Winter Hill Diary 1: A walk with Neil Winward
Saturday 7 December 2019
Fluvioglacial deposits – The term that had seeped through my mind from the stacks of background reading and rambling notes, suddenly becomes apparent.
Scientific terms are not what I typically hold onto– my memory seeming to scrabble against the cold click of the words. But there is something about ‘fluvioglacial’ which glistens, its flourish of fricative ‘f’ and ‘v’ blending to a kind of hum. The hum that hangs in the air around Winter Hill, the wind worn through a cloak of cloud.
On Rivington Moor, the mast of Winter Hill Transmitting Station glints in my vision like a compass needle, meltwater moves through my shoes, feels over my feet in its slick of cold. A touch that seems instinctive, insistent – and yet also an underline; a reminder of own futility. My shoes made unimportant.
‘Fluvioglacial’ is used to describe the depositing or eroding process of the land from meltwater ice, the glaciers of millions of years ago. It is deep in the hunch and hunker of Winter Hill, the very bulk of it making up the highest point of the West Pennine Moors. We walk towards it from Rivington Pike: a peculiarly rounded knoll that man has perhaps attempted to ‘domesticate’ under the glowering gaze of the much larger body of land. Rivington Pike in the foreground, the expanse of Rivington Moor, and then Winter Hill.
Today we see fell-runners red in Santa outfits scatter the pike, meet a young man at its summit selling hot drinks for charity, his toes almost touching the blue shock of a portable stove. We last met four years ago, in Scotland. We were part of the same course at a university, though I didn’t stay the duration. I assumed I would never see him again.
There is a bizarreness about Rivington Pike: a place of strange co-incidence, history circling itself like an agitated animal. Its story of being a beacon – flickering at the threat of the Spanish Armada, an account of a ‘Spectre Horseman’, the Pike Fair on Good Friday, even the scud and pull of motor-cycle races. A wide track rolls round – at a width that seems to create a kind of sparseness, disjoint. Bodies amble up to it, take steps scored into the gritstone face. At the summit, a tower built in 1733 now stands closed, it’s height inaccessible like a reverse kind of folly. Four National Parks can be potentially seen from its top – a view we perhaps no longer deserve? The current destruction of landscapes and ecosystems across the country aches in my thoughts.
Today, views across Greater Manchester at one angle, as far as Liverpool, even the Welsh mountains, from another.
Yet we leave the distinctive markings of the Pike and head into pathlessness, piecing our away across the saturated, seeping Rivington Moor, track markings swallowed in peat. Walking over the moorland, all view seems to strip inwards to the instinctive intimacy of water on skin, socks slimed into sudden summary of their artifice. Silt seeps between my toes, its chill-saltiness crystalizing into dark beads I have to break away later. I am suspended in a touch of timelessness, the meltwater of millennia ago… back like a language.
“We are not at all important,” says my friend.
It is a December midday– the type where the palette of the sky never quite seems to lose the last of the darkness – and I am walking with Neil Winward, a photographer I grew to know through our shared love of live music in Manchester. Yet it was a chance conversation one evening about the escapism of walking, that revealed a shared interest in Winter Hill. Strange, that. The urban edgeland unreeling a relationship with so many, a point of discussion and cultural relevance in surprising places. We went from talking in front of a city-centre basement stage, to stepping out into the grip of gritstone, place pushing our conversation open. Two people often associated with the fizz and throng of gig culture, yet at the same time craving the absolution of open land – where human touch is met with the ever-larger lock of the landscape. In the fizz and fluster of urbanity, ‘contact’ is a frequency – but true touch a rarity.
On Winter Hill – the place so many in the city use as a reference point, yet have never seen – touch is raw. A residual clinch repeats its imprint long after. It takes more than one shower, later, to wash away the peat well-worked into skin.
We have come to the edges to filter out the noise, focusing down to the single hum. The hum of a whole, deep body of earth. It is as if the sounds of the city have been stretched out, their waves taken in by one long lie of the land: contours on a map melting into a single, stunning point – the angle upwards under our feet. We are here without map or path, learning to feel.
Neil’s point, ‘we are not at all important’, comes as we cross the steepest section of moor towards the hill, drizzle dredging our faces in an icy sheen. He talks of the comparative unimportance of man within a much larger world, the folly of believing our own greatness – all the more apt, given current discussions on climate change; humankind engineering its own destruction? The planet cries out against our clumsy movements, mechanised and unfeeling.
Yet so much is felt on Winter Hill, the moorland pitted and glistening as the settling season works its way through the peat. The very mulch of it still seems burnt black, a shade that suggests a kind of scarring, perhaps a reminder of the not-too distant fires of 2018 that saw at least seven square miles of the area burn. The tragedy was commonly termed as a ‘wildfire’, yet note that more than at least one individual was arrested on suspicion of arson in relation to the blaze.
The stretch of peat and moss towards the Winter Hill television mast – the totem-like creator of what once was ‘Granadaland’, 1015.4ft high – moves and mulches under foot. Gouges of greying water and pits of raw earth ooze in an almost amniotic sense, cloying the nostrils with a heavy, salted closeness. A land womb-like and yet wound-like, clinging yet cut.
Yet as we pick our way across the moor, moving towards the mast like a kind of signal, bulrushes bridge the deepest pools, allowing us to pass over. Time melts and the moment becomes a kind of trust exercise with terrain, testing the uncertainty of ourselves as we feel the reality of gratitude in a boot bolstered by grass. I surrender to it.
And what strikes me, more than anything during the walk, is the apparent mercy of the place. With every faltering step, my inadequate footwear, the moor never lets us sink – its touch moving no further than toes and soles. Despite human fault and futility, here is a place that allows us to see, to stand, to walk.
