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Nick Hunt celebrates free-thinkers, innovators and mavericks over the centuries

Interview by Simon Cronshaw

Nick Hunt is the Creative Director of Mid Pennine Arts, based in Burnley. The organisation was founded in 1966 and has been responsible for many different projects and developments over the years, including previous work with the Forest of Bowland AONB on the fiftieth anniversary programme Bowland Revealed. MPA explore historic Lancashire and its distinctive heritage in many of their projects, and are leading on the Pendle Radicals project for the Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership, which will span the entire 4 years of the scheme.

You’re about to undertake a project looking at Pendle Radicals. Who do you mean by this?

Pendle Radicals is a way of describing the innovators, the free-thinkers, the social reformers and the mavericks who were drawn to this inspirational landscape over the centuries.

We see a common thread in all these stories of thinking for yourself; going against the grain of accepted wisdom; finding your own way. There must be something in the water or the air of this rugged landscape that has inspired that kind of thinking or drawn such a stream of inspired individuals to the area!

Can you give us some examples of these Radicals?

We’ve drawn on a couple of well known examples to inspire the project. One is the founder of the Quakers, George Fox, who came to the Pendle area in 1651 and famously had his vision which inspired the founding of the Quakers up on the summit of Pendle Hill. He descended and took some refreshment at the spring, which has been known since as Fox’s Well. If you lift the lid on Fox’s Well to this day you can drop the tankard on a chain inside and drink from the same well that Fox did. He then descended further to Downham and took some more serious refreshment and enlisted the publican as one of his first followers!

A quite different example is Clarion House in Roughlee. Clarion House is the last surviving example of a Clarion Club, where once upon a time it was one of many and a gathering place for the Independent Labour Party in this area. One central principle for the ILP was giving the opportunity of healthy lifestyle choices to ordinary working people – the Clarion cycling clubs were a foundation stone of the movement, and to this day Clarion House is a well-loved gathering place for those of a socialist persuasion, their families and friends, and it’s a very special place.

© Simon Cronshaw
© Simon Cronshaw

Plenty of inspirational men. What about the women?

Yes, history has tended to spotlight men! But we’re keen to give this project some gender balance. There are a lot of important women whose stories need teasing out too. Selina Cooper, for example, was one of the leading Suffragists who lived in Nelson, and came to the fore of the fight for votes for women in spite of working in the mills from the age of 12. Another leading light of the Labour movement, Katharine Bruce Glasier, lived most of her life in Earby and was a very influential political figure said to be able to “sway a great crowd” with her powerful oratory.

How do you think such radical ideas were received by the Pendle locals?

Well, the many individuals we are exploring were all thinking differently and saying something that would have stopped their listeners in their tracks. So of course they must all have faced tough challenges to get their ideas heard, let alone accepted. But these are all people that through persistence and strength of conviction have made their mark on history, so even where they didn’t get widely accepted, they certainly got noticed!

Were these Radicals often focused on religious issues?

Some were, but our initial list also includes for instance Sir Jonas Moore, who was born in Newchurch and lived in Higham. He was an innovative mathematician known widely as ‘the father of time’, and he was instrumental in setting up the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and establishing the concept of Greenwich Mean Time – that was his mark on history!

Another, John Webster, was born in Thornton in Craven and was one of the first Seekers, a forerunner of the Quakers. Maybe his most noteworthy achievement was in writing a treatise against the practice of persecuting supposed witches. He was courageously questioning the very deep-seated, received wisdom about witchcraft.

© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts

And what about the timeline – are all of these Radicals from centuries ago?

No. It’s not all 400 years old or religious thinkers – that strong streak of individualism and free-thinking comes right up to the present day. For example, Welfare State International were a troupe of radical thinkers that were involved with our own history at Mid-Pennine Arts.

Mid-Pennine Arts was founded in 1966. In its early years it was responsible for some key cultural developments including inviting this troupe to take up residence in Burnley, led by John Fox and Sue Gill. They came to Burnley in 1972 and over the six years they were around, were responsible for all sorts of community-based performances – some of them quite politically radical.

They developed a unique body of work that has since been hugely influential across the world in shaping the evolution of outdoor performance, radical theatre, community-based spectacle, carnival arts and ‘new circus’. They became internationally known and at the heart of a family tree of community based and devised performing groups that has spread far and wide.

It sounds like the project will investigate a very diverse range of people. How did you go about discovering and selecting this group? I did a quick Google search and there’s not much information out there…

That’s right. There are fragments of knowledge that have come from all sorts of different sources. They are part of our collective knowledge but there’s very little known about some of these individuals and their stories.

We’re only just getting started. This will be a four-year project from April 2018 and our process will start with a period of investigation and research, for which we’d like to bring together an investigating group of volunteers who would like to be part of the collective adventure to explore these stories.

A first task for us is to make an open call for people to get in touch who might have an interest in one or more of these stories, or a place. We’ll be looking for people who perhaps, might be involved in local history or village groups or are just interested in their own place and the stories embodied in it.

© Mid Pennine Arts

Can you give us a sense of the shape of the project over the four years? What is it aiming to achieve?

We want to bring history to life, to discover and share more of these stories to help local people and visitors to see more in our local landscape. We want to look at familiar places with fresh eyes and thus to strengthen pride of place in the places that we live, and the amazing stories that are bound up in them.

