Winter Hill Diary 2: a walk with Andrew Michael Hurley (Part 1)
A familiarity we can’t explain
Audio recordings of the walk – join Andrew and I as we ascend the hill – created live and discussing the concept of ‘Edgelandia’. Tune in and out as you wish!
The early hours offer the possibility of invention, the odd elasticity of time where the imagination flexes – especially in the dark wrap of Winter. I walk through Hulme at 6am, the flat of Streford Road damp and uneasy as an oil slick, its surface scattered with the petroleum sheen of streetlights, crane-lights, the passing punctuation of headlights. Here it is never dark – light comes like commas meshing in the ever-growing text of the city – a presumed marker of activity? Energy? Progress?
Like moths, mankind seems drawn to the domesticated forms of light, the pinpoints we can explain. But what about the lights that we can’t – or light that suggests warning, threat, even the unknown? What happens when we are looking beyond our individual selves, to the strange space between blindness and awe?
An edgeland encourages us beyond introspection and pushes us, outwards.
This takes my mind to Winter Hill: itself saddled with the modern marker of the television transmitting station, its tubular mast spearing upwards at 1,015.4 ft high – and as dark descends a series of lights on the structure glow red, seeping into the night like a blood-lozenge. Whilst the black bulk of the hill embraces the darkness, from a distance instead what is seen is this series of lights, a strange straight constellation I first watched from the rear-window of a car, aged around five.
“Where’s that?” I remember repeatedly asking, pointing, rubbing the greasy condensed window again and again as if looking for an answer.
“It’s a space rocket,” quipped my little brother.
“Winter Hill,” answered my dad at the wheel, simply.
Even my brother’s space rocket speculation has its own resonance. For Winter Hill has harvested stories of flight for centuries: flights of fancy, of fear, of disaster, of hope. Around the hill there have even been a number of claimed UFO sightings – the ‘80s and ‘90s proving particularly fruitful; including an oddity hovering over a cattle field in 1999 – recorded as the ‘Murphy Incident’1, and when previously classified information about reported UFO sightings was released in 2006 by the UK government, it included a report of an unidentified object over the hill.2 Accounts of UFO sightings still continue, ever-building in their accumulation of looking beyond, to the points we can’t explain: a futuristic folklore of place that somehow mixes hope and horror together.
Yet there have also been real-life incidents demonstrating the potential horrors of flight close to the hill. Winter Hill and the surrounding moorland has witnessed a number of air crashes over the years: the largest being what is often recorded as ‘The Winter Hill Air Disaster’ of 27 February 1958, when a plane travelling from the Isle of Man to Manchester hit the ground in terrible weather conditions, close to where the transmitting station now is.3 35 people died, with only 7 survivors – and a memorial plaque has been embedded close to the site. Accounts of the area seemed studded with turbulent relationships with the skies… and in turn, with eyes.
The rise of the mast now serves as a warning, a needle drawn-black by day, hot red at night. The nearby nub of Rivington Pike has historically served as beacon, billowing flame from hundreds of years ago – an example being when it was lit on the 9 July 1588 at the potential threat of the Spanish Armada.4 Eyes from communities far and wide would have been drawn to the flickering of light, the very mass of the moors locked in the blind base of their vision – a reminder that even if we cannot see the land itself at night, it still looms. It waits for us to look beyond ourselves and learn.
I start the morning in Hulme – an inner-city area of Manchester –from where I make my journey to Winter Hill. Today I will be walking with Andrew Michael Hurley, the author of books including The Loney, Devil’s Day and Starve Acre: all fascinating fictions encountering folklore, place and taking particular inspiration from the landscapes of the North. Currently based in Preston, he has already told me that he can see the Winter Hill mast from his window at home, a strange marker of familiarity.
I thread through the amalgamation of architecture of university campus and down the usually-packed thoroughfare of Oxford Road, one of the busiest bus corridors in Europe. At this time of the day there is still a savouring sense of quietness, as if the rush of momentum of the commute has been gathered up in a tight yarn, waiting to be unspooled. Travelling through the waiting hours feels like a triumph. The warm woolly air of urbanity sits at the back of my throat, teases my eyes, pushes me onwards.
Heading for Horwich Parkway, I board the train at Oxford Road station. The strange patchwork of my walking clothes draws a few inquisitive glances – it is a Friday after all, and I have booked the day off work. New walking boots sit oddly on my feet, as if their starched tongues and eyes are glinting with the tale of my previous walking shoes; slicked into redundancy by the raw Winter Hill peat (as recorded in the previous Winter Hill entry). Bright yellow wellies lurk in a bag-for-life next to me.
