Nelson has got it going on. I don’t think that’s the strapline the Town Council use – but they should definitely consider it.
This East Lancashire town (which takes its name from a pub and not the Napoleon-bothering Admiral, in case you were wondering), sits at the foot of the beautiful and brooding Pendle Hill – and is only a hop, skip and a jump from some of our most spectacular northern countryside in the Forest of Bowland AONB.
For fans of Mass Transit Infrastructure, there’s also an embarrassment of riches: The M65 whizzes through the outskirts of the town, connecting Preston and the M6 directly to North and West Yorkshire. The railway (that once continued to Skipton) moves travellers with ease to Manchester (and the world).
The third artery in this transport trilogy is the Leeds Liverpool Canal. Since its arrival in the early 1800s, the town has grown up around the silver ribbon of life that snubbed its nose at the impenetrability of Pennine hills, as it moved the building blocks of the Industrial Revolution from the East to the West and back again.
Today coal, cotton and limestone have been replaced by tourists, anglers and dog-walkers – and the canal is also an integral component of an innovative and community-strengthening cultural development programme.
The people that are ‘Super Slow Way’ are making much more than ‘ripples’ along a 20 mile stretch of the canal’s route, from Pendle in the east, through Burnley and Hyndburn, to Blackburn in the west.
Established in 2015 – Super Slow Way (SSW) was galvanised by results from the [then] latest ‘Taking Part Survey’ [a nationwide survey to measure engagement with cultural services]. It highlighted that the Arts Council was predominantly funding activity that was accessed by middle-class people.
Consequently, specific funding was made available in the areas that saw the lowest 10% of audience engagement with cultural activity.
The Local Authorities across a significant patch of East Lancashire qualified for the funding – so after a lot of consultation – they got together to apply to access that pot of development money. In 2016, £2,000,000 was awarded to create an Audience Development Programme to work with communities to build creative engagement with the arts.
The funding from the Creative People And Places Programme could not be managed by an ‘Arts’ organisation, so working with partners, including the project hosts – the Canal and River Trust – SSW created a robust and innovative network that almost immediately brought positive change to its communities.
Eight years on and one of SSW’s key projects The Ripple Effect, has just launched it’s 2023 programme of activities.
The Ripple Effect project is community-led. Ben Pearson from SSW works closely with a community steering group – and it’s the community who decide how the funding is spent. Initial ideas have included creating a Community Hub where local people can come together to enjoy a range of activities from eating, growing and walking to water-sports.
Kate Kershaw, the Communication and Programmes Manager from Super Slow Way explains: “Partly thanks to a Post-Covid fund – we did a lot of community consultation about what would help the community recover from Covid. [East Lancashire suffered massively throughout the Pandemic].
“Places for the community to come together – and things for the young people to do were the big take-aways. The steering group are currently planning the next 18 months of activities.
“As well as programming new activity, we wanted to bring existing organisations together – so we could amplify what was already taking place. A [Lancashire-based] water-sports provider was already doing great things. There was really good stuff going on – but not joined up.”
Nelson has also secured ‘Town Heritage Fund’ money – a strand of which is called ‘This Is Nelson’ – and this is also embedded into the idea of partnership working – to create a coherent offer for the community, which creates opportunities around health and wellbeing, eating and growing. In essence: that is The Ripple Effect.
Kate: “One of the things that came-up early on – is the two things that link all the communities is the Canal and the Textile Heritage. There have been some issues with community cohesion across the patch and there is a feeling that (as in many places), different sections of our communities now live separately – but the thing that brings everyone together, is that everyone is here because of the textile heritage – and the canal is something everybody uses. So lots of SSW’s focus has been on those two things.
In 2017 SSW established the utterly outstanding British Textile Biennial. This ground-breaking project has now secured additional Arts Council funding and is about to float off as a separate organisation, that can only reinforce East Lancashire’s position as a culturally vital part of the North.
In 2022, the idea of a 20 mile-long ‘Linear Park’ was also piloted – and has seen a diverse range of activity taking place along the canal. ‘Levelling Up’ funding from the Community Renewal Fund allowed SSW and partners to explore the possible development of a Linear Park.
