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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 So the leases were withdrawn, and the farms fell to ruin.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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Pimms ruin, Withnell Moor, Lancashire

There’s something seductive about the River Roddlesworth, the way it comes down through its wooded gorge in a series of cascades. Flowing roughly from south to north, it picks up the morning sunlight which sparkles upon it like a scattering of fairy dust, and adds a layer of magic. It also makes it hard to photograph, if you’re moving upstream. From the brightness of the spilling sun to the shadow of the deep wooded valley, it presents a dynamic range that defeats casual photography. Well, it defeated me, anyway. One needs a set-up, a tripod, and bracketed exposures to be overlapped in post-processing. I tried it hand-held, but the shutter speeds were too slow, and the movement between frames was too much for post-processing to make sense of.

I’ve always known it as Rocky Brook, this being a more descriptive title used by locals – or at least those of my mother’s generation who grew up nearby. The word “river” summons the image of something broader, more physically powerful. Rocky Brook is more sylvan, subtle and secretive.

River Roddlesworth, West Pennine Moors

It has numerous sources in the water catchment areas of the Withnell and Darwen moors. One of them is the Calf Hey Brook which appears from under a culvert, crossed by the A675. It’s here, where the road cuts through, the plantations thin out to their soured and less photogenic fringes. It’s here the unconscious and the unconscionable sling rubbish from out of car windows. As a liminal zone, from ferny forest to open moor, it lacks subtlety. There’s something altogether more brutal and unwholesome about it, not least in the breakneck rush of vehicles. As a scenic moorland road it’s impressive, though it does rather encourage speed and accidents. Here, from the roadside, having emerged from the dapple-shaded magic of Roddlesworth, to the scatter of beercans, McTakeaway cartons, and the stench of diesel, one feels more keenly the cost of modernity.

However, we try to pay it as little attention as possible and look instead to the vastness of the moor, on the other side of the road. Then, five minutes up the Calf Hey Brook, the road is forgotten again. It has become a crass irrelevance amid the rapture of skylarks as we focus on our next objective: the trees at Pimms.

The moor is tinder dry now, a desert of straw, but the ruins of Pimms farm stand out on a mound of emerald green. I presume this is the result of generations of dung from its farming days. I found a lunch spot by a ruined wall, sat down on sun-warmed stones to contemplate this former abode amid the quintessential wilds of a Lancashire moor.

I am still feeling blessed by my early retirement, more so as the weather warms and days lengthen. It’s such a pleasure to be able to get out like this, do what I want, when I want, without always the queasy thought of a return to work at the back of my mind. A commuter slave ’till last year’s end, I now wander my locality seeking and photographing statuesque trees, like these at Pimms. It’s not what I’d planned, but it fits nicely with these days of Covid blues. It also adds another objective to a day’s walk, besides taking in the tops, especially when the more distant tops might be denied by dint of HMG’s ongoing emergency powers.

Pimms Ruin, Withnell Moor

Forgetting Covid for a moment, our lives have changed immeasurably since Pimms was lived in – I’m talking about working lives now. That would have been in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But the world is always a vortex, and things were changing fast for these people even then. Small-scale farming such as this was in decline, in the later Victorian years, and the tenants of the various holdings on the moors were more likely to be finding work in the mills and quarries as England turned to mass manufacture. Eventually, the properties stood empty, the tenancies were not renewed. But now the major manufactories have gone, and those few still working employ a fraction of the people they once did. That old story of transition from agriculture to industrial powerhouse concluded with the Iron Lady and an era as ruinous, and nostalgic for past relevance as the remains of Pimms today.

It’s a puzzle. Where is the western world of work heading? I mean the ordinary work that does not need degrees and shiny shoes, the work people can do when the only thing they can sell is their hands? The next transition is anyone’s guess, and while warehousing and distribution seem dominant, such things are ripe for total automation, not leaving much for those hands to do except pull pints and serve chips. There’s always been something to draw the next generation en masse, into the future, a way for them to sell their labour in exchange for life, and some state protections, but these are strange times, and we seem to be staring into an abyss. It’s no longer my problem of course. I’ve escaped the treadmill, but still I wonder.

