined the Leeds and Liverpool Canal just yards to the west of the house. They’re all gone now, leaving the endless acres of gridded housing so typical of cotton towns like Burnley. The one that does remain is the preserved Queen Street Mill in the former mill village of Briercliffe. This seemed temporarily closed when we arrived but beware – it’s a potential for permanent closure. A glance at the changing street layouts shows the village’s absorption into the bigger town. The terraced streets around Queen Street Mill remain, sometimes cut through or bounded by ancient landownership and rights of way. The 20th century advance of Burnley can be seen in the curving roads of detached homes off both sides of Briercliffe Road. These are typical mid-to-late century developments: not the geometric planning of inter-war but an artificially organic-feeling mixture of crescents and cul-de-sacs.

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The millpond at Queen Street Mill, with Burnley in the background.
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Queen Street’s glorious chimney. This is one of the last standing in a town once covered with them.
Briercliffe from the air (possibly an Aerofilms pic? This is from the Briercliffe Society website, along with a key)

The actual homelands of the Briercliffes requires pushing further East out of the town and onto the Pennine moors overlooking the Trawden valley. The 17th-century Burwains House was home to many generations of the family before and after its completion in 1642 – today it’s hidden away and unsignposted – I think this might be a picture of it from the road.

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Burwains House, possibly?

I lacked the courage to knock on the door and attempt to reclaim my rightful heritage. Perhaps next time. What I can tell is that the Briercliffes are a moorland people. This area was beautiful on a sunny July day but I imagine it’s thoroughly bleak in the winter. At the end of the road is a designated “Scenic Spot” (Denis Wood would have a field day with this – read his chapter on the North Carolina state road map), but the description is apt – overlooking the valley of the Thursden Brook this is a peaceful and beautiful place. No wonder the pre-Roman inhabitants built up here, and no wonder my ancestors were happy to claim this land as their own. An excavation in 1950 in ‘Burwains Camp’ dug up a flint axehead produced from a so-called axe factory in Great Langdale, its journey following our day trip, just 2500 years earlier.

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Looking West from the “scenic spot”.

As we trundled through country lanes to Worsthorne, we are high up (although still only really in the Pennine foothills). Almost from every spot we can see the defining geographical feature of the area, Pendle Hill. The A682 between Gisburn and Nelson gives some particularly good views, but it dominates the area. It’s Eastern face is sheer and dark, in shadow even at midday. It’s no wonder to me that it has inspired folklore and visions and casts a shadow over the region’s history as well as its geography.

Worsthorne is another attractive village built from Pennine limestone (you can keep your Cotswolds); after this we enter Meresclough. The house on the corner was possibly the site of Lawrence’s home. We join the A646 running from Burnley to Todmorden through Holme Chapel and our next stop: lunch. You may recall that Lawrence’s murder took place at the Holme Wakes. Before the church of St John the Divine was built by Thomas Dunham Whitaker, vicar and general patron of Holme (which became Holme Chapel after the church was built). Before his time (1759-1821) Holme was a typical Lancashire moor village with its Wakes week in the summer at a spot close to the Ram Inn. So you can guess where we ended up for lunch – the Ram is still open and served us a very nice lunch indeed overlooking the nascent River Calder and Dodbottom Wood, where Lawrence hid after his crime. The valley is very dramatic – great outcrops of rock loom all along the road to Todmorden and again, is likely very bleak at times. Much of the greenery in Holme now was the gift of Whitaker too – in Lawrence’s day it would have been still bleaker.

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The Ram, Holme Chapel – still good after 300 years.
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Lunch at the Ram.
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Dodbottom Wood from the Ram’s car park. I think this is likely where the Wakes were held and the woods behind where Lawrence fled to. The train line runs along the back now, but in 1739 he would have been free to cross the Calder, hide in the woods or in the nearby caves in the rocky valley, then flee over the hills to wherever he went next.

Our onward journey took us from one Calder to another: that through Holme Chapel rises just South-East of the town and flows to the Irish Sea via the Ribble; cross the railway line and you’re crossing the Pennine watershed as another Calder rises close by and flows to the North Sea via the Aire and Ouse. By the time we reach Todmorden we’re in West Yorkshire. The route was probably familiar to Lawrence – his mentor David Crosley was born here and there was likely significant local cross-border connections even before the railway line.

Back over the county divide to Bacup – site of Crosley’s Ebenezer Chapel at which Lawrence certainly did spend time. It was also the site of the famous funeral address to thousands of locals, preached by Crosley. Then to Rochdale, a much more sizable town (also home to a branch of Briercliffes) and from thence home. Apologies to Katrina Navickas but we didn’t stop at Rochdale and to be honest, we weren’t tempted. None of the charm of the smaller Pennine mill towns here, with their warm yellow stones, viaducts over markets, and washing strung across streets. Most likely the view from the A58 didn’t do it justice…

I didn’t know whether to expect to feel anything visiting these places. And thinking about it, I don’t know if I did. I’m glad to have been, if for no other reason than to find that it’s a very beautiful part of the world – surprising to most (me included) who didn’t expect much from Burnley. I love the moors, the feeling of height way above what would once have been a pall of smoke from the mill chimneys, where nothing but sheep and the odd horse rider wander. Even though I’m no hiker or fell-runner I always long to be up in the hills somewhere. I’m certainly looking forward to exploring these ones again. I didn’t feel a mystical connection with the ancestral world beyond my historian’s curiosity, but I think I probably am glad that theirs was a beautiful world.

2 thoughts on “Touring ’bout my generations: a photo-essay

  1. Enjoyed your tale of Lawrence Briercliffe and his sad end. I do no think that you mentioned that Whitaker said that John of Hecklehurst was himself a profligate and was seen at his gate, at the moment of his death being taken away on a ghostly black horse! I don’t know how this jibes with his being a religious man. Whitaker liked to see the dark side, so this may not be true, however, his family certainly were diminished. Have you seen Dinely Farm inhabited by his son William Britcliffe and our mutual ancestor? Do you have any information about later generations of Britcliffes? June Edmonds


    1. That’s very interesting June, thanks – I clearly need to read Whitaker more, that’s a fantastic description!

      I haven’t been to Dinely – I shall put it on my list of travels, thanks for the recommendation. I don’t have a lot of info about later Britcliffes as yet, however it’s very much on my to-do list…


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