Always a textile town, Blackburn became the “weaving capital of the world” during the Industrial Revolution when the Leeds and Liverpool Canal unloaded a constant stream of raw cotton.
Textile manufacturing went into sharp decline after the Second World War, but you don’t have to look hard to find examples of the wealth it created.
These are undeniable in the marvellous collections at the Blackburn Museum, and in the stately avenues of Corporation Park.
Blackburn’s multicultural town centre has just been given a makeover by the £45 million cathedral quarter project, laying out a new square, hotels and office buildings around the Gothic Revival cathedral.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Blackburn:
1. Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery
On opening in 1874, the Blackburn Museum became one of the first purpose-built museums outside London.
Its bountiful collections were donated to the town by textile industrialists like Thomas Boys Lewis, who bequeathed a magnificent set of Japanese prints.
The rope-maker, R. E. Hart left the museum one of the country’s finest coin and manuscript collections, featuring the Psalters and Books of Hours, a page from the Gutenberg Bible and the Leges Aureus, a very rare gold coin from the reign of Octavian.
You can check out Shakespeare folios, traditional South Asian jewellery and a large Egyptology collection comprising a mummy, mask, Shabti figures and a copy of the Rosetta Stone.
In the Art Gallery are works by Pre-Raphaelite Albert Moore, and a sensational display of Japanese woodblock prints.
2. Blackburn Cathedral
When the Diocese of Blackburn was created in 1926, the capacious parish church was upgraded to a cathedral.
There has been a church at this place since the Norman Conquest, but today’s church is a Gothic Revival monument, begun 1820 and enlarged and improved all the way up to 1977. As of 2018 the cathedral is at the heart of the regenerated Cathedral Quarter, and one new arrival is the sleek Cafe Northcote just off the south transept.
For historians the cathedral’s most fixtures can be found in the choir, which has eight 15th-century misericords.
These are believed to have come from Whalley Abbey, removed after it was suppressed in the 16th century.
3. Hoghton Tower
Ruling the countryside for miles around, Hoghton Tower is roosted atop a hill 170 metres above sea level.
This fortified manor house was built in the 1560s and after being abandoned was restored and enlarged twice in the Victorian period.
Many famous figures have passed through these doors in the last 500 years, like William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens, along with royalty like James I, William III, Queen Mary and George V. The approach is suitably grand, along a straight, 1,200-metre drive.
When the tower opens in summer you’ll learn about these distinguished guests on a tour, showing you the sublime panelled state apartments and great hall with splendid bay windows.
There’s plenty of excitement for kids too, thanks to the mysterious underground passages, dungeons and dollhouse collection, while the formal walled gardens are an oasis of peace.
4. Corporation Park
A source of pride for Blackburn, Corporation Park is the main central green space entered from the south on Preston New Road via a ceremonious triumphal arch.
It was completed in 1857, and as a quintessential Victorian town park is listed by English Heritage as a Park and Garden of Special Historic Interest.
The park’s main axis is on the Broad Walk, a splendid lime tree avenue built in the 1860s as a way to employ weavers during the cotton famine.
The larger of Corporation Park’s two lakes predates the park and excavated in 1772 as Pemberton Clough to provide Blackburn’s water supply.
As a Green Flag park there’s no shortage of facilities, like two playgrounds, six tennis courts and a cycle track.
5. Samlesbury Hall
With a story that goes back to 1325, Samlesbury Hall is a romantic Medieval manor house open every day throughout the year except Saturdays.
More than 750 years of occupation have left the house with lots of exciting tales about witches, ghosts, all told enthusiastically by costumed guides during free tours on Sundays.
Some memorable fittings are the intricately carved panelling and painted ceiling in the Long Gallery, the Dining Hall fireplace from 1545 and the 14th-century Great Hall.
Outside is the lovingly-built Mayflower playground, so-called because some of the resident Southworth family’s descendants were pilgrims aboard the Mayflower in 1620. There’s also a small menagerie, with goats, sheep, rabbits, hens and pigs, so every family member will come away content.
6. Bee Centre
A separate attraction on the grounds of Samlesbury Hall is the Bee Centre, open Wednesdays and Sundays.
Here you can find out all about honeybees and how they shape the countryside.
This will be made clear at the indoor observation hive, where glass panels give you an unprecedented look into the world of bees as they bring pollen and nectar to the hive, make honey and build honeycomb.
If you’re in luck you may see the queen laying eggs and baby bees taking flight for the first time.
Beekeeping experts are around to answer questions, and the shop stocks honey, beeswax candles and honey confectionery produced by the centre’s bees.
If you really want to get involved you can try becoming a beekeeper on a 90-minute “Honeybee Experience”.
7. Turton Tower
This fortified manor house is in the same borough, around ten miles south on the edge of the West Pennine Moors.
Turton Tower started out as a stone pele tower in the 1400s before being made more comfortable in the century that followed with a timber-framed house.
This was enlarged and modified with a Dutch gable facade in the Victorian period.
You can still identify parts of the first Tudor cruck frame inside, as well as 500-year-old wattle and daub, together with lath and plaster wall panelling.
Turton Tower is open between March and October, from Wednesday to Sunday, welcoming you to marvel at tapestries, an oak bed from 1590, 17th-century Swiss painted glass in the Dining Room and Arts and Crafts decorations in the Morning Room.
