Fred Dib­nah’s ode to Bri­tain’s steamy her­itage

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - 9 -

Fred Dib­nah was a great British ec­cen­tric. His ca­reer as a steeple­jack, climb­ing and bring­ing down chim­neys, was anachro­nis­tic even as he started out. His pas­sion for an­ti­quated ma­chin­ery and Vic­to­ri­ana was un­usual, too.

Not sur­pris­ingly, then, his five-bed­room prop­erty in Bolton, Lan­cashire – where he stored the cu­rios and arte­facts from more than 40 years of col­lect­ing – is not your typ­i­cal fam­ily home. Now rein­vented as the Fred Dib­nah Her­itage cen­tre, it is for sale for £1.25mil­lion.

Af­ter Don Howarth’s BBC doc­u­men­tary Fred Dib­nah, Steeple­jack was broad­cast in 1979, Dib­nah be­came fa­mous for his fear­less, no-non­sense char­ac­ter and warm North­ern man­ner. He orig­i­nally trained to re­pair and build chim­neys, but learnt that there was far more busi­ness in knock­ing them down. In his na­tive Bolton, 70 mills were closed be­tween 1957 and 1965, with dozens stand­ing derelict, wait­ing to be re­moved.

The fash­ion, as it is now, was to use dy­na­mite. Dib­nah thought this was waste­ful and in­el­e­gant, so es­chewed it in favour of his more tra­di­tional method. He would grad­u­ally re­move one side of a chim­ney’s base by hand, prop­ping it up with wooden blocks. These would then be set on fire. As the wood burned away, the chim­ney fell in the di­rec­tion of the weak­ened part.

This dan­ger­ous-look­ing process (though Dib­nah main­tained it was per­fectly safe), com­bined with his tele­genic de­liv­ery, made for com­pelling view­ing. He went on to present many doc­u­men­taries of his own, on ev­ery­thing from Isam­bard King­dom Brunel to his beloved trac­tion en­gines. By the time of his death in 2004, he was a na­tional trea­sure, syn­ony­mous with a work­ing-class sen­si­bil­ity, which was dis­ap­pear­ing as fast as the min­ing in­dus­try.

Dib­nah al­ways hoped that his home in Bolton would be­come a mu­seum, where his life’s pas­sions could be pre­served. Yet af­ter his death it lay dor­mant un­til 2008, when it was bought by Leon Pows­ney, an in­sur­ance bro­ker. With his wife, Jan, and a team of ded­i­cated vol­un­teers, Leon has trans­formed the five-bed­room house. It is now a place where vis­i­tors come to cel­e­brate the great man’s life.

“Over the past four years, we have put a tremen­dous amount of work and money into the prop­erty,” ex­plains Leon. We bought it for £185,000, but it was pretty much derelict be­cause it had stood empty since Fred died. We had to spend £7,000 on cur­tains and blinds be­fore we moved in, and then two months just clean­ing it out. Af­ter that it took us about a year to se­cure plan­ning per­mis­sion to cre­ate the her­itage cen­tre.”

Dib­nah might have been much loved around the coun­try, but it seems he could be a less-thanper­fect neigh­bour. “He was ba­si­cally run­ning a black­smithing com­pany,” ex­plains Leon. “There was bang­ing, riv­et­ing, smok­ing: you name it. I spoke to some of his neigh­bours and they said that as soon as they put the wash­ing out it would turn black from all the smoke com­ing out of Fred’s gar­den.”

Vis­i­tors to the house to­day are given a tour of the yard and Fred’s ma­chin­ery. There is a cir­cu­lar saw, mas­sive lathes, planer, a band saw, hy­draulic ham­mer and 7ft drills. All pow­ered by steam. The gar­den also con­tains a 70ft mine shaft, which Fred put in so peo­ple could see how a mine worked, and a 50ft chim­ney. “Doesn’t ev­ery­one have a 50ft chim­ney in their back gar­den?” Leon asks, wryly. Inside the house is a gift shop and a small tea room.

“At the mo­ment the mu­seum turns over about £100,000,” he ex­plains. “But the po­ten­tial is there al­ways dreamt of hav­ing a lit­tle place in Spain – and there’s never been a bet­ter time to buy one. We want some pri­vacy, too. This will al­ways be Fred’s home.”

Maybe. But for the mil­lions of fans of his work, the chance to share Fred’s home could be too good to miss. Add in a cor­ner of Bri­tain’s in­dus­trial her­itage, as well as a healthy profit, and this house in Rad­cliffe Road, The Haulgh, could be far more than just a “go­ing con­cern”.

The Fred Dib­nah Her­itage Cen­tre is on the mar­ket for £1.25mil­lion through In­tel­li­gent Busi­ness Trans­fer (0800 612 7718; in­tel­li­gent­busi­nesstrans­fer.co.uk)

Real char­ac­ter: clock­wise from above, Leon Pows­ney, who re­stored the house; the yard filled with Fred’s ma­chin­ery; the man him­self; and in­set, his ini­tials in glass

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