Thursday, July 2, 2009

Blessing Blackburn ~ Installment 3

"Blessed are your eyes for they see, and your ears for they hear." (Matthew 13:16)

Note: Please click on image to see slide show with more photos in a larger size at your own pace

Wednesday, 7/1/09
10:39 pm in Blackburn

In Bathgate, next door to the internet café, we found a place that served curried lamb and chicken. We also noticed cans of Irn Bru in a refrigerated case, and remembered a picture of an Irn Bru delivery truck driver giving some of this favorite Scottish soft drink to Susan. Waiting for our curry meal, we sipped a can of regular Irn Bru and were amazed to taste something reminiscent of carbonated Bazooka bubble gum. It was delicious, as was the curry dish with rice, which we ate while perched on a low garden wall in the next block.

One thing we need to mention about dining out so far in Blackburn, and at this shop in Bathgate. There were no chairs or tables in most of the establishments that we visited, as apparently people are accustomed to taking their meals elsewhere to eat them. Except for our several lunches at the sit-down café in the small mall, the rest of the meals that we purchased in Blackburn were for take away (that is, to go). So we either sat on chairs in the mall or went back to the Happy Valley to eat. The Happy Valley does not serve food in the pub, although as hotel guests we could have had breakfasts upstairs. The food that we have eaten here in Scotland is very tasty, so we are well pleased.

As I filed my Monday report at the internet café in Bathgate, Del was conversing with the capable young lady who was helping us. It turned out that Emma was born and raised in Blackburn, and still lives there. She boarded the same bus home to Blackburn with us, and alerted us to exit the bus at the right stop. We have had so many wonderful experiences with local people who are extra friendly and considerate.

As much as we love the fish and chips, we decided on Monday evening to try something different – Chinese food! Across a short field and narrow road from the small mall is one of the two Chinese food places that we have seen in Blackburn. It seems that both of them have take away service only. We wondered if Susan ate there sometimes, and the answer was: not often. A woman came in to pick up her phoned-in order, and we asked her to recommend something good. She said the chicken chow mein was her favorite, so we tried that along with sweet and sour chicken and special rice. Returning to the Happy Valley, we watched the British favorite (a Scotland native) win a long, difficult Wimbledon match as we munched on our Chinese food. It was really very good – and a slightly different style than what we have eaten in Brooklyn.

The Wimbledon match went on and on – ending at the latest hour in Wimbledon history. The BBC airs many of these matches very prominently during the day. Andy Murray, the great hope for the Brits this year, is from a small city in Scotland, only an hour or so away from Blackburn. He won the match after nearly four hours of strenuous play in the hot, hot London weather. Meanwhile, here in Blackburn – often overcast and misty – temperatures remained mostly in the fifties and sixties, creeping occasionally into the sunny low seventies with humidity that we barely noticed compared to steamy Brooklyn in the summer.

Next on our informal agenda was the Blackburn Community Education Centre on Tuesday morning. This is a fairly large complex, built specifically for that purpose (with a youth emphasis) in the 1960s. Surrounded mostly by fields, it is located a few hundred yards behind the small mall. This centre was the site of both Support Our Susan parties during the BGT semi-finals and finals. It is a well-used building providing for many kinds of activities. Colin gave us a tour and explained that the West Lothian Council (which oversees Blackburn governmentally) has plans to rebuild the centre if funds can be pieced together from various entities.

We dropped by the library, Blackburn Connected, to see if someone from the local Blackburn Community Council might be there. Several people had recommended Alison as the person to contact, and we knew her name as the lady who had organized the Support Our Susan parties. The librarian remarked that she had heard we had managed to ride the bus the other day (news travels fast in small towns), and then phoned Alison for us. Alison was happy to meet with us – and we made an appointment for the next morning. Then I followed the proper procedure for using the Blackburn Connected internet service, and was delighted to find that my twin sister, known online as MarieUrsula, had fixed the slide show on my Blessing Blackburn blog so fans could view our first batch of photos. The librarian kindly extended my computer time for one more segment, but alas many emails and comments remain unanswered – and my twin can only do so much in my stead!

Back at the Happy Valley, we had a brief paparazzi moment – spotting Susan’s brother in the pub and asking for a photo with him. He very kindly obliged, and we also took about a minute to explain our hope, along with other fans, to support Blackburn village. He was so friendly. He had already looked through the Blessing Blackburn fan messages, as had many others.

Two genial fellows, John and later Tony, conversed with us at length as we sipped our diet Cokes. They both absolutely adore Blackburn. John had an endlessly funny sense of humor and Tony provided excellent Blackburn insights and historical information. In the meantime, Jock motioned toward the waiting pool table, and I was happy for his narrow victory. Soon after, Tony suggested that we go with him to the West Lothian Local History Library, located nearby in one end of the primary school that Susan attended. Important books, photos and documents for the whole collection of villages are available at this special little library. We spent half an hour there, and saw the new large file on Susan Boyle – actually a box of clippings that, of course, will be growing larger and larger over time. The librarian, Sybil, had written a history of Blackburn and we eagerly bought a copy.

Following another meal of fish and chips in the small mall, we walked to Susan’s home and determined that it would take her six or seven minutes to walk from the mall and five or six minutes from the Happy Valley. At the mall, and later on our walk, we saw some of the kids that I had spoken with the other night. We had already seen other people at multiple places and times, and several had been relatives of others that we had met, or had known of some of our comings and goings in Blackburn. It seems that Blackburn, with an extended population of just under 5000, is actually much smaller in its nucleus of interconnected people and primary businesses.

