Projects | Winter Hill Diary 3: a walk with Richard Skelton

Winter Hill Diary 3: a walk with Richard Skelton

The majority of the diary entry below was written over the space of a fortnight following on from my 7 March 2020 walk close to Winter Hill with the multi-instrumentalist, writer and artist Richard Skelton. Even since that time, so much has changed, for all of us. Whereas I stepped onto the moors in early March in a kind of embrace, now I write this additional note from behind the blinds of a portioned room in an inner-city shared house that is set to be largely my ‘surroundings’ for the next three weeks, at least. It is 24 March, the first day that a series of strict measures have been introduced with the aim of reducing the spread of Coronavirus—the message being primarily to ‘stay inside’.

Relationships with place are ruptured, routes are traced in the mind, tinged with longing rather than just the particular paths of recollection. Longing is a word dredged with distance even in its very structure; the ‘long’ wait, the ache that ripples under skin like the spread of contours across what we would envisage to be the hardest point on a map.

But there is no map for this. The Covid-19 Pandemic shuns paths, predictability… spreads. Our own lack of movement is now defined, in a way, as our defence. Human tread is paired with the words ‘transmission’, ‘threat’—as ever, we carry the possibility of our own end—though now beamed back to us in the form of bulletins, updates, notifications. For me to go to Winter Hill now, would constitute a possible offence, be irresponsible.

But the hill, the moor, remains. So often we use ‘remains’ to allude to death, and yet Winter Hill wields its layers of abandon over time, crystallising as life. The edgeland extends: more becomes the periphery at a time when our own parameters are fixed. The moor extends—asking nothing, offering nothing. It is itself.

Itself and so far beyond us.

  • 24 March 2020

Stepping into the past gives both reassurance and yet a restlessness—the human craving to draw energy from the old paths to propel our future. On the West Pennine Moors, the palimpsest of place fizzes, like contour lines on the map waver under a watering eye. There is a depth of emotion here, dredged through the peat—instruments and intricacies of the everyday from thousands of years ago lodged in the living ecosystem, treasure tucked away from our eyes.

Perhaps it is a hunger that drives people here, the craving for the fullness of connection.

Faced with such vastness, we reach for shape. Flint from Winter Hill has been the instrument of human creation around the hill for thousands of years; a stone axe found in the nearby Tigers Clough, believed to date from around 2,500 bc. Former flint chipping sites would have once been a seething mass of rolling rock and ruddy sparks close to the summit; serving a familiar pulse. Here axes and arrow-heads would have been created, scrapers ready to score against animal flesh, sliding furs from the bone. Now we look at the transmitting station; an altogether different instrument. Feel cold.

The appetite to connect with, show our shapes in the landscape, lingers on in death too. Consider burial mounds, graves—the exhibition of a grip on earth, the portrait of a past. Two burial mounds lie close to the Winter Hill summit—the first known simply as ‘Winter Hill Tumulus’ and consisting of a curved line of stones emerging from the peat; a presence perhaps not initially noticed by the naked eye but memorable on meeting. It is believed the stones would have formed some kind of ‘wall’ that would have created a small round enclosure with the mound in the middle. According to Dave Lane’s Winter Hill Scrapbook—the mound was discovered by John Rawlinson and Tom Creear who were out walking the moors in 1957. It was then excavated by a group from Manchester University in 1958, only for them to discover that it had been previously excavated around 250 years before. The markings of curiosity differ from those of creation…previous discoveries pave our paths.1

Noon Hill is another place feet seem to find themselves drawn to, a separate summit on an outlying edge of Winter Hill on the Rivington Moor side. It is a bizarre edge in its own right, straddling the boroughs of Chorley and Blackburn with Darwen—wavering like ‘noon’ itself between morning and the later hours of the day. Every time I walk around it, I contemplate how often human tread seems to travel in circles, over time, like ever-extending ripples on a lake. A ring, a wrought shape. It is a kind of ring which was after all discovered at the summit of Noon Hill; the Noon Hill Saucer Tumulus. Excavated by Bolton & District Archaeological Society in August 1958—under the topsoil two rings of stones were laid, one inside the other—like an eye with its hard, intent pupil. Within the centre, two sets of human remains were found, all believed to date from the Middle Bronze Age, around 1,100 bc.2 On digging, bone, flint and stone all revealed together; man mixing with the shape of the earth. Perhaps like how, on a mental level, we suspend our disbelief and step out into the moor. It is on Noon Hill that religious dissenters have also historically gathered, daring to believe against the grain, to come closer to something…

