The big idea

For many people, when they think of the North West, they think of dark satanic mills, the Industrial Revolution, etc etc. But if you’re unfamiliar with the area, it’s just not like that, and very definitely not like that in Preston (not any more, anyway). It’s a very green and almost bucolic city, with plenty of walks and cycle paths, particularly by the river and canal, and lots of quaint country pastimes such as egg rolling.

But really it’s all about the walks and rambling – Preston was always an elegant and fashionable town for the well-to-do; perambulations were an important element of social life, which is why there are so many historic walks. Check out the list of events here: no other city runs as many walks and rambles.

Did we mention that Preston is also the UK’s newest city? It was granted city status in 2002, making it England’s 50th city, known locally as simply Proud Preston.

Country life

So, we have a city of which two-thirds are given over to open country, criss-crossed with 160 miles of pathways, including the famous Round Preston Park, and is home to Beacon Fell, one of the oldest country parks in England. It’s sounding pretty idyllic so far, but there’s more: there’s so much open space because Preston was at the forefront of providing green, public spaces, and has preserved that ethos to the present day with the opening of the stunning £1.3 million pavilion in 2008, which was part of the Avenham and Millers Parks restoration; then there’s Preston Junction, which is full of old railway lines and is popular with – yes, you guessed it – walkers; and, last, but by no means least, the Dockside walks. If you love getting your boots on and getting out in the great outdoors you’ll love Preston – and the locals certainly know how to make the most of it, with endless organised walks, rambles, egg rolling, treasure hunts and other egg-cellent (sorry) ways to pass the time.

The River Ribble

Just when you thought it was safe to go inside and put your feet up, there’s yet more fantastic nature to explore and experience: the glorious River Ribble – not that easy to say after a couple of beers in a country pub – runs nearby and is one of Britain’s last remaining wilderness areas. It’s the most important site in the UK for wintering wildfowl and offers some of the most stunning walks (surprise, surprise) along river, estuary and coast (and of course along the Millennium Ribble Link, the first new canal for over a century). Cyclists are also catered for with the Ribble Way, which forms part of the Lancashire Cycle Way. And if after all that you fancy taking the weight off, there’s always the Ribble Steam Railway.

The most famous Guild in the land

The Preston Guild is an historic celebration, stretching right back to 1179, when King Henry II gave the town the right to hold a market; it’s absolutely unique as the only remaining Guild celebrated in England (celebrations take place once every twenty years).

The Guild was originally an organisation of the town’s traders, and to ensure people weren’t falsely claiming to be a member, they each had to come to the town, and swear loyalty in the public court to the Mayor. This occasion was infrequent but it was soon realised it only needed to happen once in a generation, and so, in 1542 it was decided to carry it out once every 20 years.

The rarity of the celebration, plus the large numbers of people involved, made this into a real opportunity for feasting, and the subsequent festival we can enjoy today. And the date of the next one? Get yourself’s in 2012.

The essence

Walking wonderland

How it can make you feel/who’s it ideal for

To put it bluntly, this place can make you feel wonderful: outstanding walks in the most stunning surroundings can do nothing but invigorate you and give you a fresh zest for life. So while it’s perfect for ramblers, walkers and outdoor types, we’d recommend it to anyone who needs a bit of a boost.
And in 2012, following the Olympic Games in London, the organisers of the 2012 Preston Guild are sending out a simple message: ‘All back to ours post-Olympics!

Interesting bits in the history

It’s thought that Preston was settled in Anglian times, around the 7th century, and was built around trade (although the name is thought to mean ‘Tun’ (settlement) of the priests’).

Fast forward to mediaeval times and the town was still very much focused on trade, thanks in part to its location on the Ribble Estuary, giving easy access to both the sea and down the valley in to Yorkshire, and to the Royal Charter granted to the town in 1179 that allowed it the right to have a Guild Merchant. This effectively gave the Guild’s members a monopoly over trade in the area, as only they were allowed the carry out a business or craft here. In fact, by the 14th century, Preston was considered the richest borough.

By the 16th century Lancashire was going through troubled times, but Preston maintained its grip on trade. It was also emerging as the largest catholic enclave in England and boasted many holy wells and shrines.

The 17th century saw the Battle of Preston, in 1648, when Oliver Cromwell’s troops triumphed over the Royalists. But the 17th century shouldn’t just be known for its battles, as the origins of the Avenham and Miller Parks can be traced back to this time. However, the Battle of 1648 wasn’t Preston’s only skirmish; there was a second Battle of Preston in 1715 (more often known as the Preston Fight), during the Jacobean uprising.

During the 18th century, Preston once again showed its mettle for markets by developing a small colonial trade, with Preston cheese one of the main exports to the West Indian colonies.

