“God’s own country.” It’s a bold claim, and one that Yorkshire works tirelessly to make sure we don’t forget. But it can be tiresome to hear about rolling moors, up-and-coming cities and tea bags on repeat. And while England’s largest county has a lot to be divinely proud of, look west instead, to the red rose of Lancashire, and you’ll find its humble rival – largely untouched by tourism and grounded in its own self belief. Humility never meant weakness.
The simple truth is: more people live in the smaller northwestern county (before it was theoretically downsized in 1974, Lancashire was the most populous region after London), and they have done many great things over the centuries. Short distances mean you can see lots of amazing things on a short drive or train ride – even in the colder months.
There’s nothing wrong with Scarborough, the Dales, Harrogate teashops (even with the queues) or mini-metropolises like Leeds; but for your autumn break – Lancashire Day falls on November 27 – do consider swapping “God’s Own County” for a God-given world-class alternative.
Explore the social fabric
The hub of the Industrial Revolution was Lancashire. Between 1750 and 1900 it led the way in canal construction, railway technologies and innovations in textiles; these were supported by the county’s main ports – above all Liverpool, maritime gateway to the world, but also Lancaster and Whitehaven.
From September 29 to October 29, East Lancashire hosts the British Textile Biennial 2023, a festival that celebrates manufacturing heritage, addresses issues such as sustainability and the legacy of colonialism, and provides a showcase for the latest developments in fashion, design and art. This year, contributors from Bangladesh, Benin, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, Pakistan and the UK will present new commissions in venues that include Blackburn’s Cathedral and Cotton Exchange, Goodshaw Chapel up on the moors, Helmshore Mill, the Pendle Heritage Centre and the Whitaker Art Gallery in Rossendale.
Among many others – Afro-Caribbean, South Asian, Jewish, Polish, Welsh and Early Modern-era Southerners – Irish people settled across the region. The Liverpool Irish Festival – the areas to the north of the Mersey form part of the historic county border – runs from October 19 to 29 and features art, film, storytelling, a céilí, walking tours, boat tours, talks, performances and gigs.
Light in the darkness
You might think it’s a bit late in the year to be planning a northern beach break. But Blackpool created the Illuminations or Lights as many Lancastrians call them, in 1879 (when most people in England, including Yorkshire, quite happily lived in the dark) to extend the daytripper and holiday economy beyond the standard British summer.
The Lights used to run from August to November but now provide a full season’s worth of family-friendly visual delight. This year’s six-mile-long installations, which stretch from Starr Gate to Bispham, were switched on by Sophie Ellis-Bextor on September 1 and will lighten up the benighted world till January 1, 2024. They are powered by green electricity from renewable resources comprising of wind, small-scale hydro, landfill and Bio-Gas and 30 per cent of the lights are ultra-efficient LEDs.
To complement Blackpool’s extravaganza, other towns are hosting light-related festivals, including Light Up Lancaster on November 2 to 4, Rivington Festival of Light from October 26 to 28, Astley Illuminated on November 10 and Morecambe’s West End Winter Lantern Festival on December 2. Visit the latter sooner to catch the new Bay International Film Festival from October 6 to 29, a running festival on November 19 or a punk festival on November 17 to 19.
When it comes to sourcing good food during a cost of living crisis, it makes sense to stick with the big names. I’m talking Paris, Milan, Tokyo, San Sebastián and… Clitheroe. Yes, the small, unassuming Ribble Valley town is what links The Parkers Arms, White Swan and Freemasons in Wiswell – that, and the fact they were all in the top ten of this year’s Top 50 Gastropubs ranking, produced by the team that publishes the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurants guide.
Parkers Arms, which was number one in the country, is in Newton-in-Bowland, a village with a population of about 300. You can fully expect metropolitan standards of cuisine in a rural setting. The reason: cheffing talent mainly, but the region is great for produce, from top-notch game, lamb and beef, to Morecambe Bay oysters, Fleetwood fish, Southport spuds and Formby asparagus.
While in town, drop into Cowmans butchers for some of the most famous sausages in Britain – 80 varieties on sale at the last count. Clitheroe is also a pie-making nirvana, and there’s real ale and an acclaimed wine merchant, D Byrne and Co, if you want to keep it posh.
Magic and mysteries
Before mills, mines, canals and roads filled Lancashire with people and pollution, the county was untamed and unloved, feared by outsiders, bypassed by travellers. Roman Catholics and radical protestants took refuge there, as did dreamers and mystics.
There can be few sites in the UK – perhaps the world – as intimately associated with witchcraft as Pendle Hill. To frame this in enlightened terms, we should think of the villages of Roughlee, Sabden and Newchurch as marginal zones where women lived in a way that terrified the powerful.
Halloween takes on special meaning in Pendle Hill, as modern witches and witch-admirers come to pay their respects to past victims and rebel souls. Colne is hosting a family-oriented Halloween event on October 28 and there are bus tours and themed walks. But, it’s probably best (if you’re brave) to just set off up the hill alone and get a feel for the past as the mist drifts in and darkness comes down like a vice.
If that’s too spooky, the low-level, circular Tolkien Trail out of Hurst Green is an enjoyable seven-mile stroll with a different sort of magic at work. The author and his wife often stayed at a guest house on the grounds of Stonyhurst College, where their son, John, was studying for the priesthood. JRR took inspiration from local landmarks while working on Lord of the Rings.
Crowd-free hiking and biking
Being original and an outdoors-type isn’t always easy. Trips to the Lakes, Dales, Snowdonia, even the Peak District, don’t prove you’re a Wainwright (Blackburn-born, by the way) at all. They just show you walk like a sheep as well as among them.
Why not explore some of the North’s less boot-battered paths? Choose from the West Pennines, Winter Hill, Bowland Fells and Manchester’s brooding moorlands. None get the heavy traffic of the Pennine Way or other national trails, and they allow hikers to walk in the footsteps of Lancashire legends like access campaigner Tom Stephenson and Quakers founder George Fox.
For an original cycling experience, aim for the city of Preston. Yes, this young, dynamic, politically free-thinking university-polis was crowned a city in 2002, chosen over the Yorkshire towns of Doncaster (finally allowed in twenty years later) and Goole (still waiting).
The Guild Wheel is a 21-mile walking and cycling route that encircles Preston and provides a link between city and countryside. It’s a great way to explore the lower Ribble canals, ancient woodland, city centre parkland, historic docklands and wildernesses – including the 250-acre Brockholes nature reserve. It’s also a lot easier for mere mortals than a re-enactment of the thigh-busting Tour de Yorkshire.