We want to lodge ourselves close to a material core. Consider how children cling to parents, adults cling together, as if aiming to imprint their bones into the other. It’s a craving I’ve tapped into for a long time—the want to feel the force of something other than the self, seeking solace in solidity as our own mortality flutters under and through skin. The burial cairns and mounds symbolise that, to me: monuments of what it is to be enfolded utterly into earth, the closest compounded touch. Pikestones is another example close to Winter Hill. On the neighbouring Anglezarke Moor (pictured above), it is the remains of a Neolithic Burial Cairn covering an estimated 45 metres in length and 18 metres in width. It is believed that upright slabs of stone would have once consisted around its core burial chamber, covered by huge stones and turf. The tremendous weight, the totality of the place…takes my breath. This chambered tomb can be found on a ridge with views across Lancashire—bodies brought to not just lie in land, but with it.

Step out, and there is the searing sense that people have been here before, their traces tempt us back to the same terrain again and again. Part of it irks me, for embarking on these walks, I set out with the intention to embrace the outdoors, to unshackle myself from the clock, to confront that human inwardness. But up on the moor, as much as I am drawn to the grasses and gritstone, there still arises an ache to encounter the stories of people spread across land. Just walking on Coal Pit Road towards the summit, you pass old gateposts, former shooting huts, farmsteads.

Once the haunting hits our senses, it only hurts to shake it—searing through our pores in its peal of cold. We seek solace in sharing instead, exposed and isolated in this landscape in all its ineffable magnitude; its swallowed human stories our hands unconsciously reach for as we walk forward, feeling the wind work between our fingers. An ache I have carried for a long time.

It is this ache, this feeling, a focus on abandon that the musician, writer and artist Richard Skelton focuses on in his stunning collection Landings (2009). The book comprises of a series of ‘encounters’—and I will call them ‘encounters’—with the former farmsteads of the nearby Anglezarke Moor, neighbouring the Smithills and Rivington Moors towards Winter Hill. I have been long fascinated by the word ‘Anglezarke’, its crackle over the tongue like an old-fashioned sweet, the stirring of curiosity, a kind of nostalgia even, that comes with it.

In some ways, this is a landscape of loss—for over time, this isolated community of farmsteads was gradually emptied, buildings falling into ruin. Peweet Hall, Parson’s Bullough, Margery’s Place…just some examples of former homes now scattered in stones, recorded as names. This was particularly due to pressures from The Liverpool Corporation, which, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was active in building reservoirs and draining the moor; they deemed this land to fall within their water catchment area. All the farms were then taken over by the Corporation between 1902 and 1905, and they were happily destroyed. Anglezarke.net is also an excellent platform for those wanting to find out more.3

Today I am not walking Winter Hill. Instead, I am with Richard Skelton who has thrown a kind of curveball—quite literally in our route—pushing this project to the edges of the edge. We are starting a walk from White Coppice, the enigmatic name of a small cluster of whitewashed dwellings at the foot of Anglezarke Moor. This hamlet, itself located in the Heapey parish, was formerly a quarrying and mining settlement, later home to a waterwheel-powered mill. This was owned by the interesting character of Ephraim Eccles, an industrialist with attitudes rather ahead of his time; providing the likes of a games room and space for reading within the mill, and also an advocate of temperance. The mill now no longer stands, and despite the quaint cricket pitch that is now here, a kind of quiet quilts the air.

Indeed, there is a strange sense of ‘abandon’ about the place; a term people often use in a way that wavers between loss and escapism. I feel it here, the houses almost royal-icing picturesque, and as we look onto the adjacent moor, I am sure Richard uses the word ‘delicious’. We have parked on the car park for the cricket pitch—open to the public on non-match days—as we read on a white sign weighted with old font. In front of us, the green of the pitch is almost a shock against the whitewash, a weird contrast to busy burgundy, rough browns and roll of the looming moor. As we pass, Richard notices the orange edges of moss starting to seep through the turf, a sign that it perhaps hasn’t been used for a while. We can’t see any wickets. The old-fashioned scoreboard stands with its digits, preserving a past moment we can only long for.