Sitting in the accumulating stuffiness of the train carriage, I think back to my previous Winter Hill walk with Neil Winward, how gluts of bogland billowed between my feet. I was left walking on a kind of water, my usually achingly flat feet suddenly searingly intimate with place. It has become a craved sensation… and a sensation that made me look beyond myself, my usual expectations of comfort, that human entitlement to walk.
This land of gritstone gives us grip, yet fills our footsteps… inviting us to rethink our imprint.
Throughout this project, I have been thinking of footsteps – fascinated by the Winter Hill mass Trespass of 1896 ever since the first time I read about it, within the museum at Smithills Hall, close to its base. Footsteps can be markers of finding ourselves, yes – but also the things through which we falter, even stumble. My search for stories and accounts of the hill is plagued an anxiety of ‘treading on other people’s toes’; footfall even emerging in idioms. For I am conscious of excellent historians working on the area, the mass trespass: Professor Paul Salveson, Dave Lane, all those involved at Horwich Heritage Centre, the volunteers at Rivington Heritage Trust and so many more whose intimate local knowledge underlines their expertise. I attempt to reassure myself in that, I want to follow in their footsteps, but still take my own route… for this is a project of experimentation, of experience and ongoing relationships with the hill. I am no expert – only inspired, and experiencing.
For this is a place that brings a variety of people together; as seen by the Winter Hill Mass Trespass of 1896. Significantly less covered than the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932, the Winter Hill Mass Trespass was not only over 30 years earlier but also much bigger: involving up to 12,000 people walking the hill at its largest, with processions across consecutive weekends.5 The trespass was a response to the local bleachwork entrepreneur and landowner Richard Henry Ainsworth – at the time based at Smithills Hall – closing a public right of way over the moors (Coalpit Road) during the Summer of 1896, in order to prioritise his grouse shooting interests.6
I meet Andrew at Horwich Parkway Station – and Smithills Hall is our first stop. Cold rain rinses the windscreen, the hill itself obscured by a dark clot of cloud. I attempt to apologise on behalf of the weather, and Andrew stops me. It instead sets us talking: how the landscape, the elements, are beyond us, an ungraspable vastness– a point both unnerving and strangely reassuring. Knowing that something is not in human hands. On the moor, attachments to personal routine, anxieties, the ‘everyday’, ebb away and we are faced with submitting to the rhythm of the rise of the land.
And learning from it. This is a key reason behind our visit to Smithills Hall, not only a Grade I listed manor on the edge of Bolton, but a base for the Woodland Trust. Their largest ever site is nearby: the Smithills Estate, at 1700 acres. Strikingly described on the Trust website as ‘damaged by centuries of exploitation by man, Smithills is a landscape on the edge’7, the area also tells a story of terrible recent damage. Following the devastating Winter Hill fire of 2018 – which saw at least seven square miles of the moorland burn – a third of the Estate was affected. This is a site shaped by Winter Hill, the Pennine jolt of their geographies binding their experience.
“Peat burns from underneath.”
The words of Vicky Entwistle – Engaging Communities Officer at the Woodland Trust – stick deep in my mind early in our conversation. We sit to talk in an upstairs office in the hall, images of the moor baked black from the flames thick in my thoughts. Vicky tells us of how months later, walking on Winter Hill, the peat was still smoking under surface level, heat holding onto the carbon mulch and creating an ache so vast the impact can still be seen, and felt, today. Listen to an excerpt of our conversation with Vicky below (we talked for well over half an hour!). I begin by introducing the Edgelandia concept:
For it takes thousands of years for peatland to develop; compacted, congealing vegetation creating a fertile mass that lives, breathes. Peat takes in CO2, making it one of the most naturally efficient carbon sinks on the planet. Saving us from ourselves, you could say. It also fuels its ability to burn… and how we have injured what attempts to heal us.
That the fire was started deliberately is a point unfathomable to many.
And yet, rather than reacting with resent, Vicky tells us of people’s personal responses, as well as The Trust, in relation to the area as a result of the fire – the blaze being tackled by at least 100 firefighters at its height. Extensive conservation work is being carried out on the moor: efforts to keep the area moist, encourage vegetation, manage grazing, the creation of firebreaks. Slightly lower down, on the Smithills Estate, The Woodland Trust has forged onwards with its planting season also, which saw 850 volunteers from the community get involved in March 2019 and another 800 in November of the same year – with the aim to have planted 140,000 trees by 2021. As has been widely reported in the media recently, planting trees is another important way to counter carbon emissions… and perhaps as small way of giving back to a landscape so deeply scarred.
