Winter Hill Diary 2: a walk with Andrew Michael Hurley (Part 2)
Just over a hundred years ago, this basin of land before us would have been filled with billowing chimneys, belching bleachworks, the smoke and smog of industry creating a dark, claustrophobic closeness. It is perhaps little wonder then that people who lived in proximity of the moors felt so deeply attached to them – workers who would often be facing a six-day working week still taking up there on their precious day off – the openness allowing the imagination and stories to run, compared to the artifice below.
We turn to face the ascent of the hill, the TV mast visible from the single-file road, yet webs of mist hanging across rain-gouged fields like a warning. Next to the car, the fence is half-swallowed in black mulch.
As we walk, the hail finds our faces. Andrew considers whether it is the north in particular that warrants a particular feel of ‘wildness’ a harshness we still feel tempted to hold ourselves to. We consider the fens in Graham Swift’s Waterland, harsh coastlines across the country, even the places in National Parks where the lone walker can quickly lose sight of any other human being – for whole days at a time.
And then there are the ‘other’ places. everywhere has its edgelands, the blurred borderlands, places we can’t pinpoint. Perhaps Winter Hill is one of them: seen from so many sides – Blackburn, Chorley, Bolton, Manchester, Preston – and yet stretching out of them all. It resists being a hill we can ‘handle’ – its various slopes and faces beyond the easy possibility of a pencil drawing or photograph. No screen can summarise it. Some hills hunker like huge, crouched creatures caught on the skyline. Winter Hill instead unfolds, almost origami-like, its various gulleys and slopes dense with possibility, intrigue, danger.
It also has been a place of human habitation – for thousands of years. Bronze Age burial sites, cairns, beacons, shooting huts, barns: a variety of markings over time scatter the hill like a strange ritual offering. There are also the shells of former settlements; abandoned farmsteads, the ruin of a row known as ‘Five Houses’, once a popular stopping-point for foot travellers – one of the last places that the murdered traveller George Henderson was reported as visiting (and where his body was laid out, as Vicky mentions in the recorded conversation above).
Then there was the intriguingly named ‘Newspaper Hall’, a large settlement built by a character known as ‘‘Owd Reynolds’, who would sell gingerbread to passers-by: along with free ale to get round licensing laws at the time! There is also the tale of ‘Newspaper Hall’ being so-called according to Vicky because a former tenant apparently would read the newspaper to his illiterate workers. People’s apparent fondness for this passing-place was even referenced in the Mass Trespass trial, with ‘Owd Reynolds’ son John telling of his father’s custom and William Fletcher, a bricklayer, recalling his fondness for stopping there.1 Black Jack’s was the evocative name of another moorland cottage, where a man known as Morris lived – one day it is said he tossed a loaded pistol into the fireplace, destroying the whole building.2
These human stories highlight the imaginative, odd, intimate possibilities of open terrain – its vastness allowing tales to grow, shift, even warp over time. Andrew alludes to the particular sense of loneliness experienced in landscape such as this, a sense that people have been here before, but at a distance – their true stories just beyond our grip. Like we look back onto civilisation – towns, the city – without being able to make sense of it. I think about this as one foot slips slightly over a stone well-worked with the sole of unseeable boots. The past and the present replaying over and over; the making of paths both memorial and momentum forwards, rendering us both in-step and out of step. Again, that strange familiarity we can’t explain.
For just as we cannot ‘handle’ the hill, here time seems to slip beyond the comforting circle we are used to. It is the human tendency to take comfort in a grasp of time; watches worn on the wrist, digits flashing on phones like markers of reassurance. Here, it is rendered futile – hours and minutes melting to insignificance in the magnitude of moor, past and present passing through each other as water seeps through soils. It was Winter Hill after all where local industrial workers came to break the ‘factory time’ that dictated their typically 6-day weeks, the straight and narrow of shift work. The wide, open moors – both of Rivington and Smithills, leading up to the hill – became a solace, stripping away routine to the raw sense of self in space. The fuel behind the Mass Trespass.