Pimms is a lovely, emotive ruin. It would have been a hard life out here in winter, but in the balmier seasons, it must have been a beautiful place to lay your head. In his excellent guide “The Lost Farms of Brinscall Moor“, author David Clayton tells us it was the Brownlow family who last lived here, their traces recorded in the census of 1881 and 1891, a mum a dad, two boys and a grandma. As far as I know no photographs exist of it in its heyday, so we’re left with imagination, and its outline on the OS map of 1849, which suggests something of the traditional Lancashire Longhouse design.

I wonder what became of the Brownlows, when they finally came down off the moor. These trees would have been much smaller then, and are now risen without help as impressive markers to past lives. This is still a gorgeous spot to pause, to enjoy the shade, while on the climb to Great Hill. I spent a while here with the camera. The sun was just about on the meridian, and the light harsh, but managed some passable shots.

Great Hill, West Pennine Moors

And while I was so close, I took in the top, surprised to find I had it to myself. When I was last up here, it was standing room only. But today the pubs were open after a long period of closure. Driving over, I’d passed one after the other, and the crowds were all sitting outside in summery colours, like they were glad to be alive. Myself, I still think it unwise, rushing back to the pubs. It’s hard I know, for more social types, and for whom the pub is as “English” as cricket and warm beer. But we’re balancing the risks of health against wealth – your health against the wealth of the hospitality lobby.

The plantations around Roddlesworth were busier on my return. At one point I was mobbed by a pack of excitable dogs. There must have been a dozen or more, all shapes and sizes, all off the lead, and running amok. A somewhat Bohemian looking couple came sauntering up, offering the usual oh, they’re just playing, they won’t touch you, platitudes. But I remembered how a guy I know had a lump torn out of his hand by his own dog, which was also “just playing”, so such reassurances don’t wash with me. Still, Covid, or a dog-bite? I suppose making way in life is always a balance of risk, set against that backdrop of an endlessly changing world. Something’s going to get you in the end. And we only escape the harshness of that fact in moments of contemplation, perhaps in transcendental company, amid the dappled shade of timeless trees.

Keep well. Graeme out.

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On the Parsons Bullough road

As I draw a glass of tap water to take to bed this evening, I’m glad it comes from the Lake District, or I might be giving it a miss. I spent the day in the West Pennines, around the Anglezarke reservoirs. The water from Anglezarke doesn’t supply my area but passes it by, on the way to serving Liverpool. There were people swimming in it, in spite of orders not to, and no doubt urinating while they were at it. And then, at the lonely head of Dean Black Brook, which serves the Anglezarke catchment system, and miles from anywhere, I’d chanced upon the bloated corpse of a disposable baby’s nappy.

It’s indicative of the times and of a people with not the sense to avoid fouling their own nests. It’s also metaphorical in a greater sense, of the degradation of the world’s ecosystems, due to the self-interest of ignorants. I’m sure such impurities are neutralized at the treatment works,… and the people of Liverpool can rest easy tonight. I’m still glad my water comes from the Lakes though.

Other than that, it was a good day on the moors. Okay, my timing wasn’t great: a good forecast coinciding with a release from the stay-at-home order. But I was relieved to be walking somewhere other than from my doorstep, so plans were laid and an early start intended. But then my good lady reminded me it was Holy Week.

“It’s what?”

“All the kids are off,” she clarified.

“Oh, shit,” I said.

I was pleasantly surprised then to be the only one parking up at Parson’s Bullough. It was brutally early though, and I was confident it would be a different story in a few hours, so best get moving. The West Pennines have always been popular, but they’ve been gaining visitor numbers, especially during the furlough period with people travelling in from well outside the area, in spite of various stay at home orders. The stress is really beginning to show. Plenty of other areas are suffering the same, virtue of a small country with few wilderness areas left, and a large, mostly urban population, for many of whom even the basics of the countryside code is an unknown concept.