On Winter Hill, areas once wiry-dense with heather may never grow back.
And yet, towards the summit, cotton grass surges in surreal clumps, like a confetti drop. It has attracted attention, even article coverage; images of the white-woven moortop making the papers last year. Behind it is the sad fact that it grows in the place of rich mosses struggling to restore in the ecosystem– underlining how human beings may be drawn to points that look visually pleasing, reassuring, yet not always feeling through to the layers and stories beneath. A ghost grass.
It is that element of the unknown that animates our conversation. For Vicky tells us that an attitude The Woodland Trust still often encounters is that people are scared of the woods, of the ‘wild places’. Trees are after all a recurring symbol in folklore, fairy-tale, the place where the ‘baddies’ dwell. Andrew reflects that it was a tree that was originally planted up on the moor in memory of George Henderson, the travelling packman who was brutally murdered as he crossed over Winter Hill on the 9 November 1838.
Blinded on Winter Hill
they found him, breath fizzing downwards
into peat. One eye blasted to inkwell black
the other, a wrenched open snail slimed
cold on his cheek.
Now you follow his steps but cannot see him
a travelling George, Dumfriesshire born
crossing West Pennine moors for a Draper,
called at Five Houses Inn, for the road.
No transmitting station loomed over his body
as it frothed in the drain ditch you now cannot see
and the coal pits gouged through the flank of the hill
emerge to you now as half-gasps
of ore-acid green.
The bronze age cairn close to where the gun opened
itself since dug and pitted and scraped
you cannot see the hands of those who build it
nor those of dry-stone wallers, wanderers
ill-fated pilots of planes.
No sight of the mass trespass, where 10,000 marched
for their feel of the land. Instead you pass
commemorative stones, plaques, memorial stumps.
You feel the hairs tremble
on the back of your arm.
It is the unseen knowing that gets you
the mass of the moor in its storied bulk
and the quickstep of your heart
to enter your blindness and to walk.
Trees too tap into memory, hold a magnitude we can only aim for: rooted in earth, keeping that intimacy with landscape whilst human history flickers around them. Yet they are also a strange marker of familiarity – perhaps underpinned by interdependence: they release oxygen and take in carbon dioxide, we breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. But there is also an aspect to that familiarity, that connection, that we can’t explain – how we feel bound to, navigated by, responsive to trees, even if we do not know the chemical relationship beneath.
Perhaps it is a kind of ancestral longing. Vicky tells us of the older men of the community, volunteers for The Woodland Trust, who patrol the nearby Walker Fold Woods – finding abandoned toys and creating stories for them: strange tales of the ‘Wald Kinder’, mysterious happenings. She takes us to the volunteer room and shows us one of these toys – a grotesque grey fusion of mouse, cat and bear called ‘Cato’, ogling us with re-purposed glass eyes and an electronic voicebox over which intermittent sound crackles like a long-lost field recording. It is deeply horrible. On the wall there is a longsword that was found abandoned on the moor beside a copy of Dante’s Inferno.
In so many stories, this seems to be an edgeland encountered through ritual – Vicky telling us too about Two Lads, an unusually named series of cairns only a short distance from the Winter Hill summit. Stories circulate about this strange place: some saying it marks the resting place of two Anglo Saxon princes, others say their father, and some believe that it commemorates two lads (or ‘Twa Lads’ in local dialect) who perished to death in the cold many centuries ago. To this day, the cairns still significantly grow and shrink– sometimes consisting as one large mound, at other split into a defined two, and at other times featuring one large cairn with a number of outliers. Huge amounts of stone shifted, added, removed – often without a trace of the hands behind it. It can appear bizarrely different from day to day, intrigue stirring at the sheer human effort of coming up onto the moor to complete such an act.
Before we begin our own Winter Hill walk, Vicky takes Andrew and I around the currently abandoned upstairs wing of Smithills Hall; a labyrinthine series of rooms, many with fitted Victorian fireplaces contrasting starkly against flaking plasterwork. Empty stone sinks loom in corners, floorboards seem to spring and twitch at the rarity of human tread. There is something almost ironic in that we are rambling through the former home of Richard Henry Ainsworth, the landowner who once limited the right of way to the moors we will soon walk. A slate grey sky looms large in the vaulted windows, looking out onto a herb garden.
“Sinister almost, how there are yew trees – poisonous – growing at the centre of it,” Vicky reflects.