The exposure feels suddenly acute, accompanied by a last flurry of cold.
We come to the commemorative stone to the Mass Trespass itself, just as the hail starts to clear. Positioned close to where the road veers off and the track heads up the moor, the stone details how 10,000 Boltonians marched on the 6 September 1896: a surely impressive sight. I think of the stark contrast compared to our experience of the hill – where we only see two other walkers on the ascent. Yet in 1896, the crowd must have looked almost river-like, the long line of people pouring through every twist and meander of the path to the summit; many rippling in their long coats and Sunday best.
The commemorative stone declares matter-of-factly that the path was dedicated as right of way in September 1996 – and I am stricken – one hundred whole years after the Mass Trespass effort. Andrew and I have already been musing as to why the Winter Hill mass trespass has received so little coverage compared to the smaller Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 – and perhaps this is one of the reasons. Although the Winter Hill Mass Trespass was a huge local effort, it didn’t necessarily achieve its objective at the time. Instead, landowner Ainsworth and his authorities cracked down hard-handedly: issuing writs and leading to a trial in March 1897 of ten of those originally involved. Although 44 witnesses were called for the defence (against 33 for the prosecution), they still lost on the day – leading to the long legal battle for a right of way, which rumbled on for a century.3
Yet it seems somehow unjust that this sheer effort, this deep dedication to place goes largely unreported. A notable historian who has significantly documented the Mass Trespass, Professor Paul Salveson, notes in his pamphlet ‘Will Yo Come O Sunday Morning?’ (referencing some of the dialect verse by Allen Clarke that was written on the occasion, and will be a point of reflection for the next Edgelandia instalment), the aftermath of 1896 could be seen as contributing to the formation of an early branch of the Footpaths Preservation Society.4 Tapping into perhaps the human tendency to want to explore the land with others, linking through time.
Yet the paths by which we come to place can be different – even distressing. The reason why Winter Hill may be more in the public consciousness in recent years, links back to the 2018 fire – raging for more than 40 days, baking heather scouring-brush sore and leading to national media coverage. Still, as Andrew and I walk, we can see, feel, the damage. The peat smells somehow different round here: an agitated cloying scent that whips the nostrils in a wire of cold. Cracked, exposed stretches lie a bitter black, whilst clumps of vegetation writhe in dry twists like cauterised antlers. Colours seem too deep, as if disturbed; rough reds and occasional jolts of yellow-green. There is a soreness here, and something deeply sad.
I falter across swollen gorges of streamline, running down the hillside in rivulets. Andrew remarks on its dark, almost ale-like body, rich and peaty as it rinses through rushes and grass. In wellies I am clumsy, vulnerable, small; tested by the terrain. But the landscape does not hold malice – it carries on being itself. Even in the face of human damage, Vicky’s earlier point that nesting birds are still returning the moor people may perceive as a sign of hope, but also a sign of something so far beyond us.
This sets me thinking about the Winter Hill transmitting station mast, which I always seem to be angling towards; regardless of whichever side of the hill I am ascending from. A man-made structure that seems somehow bound, compass needle-like, in my mind-map of the place; yet a relatively recent invention. In fact, a smaller mast preceded it in 1956, and the current mast came into use ten years later. I feel unnerved as to why this modern marker seems so integral to my image of the hill.
“It’s almost totem-like,” Andrew reflects.
And in that tradition, there is an element of ritual to this structure; walkers moving towards it, eyes – even from the motorway, houses – seeking it out as a navigation point. I attempt to think back to a time when the mast didn’t exist, as we pick our way over the gritstone-slab path towards the highest point of the moor. After all, the mast was not a point of reference during the Mass Trespass. Instead, perhaps it is the unifying impulse upwards, that instinctive strive within ourselves to seek a vantage point, to look beyond ourselves – that drives us to seek summits. In current times, technology can tap into this craving, give the illusion of beyond… yet there is the being beyond that the landscape opens, unrivalled.
A sudden scream.
