Mill Race finale goes with the flow

People in church standing underneath light-up butterfly display © Robin Zahler
Butterfly Dream, a Mill Race cultural programme commission, was a hit at Light Up Lancaster

A three-year programme of cultural activity focused on the mill race area of Lancaster has come full circle.

The Mill Race: Flow of Change programme was launched in 2021 with an event in the car park next to the city’s historic Grand Theatre and three years later, the theatre has hosted its finale celebration.

The programme, overseen by Lancaster University-based Lancaster Arts, has coincided with redevelopment work in the High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) led by Lancaster City Council and primarily funded by Historic England.

Since its launch, Flow of Change has animated an area badly affected in 2015 by Storm Desmond and the flooding of the Mill Race which runs underneath much of the north-east of the city centre around North Road, Lower Church Street and St Leonardsgate.

“We have this extraordinary underground river that runs through the city and has been so important in the development of Lancaster yet it is invisible,” said Lancaster Arts director, Jocelyn Cunningham.

The aim of the cultural activity was to make the ‘invisible’ Mill Race visible by raising its profile through more than 40 events including choral and dance performances, films, exhibitions, talks, storytelling and guided walks.

For the first time, the Light Up Lancaster festival used the Mill Race area as a location for installations which included Butterfly Dream and On The Curled Clouds in St John’s Church, which re-opened its doors after being badly damaged in Storm Desmond.

More than 14,500 engaged with the cultural programme, including pupils from Dallas Road School and staff from Standfast & Barracks, whose building on Caton Road suffered from the 2015 floods.

Many of those involved joined the Celebrating the Mill Race event at the Grand Theatre, whose exterior has seen a major refurbishment as part of the HSHAZ programme and will be completed in July when work to widen the pavement outside takes place.

New murals depicting the past, present and future of the area, are the final part of the cultural programme and can be seen above 137a St Leonardsgate and on the former dance studio in St Leonard’s Place at the back of the Grand.

“One of the most wonderful things about working with Jocelyn and the team at Lancaster Arts has been the shared ambition and joy in seeing people become more passionate about this part of their city,” said Lancaster City Council’s regeneration officer, Kate Smith.

A booklet about the cultural programme entitled A ‘live’ place: Experiencing the Mill Race through Arts and Culture, is now available at Lancaster City and Maritime Museums, with a film also available online: Mill Race: Flow of Change draws to a close | Lancaster Arts.

It is thought that the Mill Race dates back to Lancaster’s Roman origins. Later, mills and other industries grew up along its banks and it is shown on maps dating back to at least 1610, a time when Lancaster established itself as a key settlement in the north of England.

Although it was culverted from the late 1800s because of health concerns, the Mill Race continues to make its presence felt, most recently during the 2015 floods.

For information on the entire project, visit

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