For that is an almost aching aspect of this place, this walk; a route of pasts we can feel, but cannot ever directly replicate. The sensation of returning strong in my chest…and yet I have never walked here before. The walk from White Coppice (pictured above) up to Round Loaf—a mysterious mound with Winter Hill in its sights—is a route that used to be regularly taken by Richard when he was working on Landings, living in the relatively nearby village of Standish. Yet now it is 10 years since Richard was last here: the place that was once, as he describes it, his ‘centre’—now an edge. For our experience of ‘edgeland’ is forever in flux, changed by our personal circumstances, where we see them from, and as we climb the moorland path, the mast of Winter Hill transmitting station emerges over the horizon. It seems to cut the baked brown of Round Loaf (pictured below with Richard) in half like a long metal cake skewer. My stomach stirs. It is almost eerie to see.

Round Loaf is a site that has also long-fascinated Richard, especially the unknown aspects of its origins. Historic England has listed it as a Scheduled Monument, marked as a bowl barrow—a funerary site—but even this leaves so much uncertain. Bowl barrows are funerary earthworks which can date from any time in the late Neolithic period to late Bronze Age; thousands of years of possibility seeping into the stories around this mound. That it hasn’t been excavated means too that its scheduled status is based on theory rather than proof…and it is the mystery of this that fascinates us. We cannot help but create our own mind maps, musing on the potentials of the place.

Yet it is not just the mystery that seems to draw my eyes, but how its darkened swell in the surface of the moor seems to me somehow hand-touched; that I would experience this as place of previous human activity even if I had no former information. The sensation of connectivity, familiarity forked through with loss; how we perceive places ‘abandoned’ rather than just empty. The pulsing in the very pit of you that someone has been here before…as also experienced on the previous Winter Hill walk (part 1 and 2) with Andrew Michael Hurley. Our ability to open human traces is simultaneously reassuring and raw.

Richard, after all, describes a raw kind of horror hitting him when he first came across the ruined former farmsteads on and around Anglezarke Moor, a number of which lie along this route. How he recoiled at the great grip of the moor ‘cannibalising’—in his words—these previous places of family, of community. Further names of some of these old farms thread through my thoughts; Old Kate’s, Moses Cocker’s, how human names have interwoven with the stories of stone. To consider these names is to waver at the edges of history, so much unanswered; were these actual people? When did they live in these places? Why were they chosen to be immortalised in this way? Richard also reflects on how, over time, these names have often fallen away from the Ordinance Survey Maps—reduced to a marker of ‘ruins’, then nothing. It is easy to see how this seems almost savage in its loss, former communities lost into landscape, crushed by contour lines which gives no sign to the unaccustomed eye.

Yet, as we walk, Richard tells me how his view of this relationship has changed; significantly informed by the PhD he has been working on for the last five years, studying at Manchester Metropolitan University. Focusing on humankind’s relationship with and perception of the natural world after the Ice Age, this has been a study that has taken Richard to the edge of his own comfort zone, confronting his own perceptions of place. For a key theme emerging across the PhD is that a significant proportion of these early civilisations considered ‘human’ as part of nature, rather than ‘human’ and ‘nature’ being presented as the binaries we often see today.

Richard considers this as we reach the substantial remains of Drinkwaters, an assemblage of strewn stone, some scattered remaining structures. A bench has been planted close-by; an uncanny observation point over a previous civilisation. It is easy to see why Richard initially saw this as horrifying. Yet now he talks of connectivity, rather than ‘cannibalising’—his attitude altered, his eyes perceiving the continuation of life in these farms. Consider the difference between ruins and remains. These feel very much remains, gritstone gripped by grasses and moss, lichen spooling across surfaces like a kind of cow-dapple, fauna fighting to be part of the tale.

“Life continues here,” Richard reflects.

It seems difficult to consider at first—the strewn stone raised against us like a hump. I find myself angling towards a piece of remaining wall; interesting how we seek solace in structure, especially against the expanse of the moor. Yet Richard remarks on how this ‘rubble’ is still practically all the pieces of a home, folded in on itself, a reconfiguration of life.