My preferred route up Hurst Hill, via the Pikestones is off the usual ways, and still in good condition, but from Hurst Hill to the Round Loaf, and on to the intersection with the path coming off Great Hill, there’s clearly been a lot of traffic, including bikes which have no business there. The bikes are cutting deep wounds through the sphagnum and the sedge, so the peat bleeds out. And there’s litter, even in the remotest parts. That nappy at the headwaters of Dean Black Brook was a case in point. Full marks for getting so young a child up there, but could you not have taken its doings home?

The Pikestones – remains of a chambered burial mound

Anyway, having said that, I’d left my sit-mat at the Pikestones – I’ve lost a few like that – which is its own kind of littering I suppose, and I apologize for my gormlessness. If you find it, consider it a gift – it’s quite a comfy one. If you’d rather not, I’m sure I’ll be back up that way when the Easter madness is over to collect it.

From Great Hill, I took the long, lovely route over Spitlers and Redmond’s edge. This is moorland walking at its best, climbing to just shy of 1300 feet. The views east and west are always spectacular, but particularly gorgeous this morning in the de-saturated spring light – a clear blue sky over varying shades of khaki and russet, and all criss-crossed by tumbled down lines of drystone walling.

On Spitler’s Edge

In the olden days, this route was barely passable because of erosion, but conservation efforts have restored it, basically laying flagstones end to end, all the way to Will Narr. They focus the footsteps to a narrow, meandering line, bridging the peat hags, and sparing disturbance to vegetation and wildlife. There was a lot of traffic on this section today, it being a popular route up Great Hill from the Belmont road. Most of the groups I met were covid-polite, exchanging the usual courtesies. Others were less so, and there were loose dogs, some of them big and troublesome, whose owners seem not to understand every passing stranger doesn’t want to make friends with their animal.

I was once caught in a storm up this way – big hailstones driven horizontally like cannon fire in a gale force wind. My thoughts at the time were: I cannot possibly die in the West Pennines, it being home ground – Striding Edge maybe, or the Hall’s Fell ridge, there’d be some glory in that, but not here. I ducked for shelter into a timely peat hag, and waited it out.

There were more difficulties on the path around the Hempshaws ruins, a mixture of heavy rain, massed footfall and bikes again, where there should be no bikes. There are many ruined farms on the moors hereabouts, abandoned in the 1920’s and 30’s, their remains shelled for practice during the second world war. I think Higher Hempshaws is one of the most picturesque – an emotive ruin, and still a pair of gritstone windows to frame the moor. This was the main objective of the day, though a long way round to get at it, and I spent a bit of time there with lunch and photography.

Higher Hempshaws ruin

The route back was along the broad farm-track to Lead Mine’s clough. I remember being upset when they curt this through, in the 80’s as a service road for the plantations. But I’m glad for it now, as a fast and firm route across the moor. I met several people on it, skimpily attired in shorts and tee-shirts, while I ambled along in several layers and a hat. It had been cool up on the edges, but at this lower altitude the day was definitely warming.

“Can we get round to the top of Lead Mine’s Valley this way?

A map would have told them, told them also of the difficulties in undertaking such an expedition. But they didn’t have one.

“Em, well, you can take the path over Standing Stones Hill, and swing round to the west a bit, but it’s trackless and needs care.”

Looks clueless: “Which one’s Standing Stones Hill then?”

Points: “Em, that one. Rough going though. Really rough, and likely to be boggy.”

“Oh, we’ll be fine.”

The lady and her little dog looked done in. The guy would be carrying them both soon. An off-piste jaunt over tussock grass was not a good idea, but it was hardly my place to say so. I trust they’d the sense to turn back when the going got tough.

