Mill towns preserve time-honoured ritual: The ancient tradition of 'Wakes Weeks' is alive and well, writes Jonathan Foster

THE EAST Lancashire town of Burnley has been on holiday. Schools and factories have closed, newspapers have not been delivered and the volume of retail trade has halved as the town pursues the tradition of 'Wakes Weeks'.

One custom has faded. Burnley holidaymakers have been sending postcards home, but the first mill workers on the beach used to receive postcards from those left behind, humorously reminding them of the grim realities to which they would soon return.

As Burnley goes back to work this week after its holiday fortnight, Blackburn will be off, then Bolton and Rochdale and on through the summer in an annual desertion of the Lancastrian cotton belt established 100 years ago.

Wakes were religious holidays, often marked by a fair. Burnley Fair, the local name for the holiday, began on St Peter's Day (29 June) 600 years ago, but owes its continuing popularity to the affluence of workers in Victorian weaving mills and their partiality for a spot of sea bathing.

By the 1870s, mill workers enjoyed three days' unpaid summer leave; by 1914, they were taking 10. Now the annual fair is established as the first two weeks in July.

Nineteenth-century Burnley had five railway stations to take holiday- makers to the coast, and an enterprising tea merchant named Abraham Altham, who ran cheap railway excursions, especially to Blackpool. The trips began in 1876; by 1894 a peak exodus of 70,000 - some 70 per cent of the population - left Burnley and neighbouring towns.

This year, Althams Travel Services took 3,000 people a day to Manchester airport alone at the start of Burnley Fair. Holiday destinations were typical of the northern English - Blackpool, Spain, the Greek islands and Turkey.

'The custom is very slowly dying out but, psychologically, Burnley shuts down,' Rita Walsh, of the chamber of trade, said before embarking for Rhodes.

'The smaller shops close, especially in outlying towns like Nelson and Colne. The multiples will be open, but half-heartedly and for shorter hours.

''It's a tradition you're ambivalent about. From the business point of view, you think it should be stamped out. People from outside are astonished, especially when Burnley people are getting ready to go away and say: 'Come back and ask me after the holidays'.

'But I find it depressing to be at home during Burnley Fair, and it can be cost-effective to close a mill or factory for two weeks, especially if there is refurbishment to be carried out.'

Most workers with families want to observe the fair because local schools close at the end of June, as soon as public examinations are over, and reopen in August, two or three weeks earlier than elsewhere. Cutting out the slack weeks in July gives Burnley schools an extra three weeks' exam teaching time in the year. Also, since holiday prices rise as the majority of English schools close, Lancastrians can beat the rest of the country to the sun spots, for less money.

(Photograph omitted)

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