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In Sunnyhurst woods, Darwen, Lancashire

So, today we’re looking for trouble. We fell foul of disappearing footpaths on this walk last time, and today we’re not messing about. We’re well rested, tack sharp, and feeling assertive. We’ve also cleaned our spectacles in case we missed any obscure signage that would have seen us on our way. But since our last visit, there has been a mysterious and profuse flowering of the official green way-markers, which is frankly unexpected, since I have not yet reported any obstructions to the council. Perhaps someone read my blog? I feel my guns have been spiked, but in a good way, and whoever you are, thank you.

Thus, we are guided, without a hitch, through the formerly troublesome farmyard, and to a diversionary path. It’s not exactly as marked on the map, but it’ll do, and before we know it we’re smoothly on our way towards Tockholes. Then, at the gate, which we found to be locked last time, and had to be climbed, we note the gate is merely tied. So we untie it, and pass through with dignity. We then tie it up again with a boy-scout’s reef-knot, and a little bow on top – by way of thanks to our guardian way-fairy, for restoring safe passage. Except then, we turn to find we are greeted by a pair of magnificent horses, who must have heard us coming, and are curious. They’re big horses, too, which is a little alarming, as they canter down with purpose – their purpose being – well – us. Cobs, I think the breed is called. I wish I’d had the presence of mind to take their picture – such huge, beautiful creatures, not as big as a shire, but impressive all the same. Our alarm is uncalled-for, though. They are gentle, and their stillness invites our touch. Just mind their back legs as we get around them. Horses can sometimes have a quirky sense of humour.

It’s with some regret, then, we leave our new friends, and head off up the meadow to Tockholes. We’re going a little further than we did last time, pushing the walk out to eight miles, taking in Sunnyhurst Woods, at Darwen. I’ve not been there for ages, and it would be nice to see if it’s still as I remember it.

I put a short story up on the blog last time, wrote it for Ireland’s Own magazine, some twenty years ago. I did a lot of stories for them in the nineties and the early noughties, and, as I walk, I’m trying to remember the others. One in particular comes to mind. It was about this guy who’s aching to leave his home town and see the world. Then he meets a girl from the other side of the world, who’s travelled to his town, because she saw it on the map, and thought it sounded like a cool sort of place. Through her, the guy ends up seeing his home-turf in a new way, and he decides to stay.

Looking at the lush meadows here, as they sweep up to the shaggy moors, I’m thinking, it’s a small part of the world, this corner of the West Pennines and, beautiful as it is, it’s one I sometimes take for granted. Shall I go somewhere? or shall I just nip up the moors? But when I put out a photograph online, of Great Hill, or the spillway of the Yarrow reservoir, or when I write about walks like this, I don’t always appreciate how others from around the world, and for whom their part of the world is radically different to mine, will see them. Even the names of places, unremarkable to me, sound exotic to others, as their place names, unremarkable to them, sound exotic to me.

So, whilst it’s a pleasure, and an education, to travel, and I think we should always travel as much as we can, we’ll never know anywhere as well, and I mean as intimately, as our own allotted patch of God’s earth. So we should never feel there’s anything dull, writing about it, or photographing it. We are curating what we know, and what we love. Photographs of the landscapes of Iceland, and the Faroe Islands in particular, blow my mind, but I could never know those places intimately. Such grandness is for the Icelanders, and the Faroese, as this part of the world is for me, in all its understated beauty, also, it has to be said, its occasional ruin and imperfection.

At last, we come down to Sunnyhurst Woods. It’s a public park, actually, on the edge of a once industrial Darwen, but also on the edge of the moors. Bought out of a public-spirited ideal, and planted up in the early 19th century, it’s now a ruggedly mature gem, natural in style, well-kept and well-loved. We’re beyond peak autumn, now, with most trees are looking bare – just the occasional beech still hanging on to its coppers, and the stubborn oaks. And yes, it’s all pretty much as I remember it, and gorgeous.

There’s a pretty waterfall here. We try a shot, but the light is poor. Maybe we can tease some colour out of it in post-processing. There’s a park bench. We sit, retrieve our soup-flask from where it has settled, deep in the sack. Bacon and Lentil today, made in Wigan. Kitt Green. We do still make things in Lancashire, just not as much as we used to do. But still,…

In Roddlesworth Woods

From Sunnyhurst, we pick our way over to Ryal Fold, where we enjoy another break, and a pot of tea at Vaughn’s CafĂ©. Then it’s down through the plantations at Roddlesworth. Gone is the gold of just a few weeks ago. All is bare, now, and autumn firmly on the ground. The season is still worth some pictures, though. I’m glad to have found a properly marked way through that farm. The public rights of way network is a thing of immense value, protected in law, and a freedom not enjoyed in other parts of the world. An understated resource, it costs nothing to enjoy – good for the body and the soul, and no gym membership required.

