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Helmshore Mills Textile Museum

Home > Lancashire > Museums | Family | Exhibitions
by Grant Barlow (subscribe)
Freelance writer/sub-editor/graphic designer based in the lovely village of Helmshore, deepest Lancashire.
Published March 20th 2013
I must admit I was most impressed with Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. The solid-looking old mill is suitably imposing – its honey-coloured stonework allowing it to nestle into the surrounding narrow valley – and there are also several things of interest inside.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
View of the mill from the millpond


Personally, I've no idea how raw wool and cotton are transformed into yarn, which is then woven into cloth, apparently. I had a go at some of the hands-on exhibits which show how this is achieved but my bits of wool just fell apart, much to the amusement of my young daughters, who had no such problems.

Helpful members of staff looked on kindly as I slowly walked away wearing a small, knowing smile; my attempt to make myself look like someone who'd been intentionally incompetent, just for the amusement of others.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
There are many old pieces of machinery on display


There are plenty of examples of original machinery housed within the mill and some of these infernal contraptions (to me, at least) come to life throughout the day during demonstrations.

One such demonstration took place on the top floor, its array of looms looking like so many torture instruments. There, my daughters and I joined a coach party of rather sheepish-looking Americans (out of their comfort zone, no doubt).

The pretty young member of staff asked one of my daughters where cotton came from. She looked up at me, I smiled indulgently and urged: "Go on, tell her."

My daughter didn't know. Neither did I. The Americans didn't know either, which is inexcusable in my book, especially as I have decided that they were from the Deep South, where cotton is grown (I did know really but it was buried deep and I was too hot).

Our exasperated guide cried that it grew on trees, of course. Had our visit taught us nothing?

She fired up the old machine and explained that back in the day – when health and safety was seen as unpatriotic, with Napoleon being the only one to benefit (my words) – it was not unusual for operatives to be caught in the workings and have hair/hands/limbs removed by the thrashing workings.

Fear of being asked any more questions made us leave before the end.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
View of the mill sluice from beneath the viaduct


We made our way to the lowest level of the mill, which had a musty, subterranean smell, to inspect the waterwheel. Unfortunately, this was in need of maintenance and not in operation. Not to worry.

We then reconnoitred the grounds. There are a couple of mill ponds, which are suitably picturesque, and it is possible to walk around their perimeter, all in the shadow of the railway viaduct – now bridleway – which serves as a reminder of the now-rural area's once bustling industry.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
View from the viaduct


There is also an inner courtyard, which eagle-eyed fans of the epic 1990s' TV series Sharpe will recognise from its appearance in the episode Sharpe's Justice (the upper floor where the demonstrations are held also features). In the show, the courtyard was the scene of a massacre of disgruntled employees by the unscrupulous mill-owner's mounted militia – bad eggs the lot of 'em.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
Courtyard, as featured in an episode of Sharpe


By this time the girls were getting tired but managed to spend the following five years in the gift shop, which sells lots of Lancashire-themed items, such as handmade soaps, reproductions of old mill notices – with their punitive sets of rules governing employees' behaviour – and books espousing the merits of good, old fashioned plain-speaking and common sense. I'm from Lancashire so I can say this with impunity.

Helmshore Mills Textile Museum
Piece of history – a weather-worn doorway


From there, the final stop was the award-winning Coffee Mill café, where the food is hearty and inexpensive. In fact, the whole visit was inexpensive, admission to the museum being £4 for adults. Accompanied children attract no charge. It's well worth a visit.
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Where: Lancashire, United Kingdom
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