Most of the cotton mills have gone, of course. And those that remain have other uses. Across the road from Oldham Werneth railway station is a particularly fine example of 19th-century mill architecture - an imposing, big- windowed, red-brick affair that has been turned into a carpet warehouse. An elderly man on the platform looks at it and tells me it's now a listed building. And then he points down at his feet and says: 'Underneath here it's all honeycombs. Closed up now, though.'
This is the area that once produced 60 per cent of all the cotton goods sold throughout the world. At the industry's height, in the early part of the century, it employed three-quarters of a million people. In the Oldham district alone there were said to be as many spindles as in the whole of France and Germany put together.
The cotton mill towns of Lancashire produced something else in abundance, too - football clubs. They all had them. A map of the area reads like a history of the English game: Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley, Preston, Bury, Rochdale . . . and the two towns whose teams will be meeting in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup next Saturday, Bolton and Oldham.
It's a fixture that seems to come from another age - an age when, as one Bolton supporter put it last week, ''you worked in the mill till 12, went to the pub and had a couple of pints and a pie, and then off to the match'. That way of life has gone. The communities that established themselves around the mills have been broken up. There are few big employers left. In that respect, Lancashire is no different from any other area that was once an industrial heartland. But as elsewhere, football lives on, still a focal point for people's lives, and in Bolton last week helping to underpin a sense of identity which unemployment and economic hardship have not managed to destroy.
EVEN Joe Royle, the Oldham manager, sees that the match looks like 'a battle of the flat-caps'. After all, the towns are only 15 miles apart and share a common industrial heritage. For Oldham, success has been fleeting, while Bolton's glory days are so long gone (they last won the FA Cup in 1958) as to be beyond the memory of many if not most football followers. That, however, would be to miss much of the significance of the game.
You could call the match a decider. Bolton and Oldham have only ever met twice in the FA Cup, and the score stands at 1-1. In 1912- 13, Oldham beat Bolton 2-0 at Boundary Park. In 1927-28 Bolton beat Oldham 2-0 at Burnden Park. Both teams have rivalries with other clubs that are probably stronger, but none that are subtler.
Ian Hurst is a schoolteacher born and brought up in Bolton, and a passionate Wanderers supporter since watching them as a child in the Sixties. 'Oldham's more of a weaving town,' he explains. 'Bolton's a spinning town. To most people a mill's a mill, but there's a very big difference. Spinners were looked down on by the weavers, so Oldham would look down on Bolton. Their attitude would be, 'Bolton's just a supplier, producing the thread that we used. We produced the goods.' '
The irony is that while Bolton may have been Oldham's inferior in that respect, it has emerged since the cotton industry went into decline as much the more go- ahead, prosperous town, in which small businesses have sprouted. This is partly because it is geographically much more its own place. There is a precious stretch of open moorland - no more than a couple of miles or so - which separates Bolton from Salford on the edge of Manchester. 'Bolton is very proud of its heritage,' Hurst says, 'but it doesn't dwell on it. So although there are a lot of old buildings there are a lot of new ones as well. Bolton doesn't say 'We are what we were', it says, 'We are what we can be.' '
Oldham is rather different. Royle calls it 'an old-fashioned Lancashire town' - somewhat shackled both to Manchester and its past. In Oldham there are still numerous cotton mill chimneys standing out bleakly against the skyline. In Bolton they have nearly all been knocked down. It's a contrast that is reflected in the way the two teams play - Bolton full of bright, neat football; Oldham big- hearted but slightly ponderous. 'That's the way we like Bolton to play,' Hurst says. 'The people drift off otherwise. These days you have to give them what they want.'
Stewart Beckett, the author of the history of Oldham Athletic, The Team from the Town of Chimneys, agrees that for all that Royle has achieved in his 12 years as manager - taking the side up to the top flight, getting them to the 1990 Littlewoods Cup final - the club could attract younger followers. 'You look around the main stand and see how many supporters there are in their fifties and sixties,' he says. 'What it will be like in 20 years' time I don't know. It's a problem that young people aren't coming to watch.'
What are they doing then? According to Stewart Beckett, one of the things they are doing is taking over the disused mills, with their huge floor spaces, to play something called Paintball - a British Bulldog-type war-game that involves converting the mill into a mini-battlefield, dodging obstacles and flinging paint at each other. You don't need to romanticise Victorian working life to find something troubling about that.
And then there is Manchester United. In the week that United's commercial tentacles stretched even further with the launch of its own radio station, the need for clubs like Bolton and Oldham to hang on to their supporters looked all the greater. In Bolton the sense of opposition to United is acute, and the club is making a big effort to appeal to young people for whom the draw of Giggs and Co might otherwise be hard to resist.