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In the woods at Roddlesworth

Today, we’re going to walk from Abbey Village, to Tockholes. Then we’ll circle back through the woods at Roddlesworth, which should be in peak autumn now. First, though, I want to visit the war memorial, here in Abbey, to remember a great uncle who was “lost” in the first war. Then we’ll have a wander through some meadows I used to walk with my mother. And if we make it over to Tockholes, we’ll visit the mysterious “Toches”, or “Tocca’s” stone.

I say “if” we make it, because the route leads through farms, where rights of way have a habit of disappearing. The path I’ve chosen seems the most direct and quite obvious on the map. But over recent weeks, when out and about, I’ve discovered a knack for finding rights of way that no longer exist on the ground, and I’ve learned it pays never to be too cocky setting out on paths you’ve not walked before.

My mother grew up in one of the long line of mill terraces at Abbey, so she knew this area well. I have memories of visiting my grandmother here, and aunts who were not aunts, but we called aunts. Ditto cousins, who were not really cousins – this being an era when it was claimed everyone in Abbey Village was related. From the roadside, the terraces at Abbey have rather a dour look about them. But those where my family lived, open onto meadows, and to stunning views of the Darwen moors.

Perhaps it’s because I’m still not getting into town much this year, on account of abiding Covid fears, but I’m less aware of the build-up to November’s armistice remembrance. Recently, the event has found itself caught up in the culture wars. Those of the right who would glorify war, and those of the left who would disband the forces altogether, are the two most vociferous extremes. The rest of us, I guess, including the man on the Clapham omnibus, are somewhere down the middle. I think about the half century or so of life my great uncle missed, and I wonder about the difference it would have made to the present day, if he’d found his way home from Mesopotamia. The tide of history can be cruel for everyone, but it sweeps away the poor in disproportionate numbers. Anyway, I like to come here around this time of year. I leave my small token at the memorial, then head down the backs of the terraces, and set out on the walk.

First we head across the meadows where my mother used to play, then down the dip to what I always knew as Abbey Bottoms. Sure enough, at my first encounter with a farm, the right of way disappears into an enclosure, and the only way out of it is to straddle a fence. This is tedious, coming so early on in the walk. There are cars about and the dogs are going bonkers. I wander around, looking for an opening, but there are none, and I’m beginning to feel a fool. If I want to make way, I’ll have to straddle that fence or turn tail already and call the walk off. Fine, then. I drop a pin on the GPS, make a note: “Way blocked here” and then I go for it.

Free of the farm, and with trousers intact, it’s obvious the path beyond’s not been walked in ages. But it follows the line of an ancient hedgerow, and is reasonably obvious. In other times this would be a beautiful route, pastoral, with wide-ranging views of the Darwen moors. But I’m in that liminal zone now between where I am entitled to be, and where I feel others would rather I was not. And that’s not a comfortable place. I’m aware my last three walks have landed me in a similar muddle to this, and I’m starting to repeat myself.

The Toches Stone

Then, where the map shows an exit from the meadow, a locked gate blocks the way. There is no stile, not even a rotten one. I can see a stile on the other side of the gate. It leads off on the next leg of the journey, but the only way to get to it is to climb the damned gate. Have I become so incompetent and doddery a rambler, I can no longer find my way around? Clearly this is not a route for those of limited mobility, and, given the crisis in A+E at the moment, it gives one pause climbing anything. But needs must, so up and over we go. Another pin goes on the GPS. “Effing gate blocked here.”

It’s been a struggle then, but we’ve stuck to our guns, and finally made it across the vanishing ways to Tockholes. These are paths my mother and her family would have known. My great, great-grandfather would have walked them from his weaver’s cottage in Hoddleston, to Abbey seeking work, and where he settled. They are historically significant ways, and need protecting, need walking. When I look back on my life, I see traces of the places I knew disappearing, being overwritten by novelty. Of my mother and her family’s past, here, there is now barely any trace at all.