On my return, I could barely find the car. There were vehicles everywhere, youths cackling as they swigged lager, and there were people in wetsuits climbing out of the Yarrow Reservoir. The Yarrow is so deep, it gives me nightmares just thinking about it, and I swear there’s a dragon lives at the bottom.

Just your typical mid-week Holy Week in the West Pennines then? There was a time when it was only like this on Bank Holidays and you could more easily calculate to avoid them. Now it’s like this all the time. Still, I had a good walk, and a welcome change of scene, covered around seven miles and a thousand feet of ascent. But as always, the stress on the moors pains me. And of course it’s Easter weekend coming up, so they’ll soon be on fire again. It’s what we do. We foul our nest, and set fire to it, be it Anglezarke moor, or planet earth, instead of thinking: we really need to look after this, because it’s all we’ve got, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

On second thoughts, if you’re in Liverpool tonight, I’d get some beer in, and avoid the tap-water.

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winter hillTier three Covid restrictions, now – what do they mean to me? Nothing more than I seem to have been living with for most of the year, except for a brief respite in the summer when the brakes came off. But now, with the death-rate creeping up again, things look set for the foreseeable, while not ruling out the possibility of a handbrake turn. No bother. I’ve a weeks’ leave in front of me, but it’s also half-term, so I’d not be travelling out much anyway – kids and congestion and all that – though I would have liked another trip to the Dales, before we see the year out. Unlikely now, I know. Still we make do.

After a morning of torrential rain, the skies cheered up, so the small blue car and I made the short hop from the bleakly hopeless flat of the Lancashire plain – in various stages of unprecedented flood now – to the moody Western Pennines. Here, we parked up by Parson’s Bullough. There were times in the summer when you couldn’t squeeze a car in here, those long, hot, Covid days and nights, but, tier three or not, things seem to have drifted back to normal, everyone either at work by day or cramming the boozers by night.

I’m out with the camera today, looking for some magic, looking for the faery, in a sense – though not literally, of course. By the camera, I mean “the camera”, an APS-C format Nikon DSLR with a medium zoom, which makes for a serious carry, and which also means it gets left behind more often than not. But it also offers the maximum in photographic potential, given the prevailing light today, and the landscape.

Odd, I’m seven weeks out from retirement now and wondering if this’ll constitute my new routine – you know? Lie in a bit with coffee and a book, then early lunch, and out with the camera, unless I’m travelling further afield – Covid permitting? If so, it’s something to be looking forward to, and I can scarcely believe it’s within grasp. I’ve been digging this tunnel for forty-three years and I’d hate for it to collapse on me at this point. Thus I approach with caution.

Anyway, leaving the car behind, I slip up the hill by Parson’s Bullough, already with a bothersome tail. It’s a couple of off-duty coppers. I can tell from their conversation – an over-loud recounting of a recent, dramatic massed arrest and drugs-bust one of them had the pleasure of participating in. There was much bravado and mimicking the accents of the bad-guys. I sat down to let them pass. Much as I respect our boys and girls in blue, they were disturbing of the peace within a quarter mile radius, to say nothing of being indiscrete.

winter hill treeThere are a couple of trees I admire here, very photogenic, I think. I try a few shots, but the sun is shy and the light is flat. I have better luck with a shot of Winter Hill, the light hitting it just right of a sudden. There are ugly transmitter masts on Winter Hill which should ruin the shot, but they’ve been there for ever now, and we’d probably complain if they were ever pulled down.

Then I’m skirting the top of Lead Mine’s Clough, where I encounter a proper photographer with the same camera as mine, but his is set up on a tripod, and the long zoom is pointing at me as I approach. Am I his human interest within the landscape, I wonder? What with himself and the tripod, he’s blocking the path, and he only steps aside as an after-thought.

“Hope I didn’t spoil your shot,” I tell him.

He mumbles something incoherent in reply, refuses eye contact. He’s not a conversationalist, and neither am I, really, so I leave him to it.

