The Lancashire Mining Museum, Astley

Lancashire Mining Museum, located in Astley, between Leigh and Bolton, is a wonderful place to visit in its own right, so a chance to mix folk music with social history, industrial heritage, brass bands and train rides, is surely an opportunity not to be missed.

The Lancashire Day is an attempt by the museum to recreate the old Miners’ Galas – a day of solidarity and enjoyment, against a background of hard toil and danger, yet mixed with community and pride.

The folk tent is but one of the attractions, located in a field just down from the Fred Dibnah Headgear – the replica winding tower that once graced his back garden, but is now dwarfed by the last standing pit head gear in Lancashire – all providing a dramatic backdrop to a celebration of both traditional and modern folk – all with the support of Folk North West and operated under the watchful eye of Chairman and compere for the day, Dave Jones.

It's no lie to say that, as we remember the backbreaking work of so many, that the musical offerings were provided by artists that could be considered part of the spine of Lancashire folk, helping carry it forward over many a long year.

Proceedings were kicked off in fine style by Vision Thing, referred to elsewhere in these pages as ‘one of Folk’s best kept secrets’ and very, much living up to that billing. Musically diverse within a firm folk framework, they can range from the ethereal to the rocking and from story telling to sharp commentary, from history to the present day, and are occasionally just a mellotron away from prog! Catch them if you can on one of their frequent appearances around the area and you, like me, will look forward to them hitting a big stage with a PA to match and really watching them let rip. It seems a little cruel to pick out individual members for special mention – but on this occasion, female vocalist Shelley and fiddle player David deserve it (enhancing the songs from within the band).

Nothing much happens in a folk sense this close to Wigan if Rare Ould Times are not involved – on this occasion operating at 66.6% of personnel (special mention to fiddle player Tim Marris, who spent all day providing the sound) but 100% in the satisfaction stakes. Lawrence and Steve managing to bring the spirit (and a fair attempt at the voice) of Paul Robeson to the tent and, with a Lancashire focus being at the heart of the day, the first outing for Ted Edwards. With the set being relatively short, there was sadly no time for Lawrence’s award winning song about George Orwell, a man who did much to highlight the living conditions of the Lancashire Miners.

Next up was Ken Scally, not only a master multi-instrumentalist but also a local historian with a keen interest in the musical traditions of the region. Ken is a fountain of knowledge and can both entertain and educate in equal measure – and so we were treated to poetry, a musical narrative that linked Ewan MacColl, Vera Aspey and Pit Brow Lasses in songs of his own and others – including one of the Pit Head Poets, Mr Jez Lowe. Ken is a regular at all sorts of events and always worth listening to, whatever subject he is addressing – so keep your eye out!

Like Lawrence before him, Ged Todd is a real stalwart of the folk community, from the Swinton Folk Club to occasional concerts in that cow yedders paradise, Westhoughton (so named after the locals of legend who, having found a cow with its head stuck between railings, decided the only way to free it was to decapitate the poor beast). A gentle but assured presence, Ged also introduced the work of Ted Edwards, along with the Oldham Tinkers, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and stories and songs of the traditional Wakes Holidays.

Which takes us to Trouble At T’Mill, Graham and Bernadette making the trip from Gregson Lane and making us glad they did. Amongst their weaponry is tradition in song and presentation, with a touch of music hall and humour – quite right for a performance in the heart of Gary and Vera Aspey territory. In keeping with their ethos of not taking themselves too seriously, they provided a little reassurance for those of us who struggle with barre chords and, after a little audience participation, an extremely astute comment on the fact that those people who never join in the singing are never thanked for recognising their limitations – an observation that reminded me of a musician friend who remarked about the contrasting emotions experienced when an audience member near the stage, was word perfect for every song – but out of tune for the entirety of the set. Combining a light touch and a great selection of songs, they were perfectly placed in the programme and much appreciated. Despite the frivolity, there is a serious aspect to what they offer, they did also give us a timely reminder that the most dangerous songs are those that make you think.

As the afternoon drew to a conclusion, both Pauline Blackburn and Bad Grandad were in fine fettle for what turned out to be their second gig of the day. In Lancashire music terms, Pauline is folk royalty – a princess following on from her much-missed mum Pauline, who, along with Lawrence Hoy, kept the folk heart beating in Wigan for many a long year. Her current musical partner – the enigmatically named Bad Grandad is now helping carry that onwards – organising, promoting and appearing at many a session and open mic wherever he is needed! They filled the spot, offering both solo songs, self-penned and well-chosen covers, and then combining to remind us of the history and purpose of the day – with ‘Union Miners Stand Together’, sung several hundred metres above a place where men toiled and occasionally died for little personal benefit.

The event was then brought to a finale with a folk-club feel, as Vision Thing guitar-vocalist (and songwriter) Pete Cunliffe and fiddle playing bandmate David Windsor shared some well-chosen favourites to round off what had been a hugely enjoyable and good natured event. One of the main takeaways was not just the quality of the music, but also the genuine joy amongst the performers in both sharing their music and in meeting up with each other – it’s easy to forget how much of a community the folk scene is, but how fractured we have been over the last few years – and so opportunities to get together are to be enjoyed and cherished.

A great day at the mine, and definitely not the pits! The good news is that a good time was had by all, and the overall event judged to be a success, to the extent that plans are already in place for a return in 2024 and beyond. Watch this and other spaces for the opportunity to attend and help the Lancashire Day grow into a highlight of the folk calendar. In the meantime, the museum awaits your visit and enjoyment.

Visit the Museum website