Anyway, Tockholes is a curious and attractive hamlet, tucked out of sight. I meet a few other walkers on the road here, and we exchange greetings. The atmosphere changes from one of oppression, to welcome. Tocca’s stone is in the churchyard at St Stephens. I once drew it for an illustration in a friend’s book on the magic and mystery of Lancashire. It’s a curious monument, a mixture of early Christian and pagan. Of the facts, we can say the tall bit is probably the remains of a seventh century preaching cross. This sits atop an old, repurposed, cheese press, this in turn sitting on an inscribed plinth of Victorian vintage. And then, next to the cross, there’s the peculiar Tocca’s or Toches’ stone, from which the parish takes its name. There are scant references to it online, and they all seem to quote each other. My friend, who trawled the historical records in libraries all over the county, in the days before the Internet, is also rather vague.

The stone is said to have connections with the ancient British tribe who inhabited the valley, and one ruler in particular, the titular “Tocca”, or “Toki”. It’s also said to have magical or healing properties, and was, at one time, worn smooth by the hands of pilgrims, come to touch it. It isn’t very smooth now, so I guess the habit has fallen out of fashion. In short, little can actually be said about it at all, at least nothing that’s guaranteed to be historically accurate, but as a piece of local myth and legend, it’s quite the thing, if you believe in it, or not.

Do I touch it? Well, after the trouble I’ve had getting here, you bet I do.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

And it works. We have no trouble the rest of the way, the way being over the moor to Ryal Fold, then down into the autumn-gold heavens of the Roddlesworth plantation, where the season is a revelation. We’ve had such a poor week, thus far, with torrential wet. One night it rained so hard the gutters burst and I swear I could feel the house shaking. And then today, it’s warm in the sun, we have clear blue, and plenty of water in the brook, so the falls are running. The world has the fairy tale look of an impressionist painting. Out comes the camera.

Autumn in Roddlesworth Woods

I’ll be reporting those obstructions. I’ll also be repeating the walk, because, in spite of a few local difficulties, it’s a good circular route – about seven miles – of varied scenery, in a beautiful part of Lancashire. And if no one walks the paths, the landed will take them from us, swear blind there was never anything there in the first place. And they’ll get away with it.

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On Withnell Moor – West Pennines

There’s a remoteness about the Withnell moors that belies the fact even the loneliest bits of them are probably only half an hour’s walk from the well populated villages of Brinscall, or Abbey Village. In the nineteenth century they were home to many small-scale farms but, as I mentioned in an earlier blog, changing times were making it harder to justify such remote habitation, the mills and quarries being more of a draw for employment than farming, at least on this scale. Then an outbreak of typhoid, in Kent (1897), sent the public health bodies into a spin. The Withnell moors were (and still are) part of the water catchment area for the city of Liverpool, and the urgent word went out we should avoid anything, animal or human, defecating upon it. So the leases were withdrawn, and the farms fell to ruin.

I’ve come here today to photograph the sycamores at one particular ruin, Grouse Cottage. The weather’s fair for now, though looking a bit changeable, and I find I’m in the mood to explore further, if I can. I’m wondering if in fact, we can find a route up Great Hill from this end of the West Pennines. There isn’t one marked on the map, and scant trace of such in aerial photographs. But it would make sense, this group of farms being linked by a humble walked way, to the now similarly ruined farms over on the Heapey side of the moor. We’ll see.

The sycamores at Grouse Cottage

Grouse Cottage looks like it’s been gone centuries, but it was still lived in in the 1950s, one of the last of the farms to be vacated. I have seen photographs of it from its working days, and can only say its eradication has been most severe. Interesting to me, my mother, resident nearby in Abbey Village until 1960, would have known it as a working farm. A small piece of it is still standing, which adds some architectural interest to the photograph of the trees – this being what was the outside lavatory. The rest is left to imagination. It was dramatically positioned with fine views but, like all the farms out this way, and from the stories my mother told, a hell of a place to be in winter.

Twisted Beech – Botany Bay

From Grouse Cottage we head south now, to the corner of a tumbled drystone wall, then west, towards Rushy brook. We cross by the ruins of Popes, another lost farm, then onto the rise of the moor, and eventually to a curious, lone beech tree by the ruins of Botany Bay. This farm is renamed on OS maps from the 1930’s as the “Summer House”, it’s having by then been abandoned, and adapted for use as what I suppose was a luncheon hut, for the grouse shooting fraternity. Little remains of it now. The tree is remarkable though – twisted, stunted by ferocious weather, but stoically hanging on. Remarkable too is an upright stone, unworked and heavily weathered, one I reckon predates the farm by several thousand years and marks a previous era of habitation.

