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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 So the leases were withdrawn, and the farms fell to ruin.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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Winter on Brinscall Moor

It feels good when a novel comes together. If the reader agrees with my closing lines or not is another matter, but “Winter on the Hill” is finished. It has served its purpose, being, by and large, a quirky romance, but also a way of coming to terms with the rout of Leftist politics in the 2019 General Election.

From about 2016 onwards, I’d been certain the Left was building a momentum for positive change, as a reaction to years of austerity economics, but it turns out we weren’t, and all the country really wanted was to get BREXIT done. It all seems such a long time ago now, but those of us still on the Left must answer the questions: what happened, and what comes next? In the writing of “Winter on the Hill”, I have meditated on it all year, and found, if not answers exactly, then at least a peaceful rapprochement that allows me to move forward, personally. The story is now live on Smashwords. My thanks to those who read the first draft on Wattpad, and who commented (you know who you are).


As for this morning, I find myself in the hamlet where one of the protagonists of “Winter on the Hill” lives: Big Al. This is White Coppice, a gem of a place on the edge of the Western Pennines. It’s a greyed out morning, and I’m crack-of-dawn early, to beat the Covid crowds. But the place is already busy, and the bumpy track to the cricket field is churned to something dire. There are only a couple of parking places left, and all of this on a bleak winter’s morning, one of those in which the dawn begins to break, then changes its mind.


My main protagonist, Rick, lives on the other side of the moor. That’s where I’m heading, to Piccadilly on the Belmont road. Then it’s through the Roddlesworth plantations and a return over Brinscsall moor, a circuit of about ten miles, and fourteen hundred feet of ascent. This is something of a challenge, especially since I’ve not done more than five miles on the flat all year, and the weather’s not exactly looking kind, but we’ll see how we go.

The track to Great Hill


The forecast is optimistic, but wrong, the moor impressively bleak and cold, the climb up to Great Hill being in the teeth of a sapping wind and rain. The trail’s a waste of mud, too many boots on the ground now – runners, walkers, bikers, all trampling and slewing a dark, wide path. In the summer I saw bikers slicing fresh trails across the moor up to Spitler’s Edge. The land is still bleeding from the cuts they left in their wake. This is such a delicate environment, I wonder if it can survive the stress. No doubt, come spring, there will be fires again.

The trails through Roddleworth are busy – bikes, horses, hikers. Large groups straddle the route, chatting, seemingly unaware of you, forcing you into the ditch as they come at you. By contrast Brinscall moor is empty, granting the first real sense of solitude I’ve had all day. I’m hitting it late in the walk though, when I’m tired, and not sure of my way. I’ve been carrying the Lumix, but not used it much yet, preferring to keep it out of the rain. Its fast lens always makes the best of bleak winter conditions, finding colour where my eyes see only grey. Only now is the unfamiliar piquing my interest and I try a half dozen shots of bare trees and gaunt ruins against a glowering sky. The header picture, is the only one that makes the cut. The rest are burred. My fault, and no surprise.

For weeks my head has been elsewhere, pondering the conundrum of occupational pension options, to be posted off ASAP, in order to fund my early retirement at the year’s end. Then it’s planning my last week of work, and how best to leave behind a tidy ship, this after forty years as a professional engineer. I stand on the cusp of becoming a full time writer now – either that or just another grey old man pushing a trolley round Tescos. It’s what I wanted to do in my twenties – defining myself as a writer – and better late than never. At least now I won’t starve following my dreams.

Perhaps that’s also why I get lost in Brinscall woods, find myself dead-ended in a darkening vale. Suddenly, above me is the sound of water and, through the mist and gloom, comes the awesome spectacle of a gargantuan waterfall. Okay, I know where I am, now. This is the elusive Hatch Brook Falls, and there seems no way around it. I’m so surprised I forget to take a photograph, but the light’s so poor now, I doubt even Ansel Adams would have made much sense of it.


I have a flask of soup, so settle amid the moss and the mud and the multifarious fungi for lunch, and some much-needed restoration. But I’ve forgotten to microwave the soup – just poured the tin into the Thermos. Its unexpected coldness turns an empty stomach. The only other thing I have is an apple, so I munch on that instead. It’s surprising how much energy there is in an apple. It restores the spirits sufficient to get me on my feet and scrambling out of the gorge, onto a path I recognize. Then it’s a couple of miles on empty legs, back to White Coppice, and the car. There’s more rain along the way, more cold, more grey, and mud. And there are processions of slow moving people with dogs running free. They’re all slobber and muddy paws – the dogs I mean – and I could really do without the attention.


Mid-afternoon now, and at a time when I would never dream of visiting White Coppice on a Covid weekend, I find the car-park’s empty. There’s no rhyme nor reason to these strange days. I drive home on the edge of light, the dawn having skipped the day and moved straight on to dusk. I’m haunted by those shots I fluffed on Brinscall moor, the crisp shapes, and the poetry of bare trees against a deepening grey of sky.


I finish the day soaking my bones in a hot bath, and with a glass of drowned whiskey on my chest. I listen to My Bloody Valentine on the player, then Slowdive, and finally Mazzy Star. Then it’s off to bed where I dream of an evening at Wigan and District Mining and Technical College, in the summer of 1985. I’m twenty-four and I’ve won the AUEW prize for my final year’s HND in Mechanical and Production Engineering – in the dream version I cannot find my car afterwards, and have to walk home in the dark. There are bare winter trees against a moonlit sky. They look a lot like those I saw on Brinscall Moor.

I don’t know what the dream is telling me – you did okay as an engineer, perhaps; you kept it together, kept going, but you can make your own way from here without all that now. Things change their names, move on, become irrelevant in terms of our own identity – Wigan Tech, the AUEW, an HND and BS 308, all gone now or transmuted into some other form, neither of us recognising the other any more. But some things retain their potency – things like a lone tree silhouetted against a grey sky, and like Winter on the hill.

Thanks for listening

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