Travelling up to Blackburn yesterday, I had to change trains at Preston and, asking the guard “which platform?” received the response “you want number four Love”. Not the passive aggressive “look ‘ere Love” of Londoners, typically directed to women, but a plain warm tone used equally by men and women in these parts to address each other. By the time I reached Blackburn I was full of nostalgia for Lancashire, land of my fathers, and ready to fully inhabit it, if only for a day.
I was here to see Blackburn Cathedral and after, to walk on the moors with author Claire Gillman. (A reverse pilgrimage of sorts where the sacred site marks the start rather than the end of the journey.) The volunteer staffing the information desk at the cathedral, Ray, was utterly charming and helpfully explained how this was one of the many English cathedrals which were newly created from parish churches in the 19th and 20th centuries, partly in response to the growth of urban centres following industrialisation. After admiring the windows by artist John Hayward, made from recycled stained-glass, Claire and I headed for Rivington Pike, a high point of the West Lancashire moors.
It’s rough underfoot here, with running streams zig-zagging amongst boggy grasses and the flat black boulders of millstone grit that pepper the hillside, but the open expanse of rolling moor all around makes for an exhilarating landscape and worth the climb. Along the way, great flocks of fieldfares took off and landed around us, harried by a male Hen Harrier, flashing down on them in his black and white-winged glory and amongst this natural drama we fully expected to see Heathcliff come galloping over the ridge.
Eventually the clouds lifted and the sun appeared revealing nearby towns and a far horizon, and as we walked ever higher, we passed a smooth round hill (reminiscent of Silbury) which in local lore is considered to be an ancient burial mound. Claire told me that each year on Good Friday, families climb up Rivington Pike to take part in the Easter Fair: it seems that origins of the festival have been lost beneath the mists of time, but there is evidence of Bronze Age settlement here, and perhaps this seasonal celebration refrains a more ancient, pre-Christian tradition.
It was a glorious afternoon of conversation about pilgrimage and the liberating nature of being ‘nowhere’ and how it provides the space to think. But even atop wide open moorland cultural prompts are not far from mind. They say the definition of an intellectual is someone who can hear the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger but you could equally say that it’s someone who can visit Blackburn, Lancashire without thinking of just how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Either way, the tune that stuck in my head on the journey home was that other Beatles’ classic ‘All You Need is Love’.
Victoria Preston is the author of ‘We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves’ which will be published by Hurst in April.