Blind Jack and the Bash road

Hollins Hill, now the Haworth, was built to stand proud above the main thoroughfare between Manchester and The Ribble Valley. Manchester Road (the A680), threads neatly northwards through the hills of Baxenden, passing Hollins Hill, and into the valley of Accrington’s centre before climbing again towards Harwood and on towards Whalley.

John Metcalf, better known as Blind Jack, civil engineer extraordinaire
Astonishingly, reports Roger Cunliffe, this road was built by a blind engineer, whose method for determining the route for his road was to tap it out out with his stick. John Metcalf – widely known as Blind Jack of Knaresborough – supplied the winning tender to the Bury to Whalley Turnpike Trust and built its Baxenden leg in the late 1700s. Prior to this, the route through Baxenden snaked along Back Lane, down past Lane Ends Farm (later demolished to build Hollins Hill), along the hill and down the steep incline of Hollins Lane into town.

Blind Jack lost his sight to smallpox at the age of six. But this didn’t stop him leading a full and fascinating, if sometimes fraught, life. He earned his early living as a fiddle player, playing in local inns, then as a goods carrier, which helped him master the geography of the region. Jack used his transportation expertise to help the English army mobilise its weaponry around the Scottish Highlands during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. He was captured by Bonnie Prince Charlie’s adherents and court martialed as a spy, but was acquitted on grounds of too little evidence. A narrow squeak, and further testament to Jack’s seemingly unbounded resourcefulness.

Not only was Jack prolific and successful in his road-building career – he built around 180 miles of turnpike road, mainly throughout northern England – he was also extraordinarily inventive. He devised a method of packing his roads with heather and gorse bundles to get them across marshy terrain, which gave him a significant advantage over his competitors. Jack built roads in five counties and his roadbuilding career would last for decades, but Manchester Road, completed in 1791, turned out to be the last of Jack’s turnpike roads.

Statue tribute to Blind Jack, surveyor’s wheel in hand, in his native Knaresborough
Jack’s last road was also a losing venture for him. Although the project paid the princely sum of £3,500, he ended up being £40 out of pocket, which might account for the fact that he built no more. That said, he was by this time a spry 74-year old!

Stagecoaches traveled the turnpike for those who could afford them, revolutionising longer distance travel along the national network of turnpikes. A century later, trams would ply the route between Bash at the top of the hill and Accy at the bottom. But that’s for future posts! Stay tuned…

2 Replies to “Blind Jack and the Bash road”

    1. Thanks, Christine, lovely to hear from you, but the credit is all Roger’s! Do please keep reading. We love our readers!

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