Kate: “As a model we looked at High Line in New York and Emscher Park in Germany. We had a great summer of activity with that – and a bit of a departure for us – because we’re an arts organisation – and we predominantly commission artists to work with communities, whereas over the summer we found ourselves doing lots of canoeing and growing – but that’s been good in terms of developing partnerships in the area and encouraging engagement."
The very best examples of grass-roots activity took place, including the production of this fantastic film - produced in collaboration with Huckleberry Films:
“We also commissioned a landscape strategy working with BDP. [An organisation that works internationally to create sustainable community spaces]. We carried out 4 Green Book analyses across the sites [Treasury guidance on how to appraise policies, programmes and projects]. That then allows partners to go back to central government with oven-ready projects.
“In the political landscape – the levelling-up agenda has slightly changed. We want people to engage – and have lots of consultation – but we can’t guarantee projects will happen without the money.
“The Super Slow Way – our bread and butter work – is running cultural programmes across the patch. Arts engagement is still central to that. Ben spends much of his role planning the Linear Park programme.
“There was a concern we might be diverted from our core mission – but as routes in for the community – and where they all overlap, it is an interesting place to be – and a place where you can engage lots of people. And ‘growing’ is a creative activity.
“There’s also Small Bells Ring - The Library Boat. Very much a cultural project.”
‘Small Bells Ring’ is a project co-created by the community of Hyndburn and artists Heather Peak & Ivan Morison: A floating public library of short stories which encourages readers & writers to step on board a sculptural narrowboat called The RV Furor Scribendi.
Kate confirms what should be obvious to everyone: that there’s a great deal of overlap now – and with over 10k people engaged across summer ’22 and an evaluation exercise that was extremely positive [in terms of working with the right people] - lots of ‘deprived’ communities along this section of the canal – had come out and participated.
Kate adds: “We’ve worked with 200k people in the last 8 years. But last summer we worked with communities previously not engaged. It’s very positive.
“Because it’s on the doorstep [the canal]. Because its related to them - related to their world. And something about it being Post-Covid – perhaps people used the canal for exercise during covid – who hadn’t previously. There are definitely more people using the canal and recognising the value of the space.”
Yet another example of the inspirational work that SSW are programming was a spring project in Hyndburn. Canal-side Coke Ovens in Oswaldtwistle – known locally as the Fairy Caves (and looking a bit like Tellytubby hills), are a remnant of East Lancashire’s mining past. Last used in the 1930s, the ovens were listed as an ancient monument in 1977 and there is a great deal of local pride around them.
SSW commissioned a lighting project with ‘Things That Go On Things’ (Manchester) – and lit the ovens so they appeared as they might have when active.
Kate confirms it was a complicated project, staged over two nights in April. Organisers anticipated that perhaps two hundred people would come. “We had 2000 people over 2 nights. We did very little promotion – the Local Authority were nervous about numbers.
“Visitors were moved by the work that had been done. We were told: “Things like this never happen around here. We love this heritage – but nobody’s ever highlighted it and shown what it can be.” It was a small intervention – that made people see that their space was valued – and that was a huge thing.
“In terms of artistic interventions – that was a really key thing that made us think – ‘if we could do this along the stretch – it will make a massive difference to people’.”
Super Slow Way’s core work is funded on a 4 year cycle. The Ripple Effect project currently has funding for its 2 year pilot. There is little doubt that the communities of East Lancashire can prove the need for the programmes. But Ben and Kate are working tirelessly to source funding.
January has seen the start of what will be a regular programme of activities for The Ripple Effect. SSW is currently working with UCLAN School of Architecture who specialise in co-designing community spaces – and together they’re exploring the designs of pop-up spaces that could potentially move on wheels or by floating.
Community conversations have also identified a need for some kind of Pop-Up Café on the canal. With high density housing all around, the green and blue canal space in the middle is often where people look for semi-rural access.
As we talk, Kate introduces Mash Hussain – who is a member of the steering group and also the Youth And Community Lead at Marsden Heights Community College. Mash is central to keeping students not only engaged – but invested in their community. The Ripple Effect launch day is testament to his efforts – and relationships with many of the town’s young people.
Mash: “ By programming activity that reaches everybody - and sometimes that means doing things that appeal to a particular group, the hope is that we find stuff that appeals to all (both) because it’s in that, that community cohesion happens – when people come together in spaces they wouldn’t normally be in – to have conversations.”
