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It’s Friday evening, the first of July. Most people have left work to enjoy the start of a sunny weekend.  An overworked Arts Council England administrator is still at their computer, sending emails via Grantium, the overworked arts grant application portal. A backlog of decisions, already delayed due to high volumes, needs posting. 

We had been expecting an email all day in response to an application we’d submitted back in March for eleven new commissions. 

The email is neutral. It alerts you that a message has been posted on Grantium. You have to log on. You have to remember your username and password before learning your application’s fate. For us, it was good news. I hadn’t realised just how stressed I’d been awaiting the decision. The rational part of me knew that it was a good application and that if rejected, it would be due to oversubscription rather than a damning indictment of our ideas and values. We could apply again. We wouldn’t have had to close down without this revenue.

The relief was physical. I sat in the sun and read the application appraisal on my phone, which was glowing with no conditions. Now, we need to deliver it.

Some background. In the heady days before covid, we were awarded a similar sum to deliver several commissions, including two digital art pieces (Hit the North by Matt Wilkinson & Monument by Elliot Flanagan), two tourable outdoor theatre shows (Cabinet of Curiosity by Eye of Newt & Conference of the Birds by Frolicked) and a new show, specifically for libraries (Miss Nobodies by Ruth E. Cockburn). 

All these commissions we co-curated by groups of people from Lancashire, including young librarians, a promoters group from Burnley, the Friends of Fairhaven Lake and women in Great Harwood. 

All were successful, but we learned a lot along the way, not least how to manage a commissioning programme during a pandemic. We have broadened our reach and pre-appointed artists to engender a more collaborative process between artists and the curatorial group. 

What we plan is: 

So far, we have accepted Arts Council England’s offer of funding. We have told our partners and informed the artists that we have been given the go-ahead. I plan to use this blog to record progress. There will be ups and downs, but that is the creative process. I will also go back and tell some of the stories from our previous commissioning programme. I hope readers will find our journey interesting, and we welcome you on our learning journey over the next few months. We will need to hit the ground running as we plan to have most of the creative work done by the end of March 2023. In the middle of this (October 2022), we are due to find out if our application to become an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation from April 2023 is successful. Another nervous fumbling for the Grantium login details awaits. 

Blackburn and Rotterdam: a new perspective

Whether in Rotterdam or Blackburn, looking at the world from a different perspective is always good. I live in the Netherlands’ second city and the aspirational Lancashire town, and they have a surprising amount in common – not least, forward-looking architectural ambitions in the mid-20th century.

Rotterdam is a very different dutch city. It is nicknamed ‘Manhatten en the Mass’. A lot of the cute Dutch bridges and Gable-ended houses were destroyed by German bombers on 31st March 1943. Rotterdam was already a forward-looking city so decided to build back new rather than try and recreate what had been. If you want that, Delft is only a 45-minute cycle ride from the centre of Rotterdam. Since the bombardment, Rotterdam has been championing contemporary architecture and can now boast some of the world’s most renowned architectural practices such as MVRDV and OMA.

Contemporary Rotterdam has space built-in at ground level, room to breathe. In a very flat country, where the landscape is often dominated by a gazillion acres of sky, it is also a city where you never tire of looking up. This is where you’ll find the tallest buildings in the Netherlands. De Zalmhaven, just completed, tops the lot at 215m.

Looking up is great – what about looking down? This year Rotterdam has hosted a Rooftop walk experience in the heart of the city centre – admittedly this didn’t involve the highest buildings which are mostly built next to the river, but it was still a long way up. For €3.50 you got to ascend a flight of orange stairs onto the World Trade Centre Rotterdam, then cross a 60m long and 30m high scaffolding bridge over Coolsingel to the roof of De Bijenkorf department store. The city looked magnificent from up there with some surprises. I hadn’t realised how green Coolsingel was from ground level or how clearly it linked up to the Erasmus Bridge.