I’ve not been out with a tripod for years – can’t be bothered with them any more. I recall I once carried a sturdy old Cullman on many a hike in the Lakes, but I was in my twenties then and pack-weight wasn’t a thing. I still have some of those shots, crisp black and whites from an Olympus OM10. Sadly, that gem of a camera was stolen from my car, but they left the Cullman behind. I still miss that OM10.

With a tripod you set up camp in a particular spot, and you wait on the light. It’s like fishing, I suppose. It slows the whole process of photography down, makes you more mindful, and of course that tripod grants you extra crispness if you’re shooting in poor light, and with a slow lens, or you’re fiddling about with high dynamic range stuff. Myself though, I prefer to shoot on the fly, otherwise it slows the walk down too much, interrupts the perambulating meditation. Plus of course, if it’s the faery you’re after, they never come out if you’re waiting for them. You only ever glimpse them in passing, and out the corner of your eye. Modern lenses usually come with image stabilization now anyway, and that lets you get away with a lot you couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago. So, tripod? No thanks.

2ZSctI0EIt’s a familiar circuit, this one, Parson’s Bullough and Lead Mine’s Clough, a little detached from the more popular West Pennine routes, but packed with interest and, even after a lifetime, it has not exhausted all its photographic possibilities for me. There’s  always something different, a different light, a different mood. I manage around thirty-six shots, the length of an old 35mm roll, then cull them when I’m home to just three that are worth a second look. Sometimes the camera sees more than you do. Sometimes it doesn’t see what you see, and that can be frustrating, but it gifts you the unexpected, which is one of the rewards of photography for me.

Coming back down through the autumnal-shaded vale, I overtake an old guy and his lady. He’s got the stiffness of gait of a man in his eighties who is contemptuous of his years, and would rather die on a hill than slumped in front of the telly. I note good-quality boots, and mountain jackets. They are veterans of the high places, this pair. It’s in their weather-worn faces and in their eyes. And it’s in their smile as we greet in passing. God willing I’ll be that guy in another twenty years, aching hips perhaps, stiff knees, fragile back, and whatever passes for the latest in amateur photographic technology slung across my back.

But definitely no tripod.

It had begun a dour, wet day, but as I return to the little blue car, the sun is slanting through autumn gold, and glittering from the surface of the Yarrow Reservoir. In company with many, my horizons have been somewhat narrowed this year, but when you can’t see far, the rewards are to be found more in the details of what’s under your nose.

Keep well.

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gt hill

Great Hill, West Pennine Moors, from the Coppice Stile House ruins

Home territory today, ghosts and all – a walk up Great Hill in the Western Pennines. At 1250 feet it’s hardly Himalayan, but a shapely dome all the same, a seductive draw for the eye and a good stretch for a misty day in late December. We start mid-morning from the cricket ground at White Coppice, by the gash of the valley of Dean Brook with its dour gritstone crags. I’m intending a straight-forward hike up the moor to the Stile House, then Drinkwaters, and on to the top, returning via the ruins of Great Hill Farm – not really a day for exploring much, just striding out in familiar territory, and thinking.

With less than year to go now, I’m wondering what it’ll be like to retire early, and as I sit here in the car, gathering a head of steam to put my boots on, I have glimpses of a possible future in the dozens of old folk out with their dogs. I’ve wondered about a dog; I’m sure they’re good company, but they make me chesty and I couldn’t pick up their shit, plus a guy I know had his hand ripped open by his daft mutt the other day. It was only playing, I’m told, but the guy forgot the rules. The dog wins or else, and all these people here look like a similarly submissive species to me. No, theirs is not my future.

So here we go, bit of an odd man out, no dog. I have the camera – also odd these days – but you can’t expect good photographs with a mobile phone on a bleak day like this.  The new Scarpas are already muddy after a few other jaunts this winter, and are living up to their promises. I’ve not been well, actually, a weird virus about a week ago that began with a fever but failed to break into anything specific. It seems to have gone now though – plenty of wind in my sails at least. There’s just this odd feeling, a presence I’ve not felt in years.