Kate continues: “We did a big project ‘Shapes of Water…Sounds of Hope’ at Brierfield Mill – and that was for the whole community. Suzanne Lacy is an American artist – and she came and did lots of community conversations in different spaces around Nelson and Brierfield – and one thing that came out of that was: ‘When everybody worked together in the mill – there wasn’t the same issues – because that was the space we came together. And when the mills closed down – everyone retreated back to their different communities.’ There were no spaces where people come together, which is why she did the project in the mill…to bring everyone back together.
“We need community spaces that are welcoming and appeal to everyone: spaces for conversation.
“Prior to [post-industrial abandonment of much of the North]…different communities were all talking – because they were all here for the same reason – whether you’d moved from rural Lancashire or moved from rural Pakistan – the people were all the same.”
The piece of work carried out by SSW and Suzanne Lacy has since been acquired by The Whitworth and has recently been exhibited.
Kate is clear: “Lots of arts organisations all over the country are doing brilliant work but sometimes we’re not that good at articulating what a difference it makes to people’s lives. Arts funding is still seen as a luxury – because art is something people do as a hobby or as recreation. But it does make a difference in education and attainment – and health and wellbeing. As an industry – we do need to advocate better.”
It is true that when there’s a need for a school or a hospital over the arts – [government/community] are minded to address the most immediate need – although all these things need to work together holistically to improve society.
In Nelson a successful Nasheed Choir has been founded. Boys are joining and really benefitting from the experience – but will sometimes leave at GCSE time in Year 11 – often because the schools are keen they focus on their forthcoming exams – in spite of extensive data being available that participating in musical activity improves educational attainment.
Wherever you are in the North it’s possible to cite organisations and communities who are engaged in some of the most innovative capacity-building efforts – but in East Lancashire – there is something very special happening and it’s being designed and driven by local people.
Stopping to grab a brew as Kate and I talk, is Shabaz Ahmed, Building Bridges Pendle Community Development Officer. After initially getting involved with his community through the ‘Shapes of Water’ project – and as a volunteer at the town’s Victoria Park Friendship Café, Shabaz swopped a career in Finance for Communities, when Building Bridges snapped him up.
With National Lottery funding for the next 3 years, the core of Building Bridges' work is around their School Linking Network, promoting and delivering multi-faith initiatives to tackle poverty – and encouraging ‘talking’.
Shabaz: “We work hard at community cohesion – which includes a Summer Festival of Culture. Good neighbourhood events…whatever [people] want to do. We are empowering groups to be self-sufficient – and establish new groups.
“The festival is growing because of an innovative steering group. Last one had 24 community organisations involved. All through partnership working. We’re doing things to get people connected.”
The Pendle School Linking Network is clearly a triumph and has 22 Primary schools and 6 High schools participating, with the express aim of connecting again with different demographics.
The five session programme sees young people start out as ‘strangers’, before going on to meet and socialise at a neutral venue and then visiting each other’s schools. A community conversation in public follows, about the issues that are important to them.
Shabaz: “It’s Mental health. Online bullying. Racism. Even the current curriculum is questioned. We invite community organisations and individuals – the students control who’s invited. [The community conversation] is always in a town centre to encourage passers-by to engage.
"The groups then present to their schools. We’re breaking down prejudice starting in Primary Schools and continuing through the system. It’s about opening people’s minds up. Broadening their horizons”
In East Lancashire, there are predominantly two faiths: and Building Bridges Pendle works with 27 mosques and churches as part of a wide Food Alliance network.
Shabaz isn’t in any doubt: “The Food poverty agenda – if you help with that – people are more likely to engage. Nobody’s going to take part in activities if they’re hungry.”
It is too simplistic to believe that arts development initiatives alone create thriving, sustainable communities, but what is a matter-of-fact is that central government, local authorities and funding bodies must continue to support and harness the energy, innovation, ownership and commitment that organisations like Super Slow Way embed in their communities.
However, while the inspirational efforts from Kate, Mash, Ben, Zara, Shabaz and their team radiates out from Nelson on this particular cold January Saturday, their tireless – and frankly brilliant – work is only the success it is, because of a single component: their community.