A journey into Britain’s recent past

Image: Clem Onojeghuo. Courtesy of Pexels

About Britain: A Journey of Seventy Years and 1,345 Miles

Tim Cole, Bloomsbury Continuum, June 2021, 384 pages, £18.99

KEN BELL drives down a northwestern Memory Lane

The Festival of Britain in 1951 was intended to show that the war was over and Great Britain was back on her feet. As an ancillary to the Festival, a series of motorists’ guidebooks were written which covered all the regions of Britain. Each one of the thirteen guides contained several motoring tours that allowed the visitor to explore the country’s highways, gave advice on where to stop for food and drink, and contained plenty of photographs to keep the non-motoring public happy. Tim Cole, Professor of History at the University of Bristol, collected these guides and decided to follow a dozen of the routes. The book he wrote is a lyrical, yet sadly depressing, account of British decline since 1951.

It is interesting that none of the journeys include much information about the great cities that often start and end a journey. Newcastle is dealt with in a sentence or two about the football ground and the barracks, with the road out of the city being one of ‘unimaginative industrialism’, according to the 1950 author. It is unlikely that any modern guides would so dismiss the cities, but in 1951 the bourgeois motorist probably only saw them as starting points on his journey into the real land that was rural to his mind.

The chapter dealing with the Northwest interested me the most, mainly because as a Mancunian I am from that region. The original guide took the visitor through Preston and the mill towns, and was obviously intended to show Britain’s industrial might as well as offering nice views and decent eating houses. Some of those roadside hostelries are still in operation, by the way, but now they offer Indian and Italian foods rather than the meat and two veg of 1950. Preston in 1951 was a major port for the export of cotton and the mill towns of Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson form a string of towns on the guide that the visitor would have driven though on his way to the Pennines and the wool towns beyond.

This is where the depression sinks in, as the Preston docks closed not long after the guide was written, just as Accrington and Blackburn lost their role of makers of cheap, thin cloth for the peasants of India and Africa to wear. Burnley no longer made ‘narrow cloths for printing’ and Nelson ceased to make patterned fabrics.

As Tim Cole points out, the 1950 author really did believe that the wartime boom would remain, and he then goes on to trace the sad decline from that optimistic year. He looks at the increasingly desperate attempts to introduce manmade fibres into the Lancashire spinning process, often using fibres that had been invented in Britain. Those new processes did not need an army of skilled or even semi-skilled workers: what they needed were a few unskilled machine minders, but even so, tariffs and competition from abroad quickly rendered the mill towns uneconomic. Each mill town brought over cheap labour from Pakistan to reduce the wage bill as a final throw of the dice, and when that failed, one by one the companies that had brought them to Lancashire shut up shop and left the towns to sink.

Tim Cole takes the reader out of Burnley, along the road to Colne, via Nelson and then up to the Pennine Hills and on into Yorkshire and the relics of its woollen past. I have made that journey myself many times and Cole’s sympathetic portrayal of the region shines through. Sadly, it is a journey from prosperity to aching poverty in a few short miles that took seven decades to complete.