Beatrice, is that you? I thought we were done with all that.

I’m talking stories here, you understamd?  I’m talking about myths, daemons, muses.

The Stile house has gone. They’ve all gone, the farms, the homesteads, just piles of rubble now. The Stile house was at times a farm, at times a pub, or both – and that it was a pub tells us this was once not the wide-open wasteland it is today. There was a bustle on the moors with farmers, miners, carriers. But then the land was bought for water catchment and none of the leases were renewed. A way of life, a people, all of it disappeared a hundred years ago leaving the moor as we see it today – desolate and uninhabited.

It must have been hard, scratching a living from the land up here, but they managed it; they peopled the moor, lent it life, ploughed, grew crops, bred animals. It was monied men in suits, sitting in far away cities who banished them with a flourish of the pen.

The Stile house resembles nothing more than a giant tumulus now, kept company by an old thorn tree, and it’s from here we get our first glimpse of the hill, just over a mile away. Cloud-base is around a thousand feet today, so it’s in and out of view as the mist scrapes by. We’ll be in it soon enough, and if Beatrice is indeed around, as I suspect she is, that’s where she’ll find me.

It’s rained all November, all December too, thus far, so the paths are heavy going. But come spring the moor will be dry as bones, and burning again. There seems no mid-curve averaging out to life these days, only the tail ends of either extreme.

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Drinkwaters Farm – West Pennine Moors

A decent track brings us to Drinkwaters farm, another ruin and welcoming with its line of fine Sycamores and its lush grass, kept green by generations of dung from the beasts they farmed here, all of this in contrast to the sour khaki of the reedy moor that does nothing now but graze sheep and catch water.

Third tree from the left, by the way. That’s me. If you want want me, centuries from now, that’s where I’ll be sitting, my back to that tree, watching the sun reach its zenith over the Round Loaf. But this is a popular spot with us locals, and I suspect I’ll have plenty for company.

We’re in the mist as soon as we set foot on the hill, and the wind carries us up. The path isn’t easy to lose, part paved now with re-purposed flagstones from derelict mills, and  already somewhat greasy from constant wet. The summit is a cross shelter amid a moat of mud, and it’s a parting of the ways.

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Great Hill Farm – West Pennine Moors

We take the path south, descend towards the blank, mist-addled space from which eventually would materialise Spitlers Edge. But before then we skirt west, around the base of the hill towards Great Hill farm, and another stand of bare Sycamores coming at us from out of the mist, the low gritstone ruins moist and mossy. I wonder, was the farm a cosy place? Did its fires manage to keep out the damp? Did the lamps burn a welcome in its windows? A hundred years gone, yes, but there’s still the echo of something Romantic.

Beatrice is here too, as I knew she would be. She is Victorian tweeds and a feminine sturdiness. She is Dorothy Wordsworth, she is Emily Bronte. She is Beatrice of the Lavender and the Rose. She is the flicker of a presence, inhabiting a corner of ones inner eye, her smile the lure, the trap to reel me in.

Yes, of course,… I know she’s not really here.

I sit a while in the mist, allow the imagination to restore life; bleak midwinter, the hill to our backs, cut off from the world below, there is nothing beyond the boundary of the gateless gate. I am a traveller, passing, uncertain of his way.

“Lost?” she asks.

She knows I am. That’s why she’s come looking, to fill in the gaps for me whether I like it or not. And on reflection, I do, I think,… like it.

I drift a little, mesmerised by the mist and the isolation, and the shapeliness of the bare Sycamores and the seductive flow of thought. I’m miles from anywhere, seen not a soul on the hill, but feel perfectly at home here. Then I’m walking, heading back to the multifarious profanities of the twenty first century. Did she take my arm awhile? What did she whisper as she hung close and warm?