I find it is myself, a jolt of shock drawn out of my lungs as I feel one foot suddenly surge downwards, plunging like a hot knife through the dark suddenness of saturated peat. My badly judged step meets an immediate rush of reality. Andrew, slightly ahead of me, turns to see the mud-line lap just below the top of the wellington boot – and with a great heave, I pull myself out. There is something about that moment; the surge and suck of the soils, the rush of the water, a kind of embrace – that stays with me. The strange mercy of the land allowing my foot to stay dry.
A wash of gratefulness flows through my gait like relief as we carry onwards. Rays of sunlight start to spangle across the moorland, an almost blackcurrant-liquorice sheen to some of the stretches ahead. The air crackles, chill-fresh, almost salty on the tongue. To be within the weather in all its potential harshness and watch it change, feels like a privilege.
The mast offers no such welcome. Perhaps a telling totem of an edgeland, it seems simultaneously close but far away, beckoning and yet boring down on any approaching walker. At its base lies a strange, scattered patchwork of metal fencing, various coloured outbuildings, even an office block. A road cuts over the hill to this peculiar place of work, a strange slick of tarmac melting into the horizon. Taut-looking, rope-thick cables tether the mast at various angles; as if the central pole of a tepee has been strung-up with guyropes and its skin torn away by the wind. Now just a cylindrical tube left, studded with various plates, dishes, scaffolding. Again, the sensation of that strange, lonely familiarity – seeing a human-built structure but unable to make sense of it. It reminds me of Vicky’s remark earlier: that people are hardly seen to go in and out of the offices below, the unknown element of what goes on in this oddly industrial assemblage at the summit of the hill.
Andrew and I arrive at the road – he rustles the map.
“Well, it’s impossible to not know where we are,” he smiles, looking up at the mast.
At that precise moment I suddenly notice two young men moving towards us, dressed in black walking gear, one with mid-length wavy hair – dark ringlets flickering in the breeze. Both are pale and rain-slicked; they can’t be any older than 16 or 17. A lost pair from a Duke of Edinburgh Expedition? Local boys bunking school for a hike?
The lad with the dark hair catches my eye as he approaches.
“Where are we?” he asks; the syllables long, crackling, almost musical, in one of the strongest scouse accents I have ever heard.
Andrew and I look at each other, then up at the mast, as if waiting for place to speak for itself.
“You’re on Winter Hill,” I tell them, after a long wait.
“Where’s Pendle Hill?” pipes up the other, slightly smaller lad.
Our conversation is stunted, etched with pauses, almost dream-like.
“That’s nowhere near here.”
“Where are you heading to?” asks Andrew.
They give a mumbled, non-committal response.
“Rivington Pike is that way,” I offer, pointing in the opposite direction over the moors.
“How far away is that?” the older lad looks hesitant.
“Less than an hour, I’d say.”
The boys look at each other, exclaim something about distance, laugh a bit and then lurch off – not in the Rivington Pike direction – but down the road, where Bolton and Greater Manchester bask on the horizon.
Something strange stirs as we stand there, watching them waver into silhouettes – Two Lads untethered, lost in place, but ambling onwards. A piece of the past about them. The sting again of that strange, lonely familiarity – a connection made, but not quite grasped. Who were these boys? How had they got here? Where were they going?
And nearby the Two Lads cairn still grows and shrinks, it’s stories as rich and multitudinous and strange as this weird exchange under a television mast – looking beyond our individual selves, to the strange space between blindness and awe.
You can view Andrew and I’s performance of work inspired by our Winter Hill Edgelandia walk below, with a live soundscape by Flange Circus – part of Manchester Folk Horror Festival III.
Video: filmed by Helen Darby, editing and production by Pete Collins.
Walk recordings: editing by Mark Corrin.
Photographs: Emily’s own, except the final photo (featuring Emily, Andrew and Flange Circus at The Folk Horror Festival III, The Peer Hat ) – by Helen Darby
1 Salveson, Paul. pp.31
2 Hampson, Thomas. Horwich: Its History, Legends, And Church. Nabu Press (14 Aug. 2011)
3 Salveson. Pp.30
4 Salveson. Pp.27