Botany Bay stone

From Botany Bay there is a sketchy path south and west, towards the trees that mark the ruins of Solomon’s and New Temple. It’s New Temple I’m after, to a little isthmus of benign pasture that marks the end of the ancient enclosures, and their abutment with the wilderness of uncultivated moor. If there’s a route up Great Hill, here’s where we’ll find it.

The temple isn’t an actual temple, no doubt much to the disappointment of the neo-pagans who have been known to frequent it, in search of “vibes”. It’s just another ruined farm, marked by a pair of magnificent sycamores, romantic in their isolation, and striking today with a background of moody sky. There are heavy showers sweeping the plain, drifting up the Ribble Valley, circling behind us over Darwen Moor. Meanwhile, we enjoy an island of calm and intermittent hazy sun. Anything incoming is at least thirty minutes away, but we seem to be in the eye of the system, so I reckon we’ll be okay.

It turns out there is indeed a little-walked path from here – no more than a sheep-trod, but inspiring sufficient confidence to explore further. It takes us up the nondescript hummock of Old Man’s Hill, then loosely follows the line of Rushy Brook, into the lap of Great Hill. I wouldn’t come this way in poor weather as it would be hard to trace, and it’s a rum wasteland of tussocky grass to go off course in, but otherwise the way makes sense, and follows a reasonably dry route.

The New Temple Sycamores

The plan now, if we can avoid a drenching, is to take in the top of Great Hill, then circle back via Pimms and the Calf Hey brook. I was there some weeks ago, but I want to shoot the trees at Pimms again, against this impressive sky, and to get a name for them. The buds are opening now and hopefully will reveal their signature leaves – sycamores probably.

Great Hill summit – West Pennines

There’s not a soul on Great Hill, again. Everyone must be in the pubs, or the shops as we find ourselves once more in one of those “hair down”, between wave periods. Meanwhile, the weather dances round us, a whirligig of drama, while our own steps remain blessed by dry, and that lingering crazy, hazy sun. This place feels as familiar as the back of my own hand, but no matter how well we think we know a place, there is always another perspective, always something fresh to be gained. If that insight is the one blessing of these Covid restrictions, then so be it.

As for the trees at Pimms, they are indeed sycamores, the same as at Solomon’s, and Grouse Cottage, common enough on the moors, as anywhere. The Woodland Trust tells me they’re not native to our islands, sycamores having been introduced in the 15th or 16th centuries from mainland Europe. They’re hard as nails though, as evidenced by their soaring height here, in defiance of the harshest weather Lancashire can muster. They’ve outlived the farms anyway, stand as monuments to them and, in the present day, provide beacons for navigation.

Roddlesworth falls

So, now we’re heading down through the plantations at Roddlesworth again – a second chance to grab a decent shot of the little falls on the Roddlesworth river. I make a better job of it this time – the Lumix I’m carrying today being a much faster camera than the Nikon I used some weeks before. Then the car’s waiting, my good lady’s car today. Unlike mine, it can navigate the humps and hollows of Roddlesworth lane, without getting beached.

As we ease off the boots, the rain catches up with us. It’s nothing dramatic – more gentle and cooling. It’s been kind enough to hold off for our walk, and a little wet is welcome after such a long period of dry. My garden will appreciate it, and it should replenish the water-butts, which are already at rock bottom.

It turned out to be a good circuit, not as far as it feels on the legs though – about five and a half miles, seven hundred feet of ascent or so. It was a little eerie. Being more used to dodging Covid crowds, I saw not a soul all afternoon, and had only the ghosts among the ruins for company. To be sure this is one of the loneliest of approaches to Great Hill I know.

There’s something sobering about the lost farms of the West Pennines. It’s the idea of, season after season, eking out a hard living from an unforgiving moor, and now those lives passed on, moved on as all things change and move on, and the reeds grow back, where once the deep-walled lane echoed to the sound of the passing cart and the driven beasts. And the multi-storied life, hard won, is reduced in no time at all to a pile of knee-high rubble, to be poked at, and pondered by passing Romantics, like me.

For more information on this part of the world, do check out:

“The lost farms of Brinscall Moor” by David Clayton

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