Returning now to White Coppice, it has begun to rain, and there’s this miserable looking guy taking shelter in the cricket pavilion. I look to nod him my acquaintance, but he’s not in the mood and I’m ready to read his sullenness as an omen of mischance, that Beatrice was not here to counsel direction after all, but caution. But then there’s a girl coming up with what looks like a holly-wreath, or it could be laurels, something oddly pagan and evergreen about it. She’s young, fresh of face, beautiful. I try a smile and she responds with a warm hello, her eyes lit, a real sense of cheer and welcome for me, this passing stranger, freshly down,…

From winter on the hill.

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The Yarrow Reservoir

So, we’re leaving the car by the Yarrow reservoir this afternoon, tucked into one of the cuttings along Parson’s Bullough road. It’s a cold sun sort of day, enough to tease us outdoors, but the daffodils are looking shivery, so we’ll need to zip up. There’s a good light on the reservoir, and the sun just low enough now for the contrasts to be interesting.

The Yarrow reservoir: late Victorian period, built to supply water to Liverpool and, along with its much larger neighbours, the Anglezarke and the Rivington reservoirs, it was all something of a tragedy if you consider the land and the farms and the homes that were sacrificed to progress hereabouts. But they’ve been an unchanging fixture of my own life and, as far as reservoirs go, they’re beautiful and have bedded in well.

This afternoon’s jaunt will cover about three miles, where we’ll find a varied and fast changing scenery of moors and meadows, woods and running water, also a few dark tales along the way.

yarrow reservoir mapWe start with a bit of quiet road-walking, first across Alance Bridge, which spans the tail end of the reservoir. You sometimes get idiot kids tomb-stoning from the bridge in the summer, but it achieved a different kind of notoriety a few years back when murderers crept out of one the darker cracks of Bolton and attempted to dispose of a body by dropping it over the side here. It’s not a story I’m happy to be adding to local lore, and it reminds me these remoter stretches of Lancashire are perhaps best not explored after dark.

Next comes the climb up Hodge Brow, eventually passing an old barn on our left. This is a queer building, marked as Morris House on early six inch maps. I’ve known it variously as a ruin, then a bunkhouse and more lately a millionaires des-res project that’s stalled and has now lain empty for years. It looks about another winter away from the weather getting in too. There are warnings of spycams. This is a bleak corner, the wind unchecked, roaring down off Anglezarke moor to rattle the tiles – pretty enough in Summer, I suppose, but I don’t think I’d want to over-winter here.

Past Morris’ we’re onto Dean Head Lane, a narrow cut of a road, water pooling in the reedy hedgrows as it drains from the moor. It’ll take us on to the pretty little village of Rivington eventually, or up by Sheephouse Lane and Hoorden Stoops, to the more populous Belmont. There are fine views of Anglezarke to the north and, further off to the east is Noon and Winter Hill – something shaggy and frigid about them this afternoon though, in spite of the sun, like they’re hung over or still grumpy after the summer heath fires.

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The path by Dean Wood

At Wilkocks farm (1670), we cut down the path along by Dean Wood which skirts the deep ravine in which the wood nestles. I’ve often fancied a closer look at the wood as legend has it there’s a fine cascade hiding in there, but this place is considered so precious to the region, it’s sealed off and managed as a secure nature reserve – access by permission only, and you’d better have a good reason for asking.

There’s something creepy about the path, an old story about a farm labourer coming along here in the early nineteen hundreds. He felt a “presence” behind him, then turned to see, in his own words, the devil “horns and all”. Terrified, he ran to Rivington and told his tale, swearing all was true. Three months later they found his body at the bottom of the ravine in Dean Wood having apparently fallen from the path around where he claimed to have had his near miss with old Nick.

It’s a story recounted first, I believe, in John Rawlinson’s “About Rivington” and I’ve been careful not to add anything of my own to it here. Writers usually can’t help embellishing where they feel a story lacks detail. What I will say though is reports of such Forteana tend to cluster in the liminal zones, and this one certainly fits that pattern: the open meadows coming down to the edge of the wood, and then the deep ravine itself forming a void of air, all of which  makes for a fine transition from one thing to another.

