A town with industry in its veins, Bolton began producing textiles when Flemish weavers brought the trade with them in the 1300s.
In the 18th century two local men, Richard Arkwright and Samuel Crompton, discovered ways to lift yarn production to unimagined levels.
The cotton industry departed Bolton in the 20th century, but the town still has some giant brick factories that are now listed monuments, like Swan Lane Mills and Sir John Holden’s Mill.
The whopping steam engines that powered these factories have been assembled at the Bolton Steam Museum, while exquisite late-Medieval manors like Smithills Hall, Hall i’ th’ Wood and Turton Tower take you back to before the industrial age.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bolton:
1. Bolton Steam Museum
At this museum you can enter one of Bolton’s old industrial giants, in the cotton store of the now demolished Atlas Mill.
Within is an amazing assortment of stationary steam engines that have been rescued from industrial facilities around Manchester, Lancashire, Yorkshire and as far away as Wales.
Most provided power to the vast textile factories.
There are 30 engines in all and most are more than a century old, while the oldest is a Crossfield mill beam engine from 1840. One of many remarkable things about this museum is that most of the machines are in working order, and you can come to feel the heat of the furnaces, see the gears winding and hear the hiss of pressure cylinders at steaming days, taking place five times a year, normally on a weekend late in the month.
2. Bolton Museum
There’s a real sense of ceremony around Bolton Town Hall, and much of this comes from the Neoclassical, crescent-shaped Bolton Civic Centre that opened in 1939. This complex hosts the town’s central library, as well as the museum on the top floor where you can get up to speed on Bolton’s story.
At the time of writing in 2018 the museum was partly closed for the development of a major Egyptology exhibition, by the name of Eternal Egypt.
Opening in December 2018, this will include a full-size reproduction of the burial chamber of Pharoah Thutmose III. In the town’s collections there’s are specimens collected by the eminent Victorian geologist Caroline Birley, dinosaur fossils, portraits of pivotal figures like Crompton and Arkwright.
This is accompanied by ephemera, painting a picture of local life over centuries.
3. Smithills Hall
Be sure to see this sumptuous Medieval manor house wreathed in formal gardens at the namesake country park.
Smithills Hall is owned by Bolton Council and is on raised ground at the edge of the West Pennine Moors.
The property goes back to the 1300s, and the great hall in the north range is from that time and has held onto its original plan and period features.
In this space there are long tables laid out for a banquet, as well as suits of armour, while the adjoining kitchen has vintage utensils like a mangle.
The section of the house from the 16th century has been kept as it would have looked when the bleaching magnate Colonel Ainsworth lived here in the 19th century.
Upstairs is the solar from the 15th century, a bedroom and place for the women of the house to retire, with magnificent furniture from the 1600s to the 1800s.
4. Queen’s Park
Sloping down to the River Croal northwest of the town centre, Queen’s Park is a quintessential Victorian park inaugurated in 1866 and revamped since the 2000s thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The banks of the Croal have been cleaned up and the river is crossed by the cast iron Dobson Bridge.
There’s also a lake, a sunken garden with formal flowerbeds, a children’s play area, tennis courts and a bowling green.
Most dignified is the central terrace, decorated with statues that are listed monuments in their own right.
Carved in the 19th century, these represent important local figures at the time, as well as the Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.
5. Hall i’ th’ Wood Museum
There’s riveting history at this 16th-century half-timbered manor house.
The name is “Hall in the Wood” in the Lancastrian dialect, and was built for a wealthy woollen merchant.
Later, rather than belonging to one noble family, the house was divided into several separate dwellings and used by families involved in industry.
One former tenant you can find out more about is Samuel Crompton, who invented the spinning mule at this very place around 1779, changing the textiles industry forever.
This allowed unprecedented quantities of fine cotton to be spun at high speed.
There’s an exhibition about Crompton’s career, as well as displays of authentic furniture and everyday items from the 1600s and 1700.
Between Bank Street and the Gothic Revival St Peter’s Church, Chruchgate is a pedestrianised thoroughfare with a few interesting features.
In the middle of the 13th century, this was where Bolton’s first market was located.
Walking towards the church, on your right side is Ye Old Man & Scythe (1251), the oldest pub in Bolton and one of the oldest in the country.
In 1651 the Royalist James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, spent his last night at this establishment and was executed outside the pub for his part in the Bolton Massacre, killing up to 1,600 mainly innocent citizens in 1644 during the Civil War.
Keep going to the churchyard to find the grave of Samuel Crompton, who died in 1827.
7. Bolton Market
In the centre of town on Ashburner Street, Bolton Market is a staggering Victorian iron and glass building that was restored 1980s and again in the 2000s.
When it was first completed the market was the largest in the UK, covering more than 5850 square metres.
Whether you’re here to shop or not, you have to go in to see the cathedral-like proportions, as at its highest point the roof rises to 34 metres.
For a casual browser, the Lifestyle Hall is the place to go, with a patisserie, coffee roaster, real ale bar, a tropical florist and tempting international dining options in the food court.
For produce, the food hall is also surprisingly cosmopolitan, but is also anchored in locally sourced meat, cheese, fruit and vegetables.
Visit Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday, 09:00 – 17:00.