This is the touch of awe.
And my sense of touch is changing. In the city it is so often incessant, overdone, looping everywhere in an almost sweaty elasticity; movement squeezing out words like crowding and contamination and crush. On Winter Hill – it is constance, and yet – silence. The place is its own punctuation, and touch here is a truth. I feel suddenly conscious of how so often, in the city, touch falls as transaction or accident or stolen or short. Rented rooms and borrowed beds. Cold.
I shiver. ‘Cold’ is usually packaged up in language, as an expression of discomfort, even inconvenience – its sharp starting syllables and scudding end like an injury on the tongue. Yet here it is confirmation of what we really are. It emerges as an intimacy, skin and muscles taut with it, the rawness of reality rather than human layers of invention. It slicks in the space between my clothes and skin as a confirmation. When we walk back towards Rivington Pike, the stunning bluntness of the wind falls like a voice without the limit of any mouth.
Down. The seep and suck of water-weighed earth seems rich, almost a fullness, against the sudden hard and handled lines of cut rock. Coming off the moor, we hit Rivington Terraced Gardens – acres of sprawling stonework, landscaping and ornamental features. It stands like metaphor for the imagination; unusual angles, excessive archways, a strange series of heights and follies. It was conceived by the local soap magnate and co-founder of Lever Brothers (what is now Unilever) Lord Leverhulme, along with the notable landscaper Thomas Mawson, between 1905 and 1925. This is an enthralling site busy with ornamental lakes, winding stairways and even a neo-gothic styled Dovecote Tower known as ‘The Pigeon Tower’. We find ourselves angling towards its oddity.
A future Edgelandia post as part of the Winter Hill project will explore Rivington Terraced Gardens in more detail. Today Neil and I find ourselves passing through as the sunlight starts to dilute across the sky, its warped watercolour of grey-black beginning to bleed almost purple at the horizon edges. The weather is turning, and drizzle dredges our faces suddenly, a shower almost insect-like in its fizzing insistence across skin.
In passing, a woman with tightly plaited hair and a ruddy complexion beneath a patchwork hat recommends that we ‘say hello to the volunteers’, accompanied by a gesture towards a circle of people digging around a turf bed nearby. We learn that this is a group from Rivington Heritage Trust, who have played a significant part in maintaining the upkeep of the historic gardens, especially after the site fell into disrepair through much of the 20th century (the land is now owned by United Utilities). One of the volunteers explains that this afternoon is focusing on creating a wildflower bed on the site of what was Lord Leverhulme’s stone ballroom. I shake my head incredulously, my mind flooding with images of lace-decked lords and ladies pirouetting against the basking bulk of Winter Hill, their movements comparatively clockwork, stilted against the land’s organic magnificence.
“Wow,” falls as a single, drawn-out syllable.
The warmth and friendliness of the volunteers is clear, and they even invite us to join them for refreshments; the promise of powdered donuts, tea comfortingly silty with sugar and the tang of a flask. I feel my intake of air rinse round my mouth like a YES. And yet, we have to push on; the threat of later traffic jams from the Manchester derby looming. In the gardens, the buzz of traffic can sometimes be heard between breaths.
As we thank the volunteers and say our goodbyes, someone recommends that we stop to look at the sundial in the corner – a person-height stone structure, recently carved by local stonemasons to create a replica of Lord Leverhulme’s original – in front of which, it is said he proposed to his wife. I walk over, the peat pulsing cold in my shoes and take on the view of this rumoured engagement… the bare trees bracing for winter, but then the wide expanse of flat land, the basin where Bolton is built – its throng of mills and bleachworks. Connections and industry.
I am mulling over this point of ‘connection’ as we find ourselves walking onwards, passing over the top of Leverhulme’s Seven Arched Bridge, reportedly based on a design he’d seen in Africa. It takes us by surprise. There is only one way of crossing the bridge, the line of its top, and yet the structure is an unravelling mass of arches– reminding me of a hanging slab of melting toffee with a series of holes stretching their way through. Low-blood-sugar spools into the mind’s eye, imagery sticky and cloying. There is an inevitable route, but structures shift, surprise us.
And perhaps that is a point of thought as resonant as any, as Winter Hill broods like the shadows underneath my eyes, the bogland baked into my shoes.
Still now, oozing the promise of earth in the back room of a shared house where I live in Hulme. My destroyed walking shoes still lie there, as I do, in the room above.
The edge of sleep takes me back.
What is it about the human tendency to turn to stone? I mean, the choice of rock – perhaps to remember, perhaps, in Leverhulme’s case, to reassemble crumbling thoughts. Grasping for gritstone – a desperate attempt to memorialise the mind, immortalise the imagination, to barricade ourselves against loss and betrayal? Like a lover in bed watches the other sleeping, straining eyes in the half-light to trace the fuzzy outline of their features, the body’s curvature, contours, rivulets. The sepia of semi-darkness setting the memory into a kind of statue, a memorial in the mind’s eye. A stone we carry round.
The unspoken understanding pitted in all of us, that this too, is finite.
And how the hill sees beyond it.
In a borrowed bed in a rented room
the movement of mattress above is tectonic shift
scud of sound from spaces below
builds as a stream of muddied shift.
The sedimentary squeeze of urban living,
pressing pores with fizzing feel, unpicked
by the zip of the early train, releasing
layers of track and field. This
still a patchwork
of invention – for it takes further, upon moor,
feet through the running language of mud and silt
– to lose definition of the floor.
Photography: Neil Winward
Soundscape: Mark Corrin