Back in our room, I made the tactical decision to open Sybil’s Blackburn history, knowing that I would forego many hours of sleep. Published in 2006, the book summarizes the history of Blackburn from the late 1700s to the present. It had been a feudal agricultural community, and in 1772 the Blackburn House was built by a new owner of the large estate. Textile production soon became the main economic activity in Blackburn, but drastically declined in the mid-1800s, at which point mining was on the rise, only to dwindle and then end abruptly by the mid-1900s, just in time for a major auto manufacturer to relocate here, before moving out within a couple of decades, leaving vandalized shells of empty apartment buildings hurriedly built to house workers who couldn’t remain. For centuries, the people of Blackburn had been hard working and hopeful, but ever subject to the few in authority whose decisions radically affected the many in the village. Though finishing on a positive note of potential Blackburn renewal and growth, Sybil’s history ended without a mention of the Belle of Blackburn who would soon put her tiny village on the map, with all the world as her stage.

Thursday, 7/2/09
12:07 pm/7:07 am on Delta 97 EDI/JFK

Yesterday morning in Blackburn was the warmest and sunniest to date. We met Alison at the library, Blackburn Connected, and were delighted to become acquainted with this wise, experienced and dedicated public servant who has volunteered many years and perhaps some tears toward the betterment of Blackburn. Of course she knew that there are fans of Susan numbering in the millions, but still she was glad to learn from us in person that the love of so many fans is real and overflowing. We conveyed the message expressed by several internet friends who want to honor Susan in extra ways, by voluntarily supporting the village that had helped to nurture her for 48 years. We discussed concrete examples that some fans were already exploring, and worthy means that could widely benefit Blackburn residents. We understood that small beginnings and baby steps are good, and proper foundations are important. Alison was happy to speak with us, but had to rush off to another meeting, so we agreed to talk further in the afternoon.

In Sybil’s history of Blackburn, we had read about Blackburn House, the manor built in 1772 by the new owner of the feudal estate. Unlike Finlaystone, with its three resident family lines over 600 years, Blackburn House has had many tenants over two centuries, most often renters not owners. In recent decades, its condition had seriously deteriorated despite its historical significance. Sybil in her book had written about new plans soon underway, to renovate Blackburn House and develop it as a gathering place for artists who could be inspired by its gorgeous view of a fertile valley.

We decided to walk to Blackburn House and see how the work was progressing. About a mile eastward, we found the estate in beautiful condition, obviously the result of a major investment. Prominent on the grounds is an equestrian centre with horses pastured and boarded. Tony told us later that the equestrian centre had been there for several years, and that the renovations to the main buildings of Blackburn House were a separate enterprise, publicly funded. Still, having spent time at a Wyoming dude ranch years ago, Del and I wondered how a Scottish dude ranch with draft horses might fare.

We walked back to the village, gazing at green fields that may not have changed much in two centuries, and sat down for chicken noodle soup and a cheese sandwich at the Mill Café in the small mall. As usual, we received back coins in change for the ten-pound Scottish note with which we paid for the meal. At this or other places, the coins returned included denominations of two pounds, one pound, half pound, twenty pence, ten pence, five pence, two pence or one pence, in diameters, shapes, thicknesses and substances more varied than US coins. Bills less than five pounds are almost never used – meaning only coins are used in denominations of under the equivalent of about eight dollars. No equivalents to fives, nor ones, for example. Pocket change really adds up quickly to a valuable amount.

After lunch, we strolled back to the Happy Valley and then to the West Lothian Local History Library to follow up on Tuesday’s introduction. Sybil answered questions about the kinds of housing in Blackburn. In her book, she had noted that in the early 1970s about 96 percent of homes were council houses and apartments, owned by the government and rented to the residents. This is the kind of home in which Susan has lived all her life. Sybil had also written that due to policy changes a couple of decades ago, people were allowed to buy their council homes from the government. We remembered that this was also Susan’s dream. And, as of seven years ago, it had been the dream of almost 50 percent of Blackburn residents who had finally purchased their homes. Now, Sybil clarified, the number of private home owners in Blackburn is in the neighborhood of 70 percent. Castle sweet castle.


  1. Super detailed reporting. How wonderful that you are interacting so much with Blackburn's residents and sampling the local fare.

    I have made two online "All about Susan" Scrapbooks,one of photos on Flickr and one a collection of photos and video clips on blogpot.

  2. Hi Leslie,
    Just had to let you know how much I've enjoyed reading your blog. You write beautifully and certainly made the most of every moment of your trip!
    Love to you and Del.

  3. Hiya Leslie! OH MY Goodness!!! You are making your trip very real to ME! I love your writing style and attention to detail. I feel like I'm right there with you. Thank you so much for introducing me to Blackburn near Bathgate, West Lothian!


  4. Hi lesley Hi del how was your visit to scotland then sounds like you had a good time it was nice meeting the both of you. remind del if he wishes to visit again the best time is to be here for the las saturday in may.
    ronnie computer solutions armadale

  5. Your blog has been so enlightening as to the everyday life of Blackburn. That's really what I find most interesting, the heart of the people, and you really captured it and conveyed it to us ever so eloquently.

    Thanks so much, for, taking us with you to Blackburn.

    God Bless you and God Bless Blackburn real good.

  6. Thank you for taking us with you to Blackburn. You captured the heart of the everyday people, which is, what I love the most.

    They are truly a blessed people and now we would love to be able to bless them in a very practical way.

    God Bless you, Leslie and Del, and God Bless Blackburn, the home of the Susan of our hearts.

  7. I appreciate your blogs, too, Patricia's art. So much talent in this crowd! Marie Ursula

  8. Thank you! That was very interesting!