The Industrial Revolution was a crucial period for the town: it housed the first cotton mills and underwent quite a period of change, with new roads and railways being built. In fact, it was a son of Preston, Sir Richard Arkwright, who was to introduce the factory
system to the world. By the end of the 19th century the gentry moved out (to create what are now the suburbs) and the wealthy entrepreneurs moved in. And despite the well-travelled English writer Daniel Defoe painting a genteel and positive picture of the place – it was, after all, the county’s most fashionable resort – Preston wasn’t immune to the problems of poverty and pollution that were affecting the rest of the country. Such was the influx of people drawn to the town by its booming trade, areas soon became overcrowded, and the townscape changed to that of a typical mill town, with mills and rows and rows of terraced houses.
Conditions were harsh, and Preston had one of the highest infant mortality rates between 1880 and 1900. However, the docks in Preston continued to flourish.

By the early 20th century, the cotton industry was in serious decline. Other industries were springing up, such as the Leyland Steam Wagon Company (later to become Leyland Motors), but not enough to offset the loss of cotton and the decline in the use of the docks. As with other cities, Preston, by the end of the 20th century, was investing in its retail space and tourism. And as a measure of the importance of the town’s history, 2002 saw Preston beat off 26 other English rivals to be awarded Golden City status, and become England’s newest city.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of

Who could resist starting off in the dramatic backdrop to the city, at the Bowland Visitor Centre, giving you access to Beacon Fell Country Park in the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. With beautiful countryside all around, and stunning views across the Fylde to the west and Forest of Bowland hills to the east, there’s a well-maintained network of forest trails and an abundance of wildlife, birds, flora and fauna to invigorate you.

After the delights of the Beacon Fell pop into the little village of Goosnargh – if you want to experience their delicacy look out for the Goosnargh cake, a caraway seed shortcake biscuit (Gordon Ramsey’s also partial to a bit of Goosnargh corn-fed chicken and duck apparently).

From here head into the city itself on the main A6. And be sure to look out on the left for Moor Park, the largest and certainly the oldest park in the city. Known as Preston Moor, this place has a huge amount of history: from violent disagreements between Royalists and Parliamentarians before the civil war and the birth of local football club Preston North End (originally a cricket team!) to the park’s use as a hospital during the World War I and a PoW camp during the World War II. Oh, and if you fancy a walk, consider that this was also the site of Tom Benson’s triumph in 1997 when he became world champion distance walker by continuously walking the park perimeter until he’d clocked 314 miles. Off you go then.

At the other end of the park, over the Deepdale Road you’ll see the shiny new home to Preston North End, founder members of the English Football League and first English football champions (as well as the first team ever to do the league and cup double); stop and admire the statue dedicated to Sir Tom Finney, one of England’s finest players.

Now head along Deepdale Road and into the city centre itself. Look out for the Preston Guild Hall and Charter Theatre, the city’s main entertainment venues; here’s where you’ll find the Tourist Information Centre. As you stroll around the main shopping area you won’t be able to miss The Harris Museum, a magnificent building in neo-classical style overlooking the Flag Market. This Grade I-listed building has the largest gallery space in Lancashire, and now houses local history and fine art collections, and the biggest scent bottle collection in the country. Make sure you check out the impressive central hall and staircases inside. And opposite here be sure to find the Miller Arcade, an elegant Victorian arcade modelled on London’s Burlington Arcade.

A walk along Fishergate towards the train station and on the right hand side you’ll come across St George’s shopping centre, with over a 100 stores including M&S and several of the big High Street names. But just down here on the left take a walk down Winckley Street and you’ll be rewarded with a gem of a square called Winckley Square. This was where the money lived when Preston was the fashionable Lancashire resort in the 19th century; today it’s the finest example of a privately planned Georgian development with open space in the north of England.

Head on out of the square to the south and you’re at the beautiful Avenham and Miller parks; they’re consistent winners of Green Flag awards these two parks, and run alongside the River Ribble, offer some of the most beautiful parkland in Lancashire and rank amongst the best examples of Victorian parks in northwest England. Avenham Park is created by a natural amphitheatre and contains Avenham Walk, the Rock Garden (or Japanese garden), and a striking new Pavilion, which opened in 2005. Linked by ornate railway arches, Miller Park enjoys a more formal layout, with beautiful bedding displays and the relaxing Derby Walk.

Suitably relaxed? Good. If you fancy a bit more shopping, there’s the Fishergate Shopping Centre, back up on Fishergate, just before the train station. And if you fancy a most attractive train ride head out west of the city (to get an idea of which way is west look for the tall church spire: St Walberge’s Church is allegedly the proud owner of the tallest spire of any parish church in England). And following out the city head for the Ribble Steam Railway in the old docks area of the city. There’s a museum with lots of hands-on exhibits, but the big draw is clearly the three-mile trip on a restored steam engine,along the riverbank giving views only seen from the track.

A lovely end to a proud city.

When to visit

City pics