Bolton's dislike of United runs very deep, and pre-dates the 1958 Cup Final which United had done remarkably to reach after the Munich air disaster only three months previously. There were no neutrals for that match. Anyone who wasn't a Bolton fan wanted United to win. United lost 2-0, eliciting even more sympathy when Nat Lofthouse, Bolton's most famous son, charged into Harry Gregg, the United goalkeeper, for the now infamous second goal. 'Bolton spoiled the dream,' Hurst says. 'But in Bolton that was quite acceptable. Had it been Norwich or someone we would have felt a bit of remorse. But as it was United there was no remorse at all.' And since those days Bolton the town has had to put up with what it sees as the indignity of being 'relocated', thanks to local government reorganisation, from Lancashire into Greater Manchester. 'That was the biggest insult Bolton ever had,' Hurst says.
You admit any sort of allegiance to United at your peril. When Gordon Sharrock, the Football Correspondent of the Bolton Evening News, gave an interview to the the club's fanzine, he mentioned - thinking nothing of it - that as a child he used to go to United to watch Best, Law and Charlton. The fanzine hasn't forgiven him, he says.
At Oldham the battle can never really be won. Within half a mile of Boundary Park is a branch of the Manchester City Supporters' Club. Even when Oldham are at home, according to Stewart Beckett, you will see plenty of red- or blue-shirted fans heading south to Old Trafford or Maine Road. 'I'm a season-ticket holder at Old Trafford myself,' he says. 'That speaks for itself.'
Bolton refuse to accept inferior status to United. When Hurst says it's not a question of how Bolton manage to survive in United's shadow but rather the other way round, he is not being entirely facetious. And in Lofthouse, Bolton even have their own Busby-esque father-figure.
Lofthouse, now 68 but still spending most days in his office at Burnden Park, is revered, a link with the last great Bolton team, notwithstanding the two seasons the club had in the First Division in the late Seventies. And he's one of the few things that most people outside Bolton think of when the name crops up. Apart from Lofthouse, there's the 1923 'white horse' Cup Final, the first at Wembley, in which Bolton beat West Ham 2-0 while the fans spilled on to the pitch; the 1946 Burnden Park stadium disaster in which 33 people died when barriers broke during an FA Cup tie against Stoke City; and the fact that in 1888 Bolton Wanderers were one of the 12 founders of the Football League.
Bolton's relationship with Lofthouse says much about the club. One of the few players in the history of the game worthy to be called a legend, he has spent the 34 years since he stopped playing in various capacities at the club - scout, manager, general manager, and, latterly, president - without ever being made a great deal of fuss of. That is not Bolton's way, even if Lofthouse is one of the few living people to have a pub named after him - The Lion of Vienna on the western edge of the town centre, complete with Lofthouse memorabilia.
You sense that Lofthouse's value to the club is mostly spiritual, although when it comes to attracting business, it does help to have someone like him around. A big project on Bolton's horizon is a move to a new ground, part of a proposed 'sports village', at Horwich, a couple of miles to the west of the town.
Most supporters balk at the prospect of leaving behind their beloved stadium, even one, like Burnden Park, which now has a section comprising the back of a supermarket where terracing once was. But not Bolton's. 'The fans' attitude is, 'Well at least the club is looking forward',' Hurst says.
Bolton is helped in having a view unimpeded by the presence of a rugby league team in the town. In Oldham, football and rugby league vie for the attention of local people, although it's a contest the round-ball men are winning comfortably at the moment.
The Bolton players themselves can take a lot of credit for the respect in which the club is held - and not just because of their performances on the field. 'You see them around the town, and they'll stop and chat,' Hurst says. 'If you want a player to come and appear at a function of some kind, there's a good chance you'll get him. But it's always been like that. Even Frank Worthington when he was here. You couldn't get anybody much less Bolton than him.'
It all adds up to the feeling that the club belongs more to the town than it does to itself. Warburtons, the local bakery firm, was once the financial power behind the club. But now the shares are spread around the seven directors, and it's a board which largely lets Bruce Rioch, the manager, run things. It's a job done not just with the utmost professionalism, but a personal touch, too. When Bolton's fans were queuing in the cold to buy tickets for the FA Cup tie against Aston Villa, members of the club's youth team came round with cups of tea for them. 'That was a very Bolton sort of gesture,' Hurst says.
If Bolton has a symbol to match that of the football club, then, to local people at any rate, it is probably its town hall. Opened in 1873, it has majestic neo-
classical columns, a clock tower, and twin figures representing Manufacturers and Commerce. If ever a town hall was built to have the FA Cup paraded from the top of its steps, then Bolton's is it. And in a little over two months, that might just happen.
In a landscape full of reminders of the past, the future beckons.