8. Bolton Town Hall
Part of the same bold ensemble as the Bolton Museum, Bolton Town Hall creates a big impression on the pedestrianised Victoria Square.
This Grade II-listed Neoclassical building went up between 1866 and 1873, and if you’ve been to Leeds or Portsmouth you might notice that their town halls (Guildhall in Portsmouth’s case) look similar, and that’s because they were made using the same template.
The most eye-catching feature is the Corinthian portico, supporting a pediment with an allegorical tympanum relief by the Scottish sculptor, William Calder Marshall.
He was one of the artists commissioned for the famous Albert Memorial in London’s Kensington Gardens.
The portico is crested by a neo-Baroque tower, with a clock made by Potts of Leeds in 1871, chiming on the quarter hour.
9. Rivington Pike
Six miles to the northwest of Bolton town centre, this is a trip worth every second.
At 363 metres and with a clean view over Greater Manchester to the south, and the Lancashire Plain to the west, Rivington Pike is one of the best vantage points in the North West of England.
The drive climbs into high moorland streaked with millstone grit, sandstone and shales.
The summit of Rivington Pike is actually a coal seam that was exploited around the turn of the 19th century.
There are plenty of walking trails to the summit, and if you pick a crisp, sunny day you should be able to see the Lake District, Blackpool Tower, the Welsh mountains and even the Isle of Man.
Near the top is the Pike Tower, a hunting lodge from 1733, built by John Andrews, who resided at Rivington Hall.
10. Turton Tower
Just past Jumbles Country Park, this half-timbered manor house is about halfway between Bolton and Blackburn.
Turton Tower has been constantly adapted since it was first raised as a fortified pele tower in the Middle Ages.
The biggest changes came in the 16th century when it became a plush country house, and lots of Tudor architecture survives from this period, including the wattle and daub walls that you can see inside.
After a period of disuse in the18th century, Turton Tower was restored in Victorian times, and its interior captures the spirit of both the 19th century and Tudor period.
Go in to see one of the best collections of period furniture and paintings in the North West, while the kitchen has been turned into a tearoom loved for its home-baked cakes and bread.
The terrace garden is a joy in summer, while there’s an adventure playground for youngsters.
11. Moses Gate Country Park
What used to be an industrial landscape pitted with mines and home to Victorian bleach and chemical works, is now a restful park in 700 acres.
People head to this space for orienteering, horse riding, cycling and fishing.
There’s an interesting relic from the Moses Gate’s industrial past at Rock Hall, an elegant Georgian mansion built in 1807 beside a long-demolished paper mill.
Rock Hall is the park’s visitor centre, open daily, with a cafe and details about what you can find in the park.
The Nob End nature reserve here has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a happy upshot of contamination from the chemical works.
Thanks to the artificially alkaline soils, some species not found in other parts of Greater Manchester thrive in these conditions, like early marsh and northern marsh orchids.
12. Doffcocker Lodge
In the western Doffcocker Lodge, there’s an interesting slice of industrial history now reclaimed by nature.
Doffcocker Lodge is a reservoir for a former water-powered mill, created in 1874. The pond has become a nature reserve for wildfowl, and is well-known among bird-watching communities for the breadth of species that it attracts.
On a typical day in July for example, you could expect to see grey herons, chiffchaffs, calling willow tits, great crested grebes, common terns, reed buntings, sparrowhawks and willow warblers, to name just some.
Of course you could come to this 5.6-acre site for a walk, and you may pass a fisher or two idling by the water.
13. Jumbles Country Park
Just by Turton Tower, on the southern cusp of the West Pennine Moors, Jumbles Country Park opened with the completion of the Jumbles Reservoir in 1971. It may come as a jolt to know that this quiet natural space is only a few short miles from Bolton town centre.
A path runs around the entirety of the reservoir, and in places you can see sheer walls of rock formed by quarrying.
There’s a visitor centre and cafe with a lovely view of the water, while the park is a haven for roe deer, foxes, grey herons, jays and sparrowhawks.
14. Moss Bank Park
In the shadow of the towering Barrow Bridge Chimney, Moss Bank Park has been awarded a Green Flag, the highest honour for a park in the UK. This is all down to the facilities, and if you’re hunting for a low-cost day out for children the park has plenty going in summer.
There’s a small funfair operating from spring to autumn and featuring a small rollercoaster, a bouncy castle, carousels and a crazy golf course.
Close by there’s a miniature railway, running during the school summer holiday.
There’s also a cafe, two large playgrounds, as well as sports pitches, tennis courts and a bowling green.
15. Smithills Open Farm
In 70 acres of open countryside at the Smithills Country Park, next to Smithills Hall, this attraction for kids has more than 25 types of animal.
Being a working farm, these can change from season to season, but you can be sure to see cows, goats, pigs, rabbits, llamas, deer, meerkats, donkeys, sheep, owls, skunks and ducks.
Kids can also learn about where some everyday produce comes from, particularly dairy.
There’s a daily “Old Milking Demo” at 13:00 when you can see a Holstein cow being milked manually, as well as a series of “Robot Milking Demos” at 11:30, 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00. At Pets Corner, children can interact with ducklings, kid goats and lambs in spring, while there are also talks throughout the day, introducing some of the more exotic animals like meerkats and reptiles.