October 21, 2020

From the top of Rivington Pike, rising 1,200-ft from the edge of the West Pennine Moors, the small Lancashire town of Horwich is laid out below you. The parish church, the compass point of most English towns, is not easy to spot through veils of early autumn mist. But, there it is, Holy Trinity, a simple and nominally Gothic Revival affair of 1831.

And then your eye is caught by long, disciplined rows of red brick buildings, a little ragged and battered, under Welsh slate and glass roofs looking like some mighty abbey complex lacking only a crenellated and pinnacled tower to complete the subterfuge. This, though, once the most important gathering of buildings in Horwich, is no half-remembered ecclesiastical foundation, but what remains of the partially abandoned and largely uncared for Horwich railway works.

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Founded in 1884 and closed a century later, Horwich Works was the pride and joy of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. This was the “Business Line”, its frequent and tightly timed trains linking an intensity of industrial towns and cities from Liverpool to Manchester and eastwards to Halifax, Bradford, Leeds and Doncaster.

From 1889, most of the glossy black locomotives sprinting the railway’s trains through chains of Pennine tunnels were built at Horwich. They took shape in the most impressive of all the many buildings at the railway works, the Erecting and Repair Shop. This, until the wreckers went in recently, was Horwich’s holy of holies, a truly magnificent industrial building, 1,520-ft long, 118-ft wide and formed by a top-lit nave separated from a pair of aisles by rows of lofty cast iron piers.

When finally abandoned, the haunting Erecting and Repair shop had the look and numinous air of some ambitious Romanesque abbey church. Of course it should have. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Britain’s railways were a religion of sorts. They attracted hundreds of thousands of worshippers. The Great Western Railway, the High Church of Britain’s railways, named one its most famous classes of copper-capped express locomotives after saints and planned to name its proposed Pacific locomotives after cathedrals.

Which unholy owner or authority would even think of demolishing the sanctuary of historic Horwich? On your bended knees, Bolton Council. In 2006, the council gave outline permission for the redevelopment of Horwich Works. The proposal, since given a green signal, was for a 150-acre sprawl of 1,700 new homes. On their way up today, these appear to be standard new housing estate “units”, brick boxes, that is, guaranteed free of architecture and local character. The same type can be seen anywhere in the country whether at Halifax, Harrogate, Horwich or Huyton. And these are just Lancashire and Yorkshire towns that happen to begin with H.

Because the thousands of people living in coming years at “Rivington Chase” are expected to need access to the M61 motorway, for commuting — once life returns to normal after the pandemic — and to the enormous Middlebrook Retail and Leisure Park, a £12m link road is to be driven through what survives of Horwich Works to reach the new houses. And this has meant — you might have guessed — the demolition of the Erecting and Repair Shop. As to the fate of its attendant buildings, a part of the dilapidated Horwich Loco Industrial Estate for the past thirty years, the ghost of Sir John Aspinall only knows, although there is little cause for optimism.

As a dynamic 35-year old, John Aspinall, the new Chief Mechanical Engineer of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and later General Manager, took on the task of completing Horwich Works. Here, set across 247-acres, and alongside streets of new terraced housing named after distinguished British railway engineers, among them Stephenson, Gooch, Webb and Brunel, were a wheel shop, bolt shop, spring smithy, boiler shop, foundry and forge and the erecting shop with its overheard travelling cranes. Over there was the railway’s own cottage hospital, gym, 1,100-seat dining room and, all importantly, the Mechanics Institute (since demolished) where skilled working men learned the latest in engineering and technology.

The first handsome red brick building on the way into the works was Rivington House (a survivor), where Aspinall had his drawing office and laboratories. The entire works, powered by gas and electricity of its own making, was threaded through by a 7½ mile narrow-gauge railway, its trains steaming in and out of and in between the regimented rows of hard working sheds fetching and carrying tools, parts and personnel.

Britain’s brightest young engineering talent made a beeline for Horwich, attracted by Aspinall’s innovative and and purposeful regime. Among them were four future Chief Mechanical Engineers of the Big Four railways that swallowed up companies like the Lancashire and Yorkshire after the 1923 “grouping” of the nation’s mainlines. These were George Hughes and Henry Fowler (both LMS), Richard Maunsell (Southern) and Nigel Gresley (LNER) of Flying Scotsman and Mallard fame.

Like Aspinall, Gresley had been apprenticed to the London and North Western Railway under Francis Webb at Crewe before moving to Horwich. At the 1919 dinner held in Crewe Works for former Webb apprentices, these two huge talents sang the Crewe Works Song together:

Last night I lay a sleeping
There came a dream to me –
I stood within a Steam Shed,
A marvellous shed to see.
The walls were clean and spotless,
And smoke troughs white as snow,
And not a spot of grease was seen
Upon the pits below.

 O Loco Men! O Loco Men!
Shout loud for well ye may –
‘Twas the Blessed Steam Shed of Paradise
We all shall see someday.

 One famous Horwich apprentice took off in another direction. This was Alliot Verdon-Roe, to whose aviation company founded in Manchester in 1910 we owe the RAF’s Second World War four-engine Avro Lancaster bomber and the Cold War Vulcan delta-wing jet. During the two world wars, Horwich Works made, among other materiel, artillery shells, field guns and tanks.

Given this distinguished history, anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Bolton Council would more than cherish the site of Horwich Works. The council did agree to a Conservation Area Management Plan in 2006, yet this seems to have evaporated since then like steam through a safety valve. As local residents have noted, the Loco Works conservation area must be one of the only conservation areas in the country in the throes of demolition.

Such lack of vision. If the local council and all who work for and with it had only thought of re-using this great building complex imaginatively, it could have been the hub of forward looking industrial enterprise and housing living up to its past. The buildings could have been transformed into workshops, laboratories, test centres, hi-tech offices, spacious and beautiful homes, shops, a clinic, a school, a contemporary technical college. New houses, at all prices, could have been of designs living up to those of Aspinall and Gresley.

People living here might have walked to work, shopped within minutes of their front doors and be proud to live in a place visitors would come to see, a Northern Powerhouse, as exciting and as moving any towns or cities boasting great architecture. Abbeys. Cathedrals. Innovative industrial and scientific complexes.

Instead, they have been given suburban sprawl, what will surely be congested roads and, at Rivington Chase, little more than a folk memory of a Horwich of industrial might, invention and skill.