Blackburn, originally a village dating back to around the 6th century and mentioned in the Doomsday book, was a settlement on the banks of a small river called the Blakewater. The name Blakewater derives from 'black water', though this name probably described its appearance before heavy pollution took a hold in the early 1800s when sewage was discharged into the river and it became a source of infection for epidemics such as scarlet fever, cholera and typhus.
In 1849, Charles Tiplady a printer and alderman of Blackburn in the 1800's, in a letter to the Preston Guardian, called public attention to the polluted state of the Blakewater Brook at that time, and contrasted it with the purity of the Brook in his boyhood. He wrote:
“Then, how beautiful to stroll, by its devious courses, along the fields to Brookhouse; to the rookery at Little Harwood Hall; and on to the confines of the Sour Milk Hall farm. Then, following its mazy current, we came to Whitebirk. There we sat down on its banks, listening to the sweet carolling of the birds; ever and anon refreshing ourselves with copious draughts of the pure liquid, and pulling our homely crust of ‘pie and other prog’ from our pockets, feasted right merrily. Ah, those were happy days! But now, poor old Brook, how art thou fallen!”The river improved in the later 1800s as more sewage treatment plants were built but probably not to a condition fit for drinking. The river is a central feature of Blackburn's coat of arms where it appears as a black wavy line symbolising the origins of the town on the banks of the Blakewater at Blakey Moor.
In times of average rainfall it is no more than a stream. It is quite insignificant and people mostly ignore that it is there. It meanders down from the local hills to follow a course through the centre of town. It passes my cycling route in the vicinity of Little Harwood and trundles off townwards mainly out of site. For a lot of its course it is covered. It disappears under bridges, behind mills walls and down beneath culverts as it passes through Blackburn. The river is covered by main roads such as Ainsworth Street before going west to join up with the River Darwen at Witton.
Since the river disappeared in the 1960's underneath extensive culverts, it has now been realised that many of those changes, which gave priority to motorised traffic, are no longer suitable for the future needs of the town. In its master plan for the development of the town centre, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council, has as one of its goals 'the opening up parts of the River Blakewater'. This will be an interesting part of an extensive regeneration plan that includes 'ribbons of green'.
Little Harwood has a tributary brook that is also culverted. Passing through Little Harwood you certainly wouldn't know it was there. It then joins Knusden Brook under Philips Road before reappearing as the River Blakewater to go under the railway line and past Cob Wall to town. Little Harwood Brook was recently the site of lengthy roadworks in Robinson Street where the culvert was repaired over a period of many months.
This also involved part of Philips Road near to where Little Harwood Brook joins Knusden Brook. Now it seems it is the turn of Philips Road proper to have extensive road repairs. The sign indicates more than 6 months of disruption to traffic (including bikes!). You can see from the old photographs where the river was culverted in the 1960s how extensive this work can be. Perhaps it's too narrow? Look forward to some updates on progress in the coming months.
Some content was provided by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council and Lancashire Evening Telegraph for use in the Cotton Town digitisation project