Watching a congregation of walkers stopping for a break nearby, brightly-dressed, red-cheeked children scrabbling around in wellingtons, I wonder what they think of this place…whether their young innocence looks beyond the ruin and embraces it as part of the landscape, adventure, anew. Children seem to instinctively drawn towards life, a hunger for newness. Bringing new sensations to these places keeps the life revolving—and we are too are confronting the sting of newness, reaching into tissue-grained pockets for hand sanitizer. The past week, stories of Coronavirus have swirled in the media, rumours that soon the whole country will soon have to take self-isolation measures. Headlines scream about the risk of handshakes, thoughts fizz at the bubbling transition of others from acquaintances to threats.

To be on the edge at the time like this offers an almost paradoxical embrace, an intimacy. When society translates touch into risk, to feel the grip of the land underneath you is almost a comfort—the locked language of the earth. I feel it as we cross from Drinkwaters and head doggedly over Anglezarke Moor; any trace of a path long since swallowed by soils, pools of dark water, grasses bristling like hairs against goosefleshed skin. The cold cradles my own face like a bow, cheeks and nose unsheltered by my hood as the cross-wind cuts across the expanse in its commanding gesture.

Moor is a word used to describe the process of fastening something (particularly a ship) to a location; and this fastening is a feeling that perhaps holds us to moorland too. Duality seems a constant here; past and present pulled together, a strange co-existence of abandonment and occupation, edge and centre. Our feet are pulled and pummelled by peatland, moisture moves against our faces and fingers. And this fastening delves deeper. For another subject area that fascinates Richard is that of bog bodies; human bodies found preserved in peat bogs, often over the course of thousands of years. It is this intimate relationship between the human body and the bog that is intriguing; for whilst the acidity of peat bogs breaks down so much of the vegetation on which it is composed, a whole human form can be held intact. Lindow Man and Lindow Woman are examples; centuries-old human remains found in the peat bogs of Lindow Moss in Cheshire.

The peat attempts to slide over my ankles, the brown-tinged pallor of pickling liquid. Hundreds of bog bodies may even lie here beneath our very feet—as we too stand, each a body within a body of earth—mere metres away from feeling the ground grip up to our knees. The majority of bog bodies are thought to date from the Iron Age, but there is so much we do not know…there always is.

Richard tells me how his interest was fuelled when a book written by the rather brilliantly named archaeologist P.V. Glob practically fell into his hand by chance in a second-hand book shop; a study of bog bodies, including the speculation that previous civilisations may well have treated bogland as a kind of holy space, a place to give back, to make offerings to God. Jewellery, charms, relics…just some possible examples of items turned into the topography of the moor.

So often we expect the land to give to us—so for it to take, and transform our very selves, is perhaps the hardest form of intimacy. Even at the time of writing this, I have seen numerous pieces of writing emerging, considering whether ‘nature’ can heal us—again setting the binary of mankind on one hand, nature on the other, a relationship of expected yield, assumed benefit. But what if the landscape actually asks and offers nothing at all? It is itself. Rather than the structures of society, we step into its openness, suddenly exposed. We leave the certainty and definitions we seek security in.

It is this lack of fixity that almost thrills me, especially in the West Pennine Moors. For which stretch of moorland are we present in at the moment—Anglezarke, or another? Just as on the approach to Winter Hill, the boundary between Smithills and Rivington Moors become blurred. When does moor stop and hill begin? where does Round Loaf (pictured above, with Winter Hill in the background) really start? A map offers an attempt at guidance but no intimate definition…for to be in a place, to feel the awareness of the layers and lines under, around, is altogether different. I found myself drawn to Winter Hill and its edges in its ability to embrace my own transience, temporality. Its own sense of place runs beyond any map, a fluidity of definition that dredges the concept of ‘edgeland’.

This draws me to consider ‘loss’ in a rather new light. For loss is not necessarily a negative, the phrase ‘lose yourself’ lodged in my thoughts—especially as Richard and I make our way across moorland without consulting the map, angling our bodies to place rather than path. We talk about the concept of being ‘mapless’, the possibility of making our way out of attached human definitions to land and facing place fully, emotively even.

As I write this—and also a number of times before the walk—I am listening to Richard’s beautiful album of ‘The Complete Landings’; the music accompaniment to his book. The track ‘Noon Hill Wood’ strikes me in particular, the wavering notes of cello working through my ears and into my chest in their wild note, stealing over my skin like the sudden hot surge before a burst of tears. The scissoring of bow against strings seems to slide under my ribs in a kind of ache, the throb of thoughts feeling their way through many layers, histories. ‘Track’ is an interesting term to describe pieces of music, again feeding into the duality of edgeland spaces—for a track too is a course or a path or a journey—an attempt to venture through place, as we do today. Noon Hill Wood will become visible from Round Loaf later, a line of trees snaking its way up the slopes of Winter Hill.