We’re imagining the project running in three stages, but these will overlap. First of all, the investigation of these stories: researching through archives; through collective and individual memory; recording oral histories where individuals have memories of their ancestors or some fragment of these stories.

The second phase will be interpretation and looking at the material we collect in creative ways. We’ll commission some new work in a whole variety of artforms to explore these stories, and share them in participatory sessions with adults and very importantly, with young people.

The third phase is celebration, where we will spread out a bit beyond the local patch of Pendle Hill and into our surrounding towns, and we focus on sharing this work more widely through exhibitions, performance work and artefacts of various kinds.

Do you know yet how long you’ll spend on each story or individual, or how many you’ll focus on?

There will be a number of different lines of enquiry. We’ll be led by what people are interested in, by what works best and by where we find material. It’s going to be a voyage of discovery so we’ll see where it takes us. We’ll find that we go down some cul-de-sacs where there’s nothing to be found to enrich a particular story, but we’ll also find some fresh stories that we haven’t yet considered. Some strands of information for people that we do know about may prove to be rich strands and will lead us onwards! I know for example that Lancashire Archives has an extensive archive on Selina Cooper, and we can’t wait to explore that.

Four years is a long timescale. How does this impact how you approach your work?

Working over a four year is quite a luxury in our business – it’s one of the most attractive aspects of this programme. Creatively, it allows us to follow a path that starts with the participants but will gradually develop towards commissioning original artistic work of real depth.

More broadly, looking at our range of projects, they tend to be long term because that’s what it takes to achieve the kind of aims we have. We want to make a real difference and create work that leaves a legacy and has a long-term impact on communities and places.

© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts

What ingredients of this landscape are you particularly drawn to?

It’s a fantastically rich blend of elements that we have to explore here. Over the years we’ve explored different aspects of it – our biggest ever project was for the Panopticons new landmarks that we commissioned about 10 years ago. Those were commissioned to celebrate some of the spectacular panoramic views you get from the high spots around here, and to lure people to the high spots and reveal those views.

Most of the work of Mid-Pennine Arts seems to respond to stories hidden in local places…

It’s central to so much of what we do and all the more so in terms of the Radicals project.

We did a project for the Housing Market Renewal programme in Accrington some years ago. It was looking at how you get people thinking afresh about their part of town and noticing it with fresh eyes.  We looked at the minutiae of architecture: a lot of wonderful little, often neglected architectural details in ‘faience’ (that’s terracotta) or carving and recurring motifs like beehives and patterns and so on. I’m thinking about the Pendleside villages in those kind of terms: you wander through them and maybe don’t notice some of those hidden details.

© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts

So what might we be missing when we wander through Pendle?

In Barley we have the village hall with just a little fragment of evidence of the Primitive Methodist chapel that preceded it, a datestone just built into one of the steps. With a little bit of signposting you can focus on that detail of history that is sometimes buried under the current architecture. I’m thinking of how we can signpost people to little clues about those kind of stories that can bring their built environment back to life for them.

It sounds like a great treasure hunt is in the making…

The overall plan is still taking shape at this stage, but I’ve sketched out an idea of a Radicals Trail around the Pendleside villages. This would have quite a discreet presence on the ground at small sites of interest. It’s not intended to be intrusive and most of the sites won’t be open to visitors – the aim is to encourage people to discover a small fragment of stories in the landscape and then learn more about it through other materials.

Is history a common thread running through all your projects?

It is, because what gives a place its distinctiveness tends to be the fabric of a place that has built up through the generations. In all of our current projects we’re thinking about Lancashire and its distinctiveness as a cultural destination.

At the moment our biggest project is called Spodden Valley Revealed in the Whitworth area of Rossendale. It is a three-year project that is building up a linear heritage destination – a string of pearls of small historic sites that people will explore in whatever order they choose. These 11 historic sights are laid out around a cycleway, which will become a longer, off-road route linking up with Rawtenstall.

© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts

What other types of work will come out of the Radicals project?

Another project we did in 2014 was for the hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War. It focussed on the Christmas Truce on Christmas Day on the Western Front. I was thinking about this project because of the creative choices we made in interpreting this story.

This project had a community choir at the heart of it singing the carols again, but we also commissioned a specialist historical actor who created the character Sergeant Meredith and embodied this story of the Western Front. He became the central figure in bringing this story back to life. I’m thinking of that kind of commissioning of writing and performance that can bring these stories back to life.

How do you balance these one-off works for those that are there to see the performance and creating a resource for the long-term?

In that instance, the choir concert plus dramatic monologues were the climax of the project and were a one-off. Those who were there will not forget it and we can’t recreate it. We were able to record those Sergeant Meredith monologues with Radio Lancashire, and they broadcast them at the same time each day in Christmas week to an audience of around 120,000. They also still have that work in the can for future use. So we managed to disseminate it widely and preserve it, but the Ballad of No Man’s Land event was a one-off and manages to live in people’s memories.

I imagine there will be occasions like that in this project as it unfolds through the four years, where things happen that can’t be repeated, but that we will also find ways of creating artefacts that will live on. I do hope so!

© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts
© Mid Pennine Arts

How do we get involved?

I’d like to make an open invitation to anyone whose interest is sparked to get in touch and come and talk about how they might like to contribute. We’re going to be very dependent on a wide range of contributors, in particular from our Pendleside villages, so we’re really keen to hear from anyone that wants to join us on this voyage of discovery. These are your stories. Come and help us tell them.

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