Turton Tower’s kitchen is now the Victorian Tea Room, opening onto a garden terrace.
8. Witton Country Park
There’s unblemished Lancashire countryside less than a mile from Blackburn’s town centre.
At the confluence of the rivers Darwen and Blakewater, Witton Country Park is 480 acres of woodland, landscaped parkland and farmland that was once on the Witton House estate but was sold to Blackburn in the 1940s.
Children will be crazy for the Wits adventure playground laid out a cost of £750,000, with a zip-line, tree sculptures, balancing beams and musical sculptures and opened in 2010. While Witton House itself was demolished in 1952, the outbuildings like the stables are interesting holdovers.
These hold a small children’s zoo with degus, rabbits, chipmunks and more.
Close by you’ll find the park’s visitor centre, in the same building as the Pavilion Cafe, open seven days a week.
9. Leeds and Liverpool Canal
Crossing the Pennines for 127 miles, the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was a massive undertaking that helped kindle the Industrial Revolution in the north.
In 1810, Blackburn became the last major town to be connected to the waterway, and on its opening, the first barges transported some 380 tons of coal, as well as timber, lead, yarn, tallow, molasses, malt and oil.
Nearly all of the towpath in Blackburn is accessible to pedestrians and will usher you past historic bridges, locks and curious pieces of old infrastructure like the aqueduct at Ewood and the evocative Eanam Wharf.
Four miles west of Blackburn, Canal Boat Cruises of Riley Green has a schedule of trips in the summer, but also offers charter cruises and hires out narrowboats if you want to explore more of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal on your own.
10. Old Town Hall
One of a few big sights in Blackburn’s pedestrian-friendly town centre, the old town hall is an exuberant building dating back to 1856. The architect was Scotsman James Paterson, who gave the building an Italianate design, with Corinthian columns, a balustrade and reliefs of garlands and eagles above its cornice.
In 2018 the Old Town Hall was going through an 18-month restoration.
Attached next-door via a raised footbridge is the New Town Hall, a tower block completed in 1969 and recently spruced up with new cladding.
11. Queen’s Park
In a residential part of Blackburn to the southeast of the town centre, Queen’s Park is a peaceful open space far from any main roads.
The park is awarded the Green Flag each year (the benchmark for English parks), and harks back to Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887. In these 33 acres the most prized feature is the elegant lake at the top of the park.
Once used for boating, this is now a habitat for flocks of waterfowl that you can feed (oats are healthier than bread!). The two oaks by the Victorian boathouse were planted in 1987 to mark the park’s centenary, while 40 more trees were planted to commemorate Elizabeth II’s golden jubilee in 2002.
12. King George’s Hall
Blackburn’s premier performance space is the cavernous Neoclassical King George’s Hall, named for George V who laid the foundation stone in 1910. Construction was interrupted by the First World War, and the 3,500-seater theatre was officially opened in 1921. If you find yourself on Northgate, the building is worth a look even if you’re just passing by.
The Blakey Moor front has four pairs of Corinthian columns over an arcade.
Inside is that immense main hall and the smaller Windsor Suite.
Given the size of the venue, King George’s Hall makes some big-name bookings for comedy, live music, celebrity speakers, dance, as well as children’s shows.
Highlights of 2018-19 are comedians Sarah Millican, Dara Ó Briain and Joanna Lumley, and live music ranging from Jake Bugg to the BBC Philharmonic.
13. Queen Victoria Statue
In a conspicuous position in the Cathedral Quarter stands a solemn statue of Queen Victoria.
This monument was inaugurated in 1905, four years after her death, by the queen’s fourth daughter, Princess Louise.
More than 110 years later it’s still a meeting place the town and was restored as recently as 2015 when the queen’s arm and hand were reattached.
Carved from Sicilian marble, the statue is 3.4 metres high and stands on a 4.3-metre granite plinth.
You can take a seat on the new benches among the formal flowerbeds, and get a nice snap of the queen in front of the cathedral.
14. Blackburn Market
In the middle of the town, the Mall Blackburn is the main shopping centre and first opened in the 1960s.
The site has been given a facelift in the last decade, and in 2011 Blackburn’s market was relocated from across Ainsworth Street to a new location under the centre.
The market is open Monday to Saturday and has more than 120 traders for local fresh produce, artisan coffee, cheese, fashion, yarn, gifts and cards, cosmetics and home appliances.
If you’re feeling peckish you can also stop for hot food like paninis, pasta, Lancastrian classics, Thai noodles or Greek streetfood.
15. Blackburn Rovers F. C.
When we wrote this article in 2018 the local football team was playing in the EFL Championship, the second tier of English professional football.
But Blackburn is a team with a successful recent history.
In the early 90s they were taken over by the steel industrialist Jack Walker, who helped assemble a team led by Alan Shearer that won the Premier League in 1995. Those days seem very distant now, but Blackburn Rovers have all the trappings of a Premier League team, including the 31,000-seater Ewood Park stadium.
The largest stand is named after Jack Walker, who passed away in 2000. There are 23 home league matches between August and May, and Ewood Park rarely sells out if you’d like to catch a game.