As we pick our way over the moor, Richard’s socks already seeping damp through his hiking boots, he reflects on how although we may perceive Round Loaf as an ‘edgeland’ to Winter Hill, at another point in time, it may well have been a centre. After all, to be a potential burial mound, suggests a particular importance focusing in on the area. Its prominent hump still attracts attention, eyes angling towards its rise the same way thousands look onto the Winter Hill mast today, wonder about it. These places, like the farms that scatter the moorland, perhaps not abandoned after all, but occupied. According to Richard:

Round Loaf. The name is apt, descriptive, pragmatic. It almost feels too familiar, jocular even. There is a sense of intimacy at odds with its remoteness. There are no farms in its immediate proximity—as the crow flies it straddles a 2.5km line that bisects Simms in the Yarrow vale and Drinkwaters below Wheelton Moor. But which of us, traversing hill and hollow, maintains a straight path, especially when there is no path to speak of? Nevertheless, it is undeniably a landmark in an otherwise ostensibly featureless terrain. It is something magnetic. Perhaps people did meet there, like the Nonconformists who used to worship on Noon Hill. Perhaps the nearby Devil’s Ditch was so named because it was a devil to cross, when approaching Round Loaf from the south. From my own perspective, to walk towards this low eminence it is to come to terms with a place that seems both estranged from, and central to, the surrounding landscape. To set foot upon it is to effect a transformation, and a strange mirroring occurs that ripples outwards across the moor. Look to the south, at the masts and spires of Winter Hill, and everything looks out of place and out of time. You are momentarily, ecstatically, stranded in prehistory.

As we walk, the swell of Round Loaf lunges in and out of my vision, interlocked in the undulations of the moor which extend in a dirt-duvet casing endless secrets. The scud and squeak of saturated boots bathed and buffeted by bogland occasionally ooze into the air like bastardised birdcry. More than once we are convinced we have heard birdsong, only to realise it is the movement of ourselves through the edge.

Richard describes a kind of ‘pilgrimage’ taken to Round Loaf on a family gathering of his childhood, the venture to his outlier suddenly plunged into flux…as on reaching the summit, it struck him as a centre. Here, places stand paradoxically as edges and centres, boundaries blur and shift until the only actuality we have is to feel. Stand on Round Loaf to see how a multitude of paths converge on its top—yet are obscured on the approach. Heavy shocks of heather cloak the mound, covering its sides, softening our footfall as if in preparation for this ritual space. The shhh, shhh, shhh, shhh of footfall.

It takes only a few strides to reach the summit, and yet within these steps Richard fids a single exposed stone; the type that seems to somehow invite the human grip.

“Let’s put it on the cairn at the top,” he says.

The construction of cairns is a process that has interested me for a long time—the human temptation to add to height, to again seek structure, to have a hold on it. A craving to look upwards, be borne upwards, feel upwards that has socially driven us for a long time.

And yet, perhaps, the only definitive directions are those that are ongoing, inevitable, the sweeping cycle of life relentless in its roll; the circle that scares us. A skeleton of a small animal is half-fused into soil close to the cairn, ribs rising in intricate arcs against the peaty loam. The rain-slicked smile of exposed bone. We look on.

People are drawn here…and in these uncertain times, it is this fastening that hits us. For as we survey the summit, the wind strikes us—a sudden slam of bodiless weight baring down on us from all sides. We can hardly move, and frozen in the force, we look out onto Winter Hill—suspended at the centre on the edge—and hold our breath.

The audio above was recorded on Richard and I’s descent back down to White Coppice, following a track aside Dean Brook (pictured below) rather than the footpath we followed on our ascent.

Bonus Audio – featuring a reflection on Winter Hill and a (rather unfortunate!) roll down a ditch:

Additional sound editing with thanks to Mark Corrin

Photo credits

Photo 1 – by Neil Winward

Photos 7-10 – by Richard Skelton

The rest of the photos – by Emily Oldfield

1 Lane, Dave. Winter Hill Scrapbook. Pp.16

2 Lane, Dave. pp.17

3 Skelton. Richard. Landings. Corbel Stone Press (2019).