One theory is we “imagine” such apparitions, but that doesn’t make them any less real, at least not to those experiencing them. On a fine sunny afternoon like this it’s just a story of uncertain vintage – no names, no precise dates, so it’s impossible to research more fully. To my knowledge Old Nick hasn’t been seen again around Dean Wood, but would I come down here at dead of night? Well, let’s just say, I’d be tempted to go another way.

I remember John Rawlinson as a kindly and wise old gentleman – a leading light of the Chorley Historical and Archeological Society, also a good friend of my father’s, both of them a half century gone now, both legends in their own way and loving every inch of the moors hereabouts.

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Turner Embankment – Yarrow Reservoir

After offering us tantalising glimpses of the forbidden, sylvan delights of Dean Wood, and hopefully avoiding any diabolical disturbance, the path brings us out into open meadows and with a fine view of the Yarrow reservoir, overlooking the somewhat angular Turner Embankment, so named after the house that was demolished to make way for it. Rawlinson tells us the house was most likely salvaged, and the materials put into building Dean Wood house, which nestles in a cosy bower just to our left here. There’s something pleasing about the close-mown lines of the embankment, I think,  with the trees still bare against the sky and the foreground meadows all lit by late afternoon sunshine.

Now we’re off along Dean Wood lane, through a fine avenue of chestnuts, just coming into leaf, and there’s a clear brook tinkling alongside us for company. We can walk on to Rivington from here, perhaps have a brew at the chapel tea rooms, but that’s for another day. Today we’ll take the path around the Yarrow instead, which we could follow pretty much all the way back to the car if we wanted, but if you don’t mind, I want to make a bit of a detour because I can hear the rumble of water and I suspect the spillway is running.

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The Yarrow Reservoir overflow

The Yarrow spillway is a spectacular feature hereabouts, a series of cascading steps that takes the excess from the Yarrow and feeds it with style into the Anglezarke reservoir. It isn’t often running these days, but there’s a good bit of water today, and it’s always worth a photograph, especially now with the sun settling upon it and adding a golden glow to the highlights.

I try a couple of shots with the lens wide open and manage 1/2000th of a second on the shutter. This has a dramatic effect on the capture of water, freezing it and rendering an image that’s essentially true but something the eye wouldn’t normally see. There must be thousands of shots of these falls on Instagram and Flikr, and a good many of them mine, but I never tire of it.

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F1.8 – 1/2000 sec

Okay, it’s just a short way now back to Parson’s Bullough and the car. Then it’s boots off, and home for a brew. A pleasant walk in familiar territory, but always something a little different to see.

Just one last look back at that gorgeous spillway, and we’re done:

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Great Hill – Western Pennines – UK

I take the path by Dean Brook,
Follow in my father’s footsteps.
Fifty summers gone, he led the way,
But there’s no trace of him now,
Beyond imagination.

The moors lay quiet in a steamy heat,
Exhale soft scent of ferns and earth.
Narrow here, the path,
Above a deepening
Water rushed ravine,
There’s a leg twisting tangle of heather,
And all the tricky snares
Of grass.

Hesitant of foot.
I fear more to fall
Than I did back then,
Cock-sure-footed
And safe in the cradle,
Of my father’s imagined
Immortality.

Now I fear the void of empty air,
And the cold embrace of peaty scum,
Then to be denied deliverance,
From the drowning pools,
For lack of saviour.

Today, the journey speaks
Of emptiness
Among sheep ruined hills.
And rising now to pulled down farms,
Hungry ghosts whisper tales
Of grinding lives, eked out
And gone,
Names unknown,
Scattered by the wind as leaves,
All dried and scratching brittle,
In soured dust.

And on top of Great Hill,
There is litter.

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