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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 dec 2014 sm

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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