Blackburn wasn’t handed a complete rebuilding challenge by the Luftwaffe but its mid-twentieth-century leaders also had an architectural vision of a contemporary and forward-looking town. The shopping centre was one of the first of its kind in the UK. The 14-storey Town Hall Tower dominates the skyline. There was a plan in the late sixties to create a high-level walkway linking the King George’s concert hall, the relocated Library, a new building on Town Hall Street, opposite the library, the old town hall and the new Town Hall tower block. Much of it was realised. The bridge between the two Town Hall buildings still exists. The link was made between King Georges’ Hall and the Libray though this was removed a few years ago. In the Library, The Street, a wide thoroughfare at the first-floor level remains as an isolated remnant of a great vision. I think that there is still a model of the whole scheme in the museum store. Local Government reorganisation in 1974 put a stop to it all with the Library falling under the jurisdiction of the newly formed County Council. Although much was built, it was soon forgotten without the whole vision being realised.

Mayor’s Sunday Parade 1968 shows the old Town Hall and an early phase of the mid-century modern shopping centre. (Cottontown.org)
Blackburn’s visionary new 1960s shopping centre (Lancashire Telegraph)

I would love to see a Blackburn take on Rotterdam’s Rooftop walk, recognising the vision of those town leaders in the 1960s, perhaps as part of the National Festival of Making or independently, as a temporary attraction in its own right. It would keep the scaffolders busy for weeks and British Health and Safety officers would have kittens but it is certainly doable. 


I imagine that as I get used to popping back and forth between Rotterdam and Blackburn I will have my packing down to a fine art. I am already quite a good ‘light’ traveller and am often amazed at the size of suitcase people take with them for a week in the sun. (It’s going to be hot and sunny – you don’t need to wear very much). I’ve had practice on cycling holidays. A few weeks ago Sue and I sat in a café in Oxford and watched a group of far eastern tourists dragging elephantine cases down the middle of the road as if carrying out a pointless punishment – a chain gang or Sisyphus with his boulder.

Our budget airlines are working hard to get us better at packing. As they encourage us to take less hold baggage the rise of the specifically measured cabin bag market must have been significant. Each airline, confusingly, seems to have a slightly different set of dimensions. Of those flying to Schiphol, Flybe has the meanest allowance. 55cm x 40cm x 23cm and 10KG. This to me is still quite a big case and more than enough for a couple of weeks away as long as I’m not needing to take a smart suit.

My occasional commute between Rotterdam and Blackburn should normally involve no more than a modest rucksack. I will have clothes at both destinations and won’t need to carry toiletries – easy. It will become a quest to get through security with a minimum of fuss as fast as I can.

My next trip will, however, be a bit different. As Sue put it, in a fortnight’s time she’ll be taking be off to boarding school and leaving me there. I will be taking things this time that I won’t ever need to take through airport security again.

I have a packing list which contains some unusual things

  • 2015-08-14 15.46.28Wallpaper, 2 rolls – I took some wallpaper in the van in June, I’d got a really good deal and liked it. Last time I was there I realised that I’d miscalculated how much I’d need  – it has a large repeat.
  • Laptop, Chromebook and tablet – Laptop for working on, chromebook for carrying around and 7″ tablet for reading things on.
  • Clothes – Not just for a fortnight in the sun but to keep warm, decent and stylish day to day, (there are already some things there and I did pick up some shirts in a sale at Zara in Rotterdam)
  • Gifts – I’ve got some wonderful lovely friends who very generously bought me presents for my birthday two weeks ago, ‘to take to Rotterdam’. These include but are not limited to: A mug, A Minions stationary set, some Kit-kats, a pencil case, a book on failing exams, tea, a monographed pen, shortbread biscuits, a windmill, an apron, some British beer and a cravat. (A big thank you to everyone)
  • Text books – As I said last week, some of these can be rather heavy.
  • My admin file – It is amazing how many pieces of paper I’ve been collecting that need to be carted around.
  • A couple of cook books – trying to use Dutch language ones might result in a number of culinary hic-ups.