Strange tales in relation to trees have often surfaced in these parts. As is recorded in Thomas Hampson’s 1889 book Horwich: Its History, Legends, and Church, there is the particularly grisly story of the nearby ‘Robbers Walk’. This strange legend has been drip-fed over time, its offruns seemingly all deriving from Hampson’s version; a tragedy set many centuries ago. It reports that a former ‘Lord of the Manor’ and his henchmen were harsh to the tenants on the land – many of these being working people just attempting to get on with their lives. Yet the Lord’s henchmen actually went onto rob honey from his forest, maliciously blaming the tenants for doing so instead. It was in the face of harsh judgment and even the threat of death from the Lord, that a number of the wrongly accused tenants fled and formed a group of outlaws… striking similarities with the Robin Hood-style narrative many may be familiar with.8
Yet in this story of the Smithills area rather than Sherwood, the trees take an eerie symbolism of their own. The Lord continued to pursue the outlaws, with the leader eventually being captured and hung from an old oak tree. The violence does not stop there. Resentful at the loss of their leader, the outlaws responded, when the Lord was away, by hanging the Lord’s three children from the same tree. The accumulation reaches a grim climax in that the Lord returns devastated – in turn hanging the outlaws. In turn, the tree becomes a bearer of bad omen, a mast of death, the natural disturbed by man’s cruelty. This strikes me, especially considering the eerie link to Andrew’s most recently published novel Starve Acre (2019); in which a tree and its link to hanging loom as a central omen, even on the front over. A strange co-incidence? I arranged to walk the hill with Andrew long before I had even read Hampson’s story…
Before we leave, we also visit ‘the footprint of faith’ – a strange mark on the stone floor of the Smithills Hall withdrawing room – said to have been left by the local man George Marsh; persecuted for his protestant faith at the time of Queen Mary (also known as the ‘Marian persecutions’). In spring 1544 he had been warned that if he appeared in Bolton he would be charged with heresy, leading him to present himself at Smithills Hall, where local Justice of the Peace Robert Barton lived at the time. In turn, Marsh found himself questioned in an upper chamber of the hall (now known as the ‘Green Room’) – challenged on what the authorities saw as ‘heretical’ beliefs, and as he was being led down the stairs, it is reported that he stamped his foot in affirmation of his faith, leaving the warped mark that still exists today. He was burned at the stake on the 24 April 1555, recorded in John Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’ – with the footprint rumoured to ‘bleed’ on the anniversary of his death.9
A bleeding footprint is a haunting point of thought as Andrew and I contemplate our walk of Winter Hill, swirling in our thoughts as we say thank you and goodbye to Vicky, who has been fantastic company for the morning.
We take the car slightly further up the long stretch of Smithills Dean Lane and onto Coal Pit Road, passing the Ainsworth Arms: where the Mass Trespass marchers assembled on the bright morning of 6 September 1896 to hear speeches from a soapbox, the crowd building to around 10,000 before heading up onto the moors.10 The following Sunday, it is reckoned that even more people – an estimated 12,000 in total – turned out to repeat the procession, though facing much harsher weather.11 Perhaps more in-line with the conditions Andrew and I watch dubiously through the car window, fat veils of rain thickening to sleet, the drumming of earnest fingers telling us to move. This time I don’t apologise – but put on the pair of yellow wellies instead. It is these or the walking boots.
From the lay-by on Coal Pit Road we look out across the wide basin of line before us; Horwich then Bolton still visible through mizzling mist, the brooding skyline of Manchester in the distance, cooling towers close to Warrington far away in the right of my vision. Yet this is a place where you can look out onto civilisation and feel somehow separate from it, falling into a different frequency: as if here on the moor we are, ironically, unmoored. Perhaps that was one of the almost impossible to articulate yet instinctive feelings underpinning the mass trespass – the craving for a landscape that lies so far beyond the routines and rhythms of society.
5 Salveson, Paul. Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Morning: The 1896 Battle For Winter Hill. Red Rose Publishing. Pp24
6 Woodland Trust. Grouse shooting at Smithills Estate. From https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/visiting-woods/wood-information/smithills/history-of-smithills-estate-overview/industries-that-shaped-smithills-grouse-shooting/
8 Hampson, Thomas. Horwich: Its History, Legends, And Church. Nabu Press (14 Aug. 2011)
10Salveson, Paul. Will Yo Come O’ Sunday Morning: The 1896 Battle For Winter Hill. Red Rose Publishing. Pp14