Blackburn is often described as a town with a cultural divide but it's a community united by pride and compassion
If you feel that peace on earth and goodwill to all men might be in short supply in Brexit-torn Britain, then a trip to Blackburn could restore your faith. The Christmas spirit is alive and well and nowhere is that more obvious than in the Boulding family household.
At first glance, you might think this is home to one of those extreme hoarders who appear on late night Channel 5 documentaries. Boxes are piled high throughout this normally tidy home and visitors have to negotiate their way through narrow corridors to get from room to room. However, the house is also packed to the gunnels with happiness that will be spread across the faces of children in Blackburn and Darwen during the coming festive season. Since his teens Phil Boulding had a hankering to work for good causes but family life and an international career as a senior IT specialist somehow got in the way.
However, as he approached retirement some stark statistics about the number of underprivileged children in his home area came as a shock and reactivated his desire to help.
'We are not wealthy but we are not poor either - we just wanted to put something back,' said Phil.
He and his wife, Karen, set up Secret Santa, a not-for-profit community interest company, with an initial goal of supplying a sack of presents for 200 children who would otherwise go without on Christmas morning. Maureen Bateson, the Blackburn council's head of children's services, liked the idea and after a meeting with Phil they upped the target to 750. They achieved their goal and last year the number of children exceeded 900.
This year they will be providing new toys and books for 1,000 youngsters. With seven items for every child that means Phil, Karen and a team of volunteers spend months gathering donations of cash or new toys so 7,000 items are distributed to less fortunate families.
'It's true that we never see any of the children unwrapping then toys but it's not about us - it's about parents being able to provide gifts for children who would otherwise go without. I have bumped into a few and they have been quite tearful because they had no idea how they would have been able to give their children a proper Christmas.
'These are families that struggle to put food on the table at Christmas let alone buy toys. There is a real sense of relief among parents when they discover we can help. Children who don't get presents feel isolated and can even be ostracised at school when they meet friends and discuss what gifts they received.'
While Phil, Karen and their helpers have now got a base for sorting and packing gifts, the sheer volume means they spill over into their Lower Darwen home. 'I don't mind because it's for the children,' said Karen. 'But it is nice when January comes around and I can have my home back!'
However, charity isn't confined to children in the Boulder household. Any left-over Christmas cash donations are used to help fund a party for lonely senior citizens in the area. Meanwhile, Phil and Karen have also distributed sanitary items to combat 'period poverty' among young girls and provide prom dresses to those who can't afford to buy special outfits.
'Even though they don't celebrate Christmas, we have many Muslims donating money and toys as well as helping us with the packing,' said Phil. 'And this year, we provided gifts and sweets to 500 under-privileged Muslim children at Eid. People often say that Blackburn is a divided community. Believe me - it isn't.'
The Secret Santa campaign now has its own shop at The Mall in Blackburn and you can make a cash donation through www.JustGiving.com/Crowdfunding/SecretSantaBwD.
The meat-ing place
Ask Tom Wood what he expects from Christmas in Blackburn Market and he answers with one word: 'Bedlam.' He means it in a good way. 'Every year, it just gets busier and busier.' Not surprising really as he runs the Tom Wood Artisan Butcher business in The Mall. The ground floor food market has a busy vibe most of the year, but footfall during the festival season goes off the scale.
Many head to his store for the top quality meat often from heritage breeds produced on the family farm. They are attracted by an eclectic mix of traditional joints and unusual and inventive cuts, including some from a special dry-ageing unit. Tom's profile as the former captain of the Team GB Butchery Team, competing around the world, means he has more than 40,000 followers on social media and a customer base for deliveries stretching from London and Scotland as well as across the North West.
Setting up his business in Blackburn means a return to his roots. Although he is originally from Whalley, his grandad has a business in the old Blackburn Market. His father is also prominent in the meat, farming and livestock business.
'I'm really happy to be in Blackburn,' said the 40-year-old father of three daughters. 'It's a much bigger town that people think and there's a lot going on. But when it comes to meat, people are very traditional although we often get people to try dishes that some think are new but are actually making a comeback - things like short ribs and osso bucco.'
Much of the business is done on line but Tom, who is also a skilled cook, loves being in the shop interacting with people. 'I hope they can see the passion and insight I bring.' So will there be some major new trends for Christmas feasts this year. 'No,' said Tom. 'It's going to be turkey!'
Rising from the ashes
The Bureau Centre for the Arts had developed into a flourishing centre for creative people when disaster struck one night last April.
Their base in the fine 230-year-old St John's Church was devastated by fire. 'We had just got to the point where the organisation was established,' said Kerris Casey-St Pierre, one of the directors. 'We had gone from strength to strength and we were starting to have a long term vision for the centre. Then, we woke up one morning and found ourselves on national television with the church in flames.'
The fire meant the church could no longer be used for the arts and a question mark remains over its future.
'The fire crews were amazing and we did manage to salvage some of the equipment,' she added.
What happened next was a roller-coaster ride for the directors as the council came to their aid, whisking them around a variety of possible new homes. As soon as they walked into what had once been the Waterloo Inn in Penny Street they knew the arts centre would rise from the ashes.
The building had various incarnations - from a much-loved pub to a nightclub and most recently a training base and visitor centre for the Daniel Thwaites brewery.
'After a trial period we knew this would be the base for our long-term re-launch,' added Kerris. 'It feels like home.'
Fellow director Leonie Stephenson said they were able to re-start their arts programme and provide a base for the highly-regarded Pat Eakets Dance School. There is a big mix ranging from tai chi to steel bands, photography, textiles, exhibitions and mending sessions.
The revival of the centre and the quality of the arts featured there led to it beating more than 30 other voluntary arts organisations to win at the an annual EPIC awards in Edinburgh.
Cath Ford, another of the directors, said the centre catered for a wide range of people from the community, including people sleeping on the streets and others who were simply lonely and in need of a meeting place. 'It's important that people can come in and feel comfortable - they don't need to be interested in the arts.'
Kerris added: 'The way the community rallied around after the fire was astounding. Until then we hadn't realised how important the centre was to the community in Blackburn and how much it had touched the lives of so many people.' To find out more go to bureaublackburn.co.uk.
Upper crust town
Business woman Zainab Bilal featured in Lancashire Life earlier this year when she won silver at the British Pie Awards in Melton Mowbray and now Selfridges are to test her Pie Mezzanae products to see if they can be stocked by the upmarket retail giant.
Her success has seen turnover treble, staff have been taken on and she has expanded thanks to major investment in equipment at her base on the Fort Street Industrial Park.
And the mum-of-five is also hoping to get her Pie Heroes brand - with fillings ranging from 'veggie masala' to 'calzone' - into convenience stores as well as having some form of retail base in Blackburn town centre.
It makes the science teacher one of the town's pace-setting entrepreneurs and a keen supporter of the town's revival. 'A lot of people talk about segregation in Blackburn but I don't feel that at all,' she said.
'We are a multi-social town - up and coming with a really strong community feel. It's time to show people what we are about. There is so much talent in Blackburn.'
Say it with flowers
Lorraine Johnson is gearing up for a festive flourish of business at Le Rain Florist, her business on the ground floor of The Mall. Christmas flowers and floral decorations will be much in demand. 'Blackburn is a great place to do your Christmas shopping,' she said. 'There is just about every shop you'd need and the market is a real attraction.'