For this next trip I have booked ‘hold baggage’. My reputation for travelling light will be banished and I will be forced to struggle with two bags from the airport to the apartment.  Even with all this I shall only be dragging a fraction of what some people take for a long weekend in Ibiza.



Warning! This route crosses through Belgium

Last Thursday – the 28th of May – was our wedding anniversary. Eleven years, which according to Google was our steel anniversary. To mark the occasion I romantically gave Sue the opportunity to spend the day in a steel box with dinner on a large steel vessel. We are busy people and as we had to be in Rotterdam on Friday to complete on the apartment on Pannekoekstraat we thought it a good opportunity to do a roadtrip with a van full of stuff.

Safe in our hired Intack Self drive steel box, we headed off at 8am to Dover with some CDs and a packed lunch.

You may be thinking – why Dover when you can get a ferry direct to Rotterdam from Hull? The answer is cost. It is eye wateringly expensive. It would have cost about £800 (€1120) as opposed to £190 (€266).  It was bad enough having to pay the extra to take the van overseas.

The road trip in picturesOur DFDS ferry to Dunkirk was at 18:00. We got to Dover, having sung along to at least four compilation albums, a couple of hours early. In time for a walk on the beach and an icecream.

We were put right at the front of the boat between two wagons. The LWB HighTop Transit that had looked enormous in our drive looked tiny. We sat in the restaurant on the crossing and watched it being sprayed in seawater like a pebble wedged between two boulders.

Google maps had detailed a route for us with a strange warning. An ominous yellow triangle containing a forbidding explanation mark and the legend THIS ROUTE CROSSES THROUGH BELGIUM. What could this mean? Would we be safe in our Ghent Campanile hotel room we’d pre booked? Would the streets be lined with beer brewing monks bombarding us with waffles and chips dunked in mayonnaise. A bit disappointingly, no – The only Belgians we spoke to worked at the Campanile and were lovely. They didn’t even tie us up in red tape.

I love Schengen. Crossing borders with no hassle is very civilised. The checks in Dover were easy. The French seemed happy to let us in even if we never put our feet on French soil. I do think they need to mark the borders better though. How about an arch over the motorway with flags and examples of national identity. Onions, wine and fromage for France; Beer and waffles for Belgium; bikes, clogs and tulips for the Netherlands. Given the British fear of Schengen we could be represented by barbed wire, queues and suspicion – oh, hang on – that is what greets you when you enter the UK.

While we were travelling, Mr Cameron was in The Hague meeting with Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister. No doubt in perfect English.  We mentioned this to Ernst and our Notary when we were finalising the apartment purchase. They laughed and said – Oh yes – he’s trying to change Europe. We joked and said that first on his agenda was to get everyone else driving sensibly on the left like we do. We joked but…

Whilst on the continent, Sue adopted the role of driver whilst I navigated. This suited me down to the ground. Sue is a much better driver than me. As a team we did really well. We navigated the motorways and the urban streets of Rotterdam without hitch. We didn’t fall out once. Parking by the apartment is expensive, (50c for 18 minutes). The van was also rather large and finding space would have been tricky. Luckily there was a temporary loading bay and Rotterdam has an extensive park and ride scheme.

Our road trip concluded on Monday with a marathon drive from Rotterdam to Dunkirk and then from Dover to Blackburn – about 12 hours including the ferry trip. There were a lot of trucks on the two lane Belgian motorways and we were victim to a lot of elefantenrennen. The only real fly in the ointment was the embarrassment at how non UK nationals must feel as they get checked, grilled, searched and checked again before they are permitted to tread on British soil – At least we should do it with a smile. I fear that this will only get worse as all the emotional arguments ahead of an in-out referendum seem to be coming from the little islanders. The ones who’ve forgotten two European wars in the last century and think that those foreigners should do what we tell them or we won’t be in their gang. It might be alright once Mr Cameron has explained which side of the road they should be driving on.