A few days after the huge Winter Hill fire was officially declared to be completely out and the moorland was reopened to the public I found out about a ‘hidden’ reservoir high up on Smithills Moor which is part of the lower southern slopes of Winter Hill and not far from home, so never having been to that particular part of the moorland before I was itching to explore. However, since the day after my fire station visit three weeks ago the local weather has been cloudy and grey with several days of rain, which wasn’t good for moorland walking or photo taking, but last Friday morning it was very warm with a cloudless blue sky and lots of sunshine so I grabbed the opportunity, threw the dogs and the camera in the van (not literally!) and off I went.
The reservoir I wanted to find was called Dean Mills, it had been constructed in the late 18th century to provide water power via a waterfall and a series of sluices to a spinning mill of the same name at Barrow Bridge village down in the valley. Someone who lives local to me had suggested (via a home brew forum!) the best way to get to it, which involved driving for about a mile along a narrow lane and taking a footpath off it – I found the start of the path with no problem and was just about able to park the van near the gate on a narrow strip of land at the side of the lane. A sign on the gate told me that this was now part of the Woodland Trust’s Smithills Estate, and just at the other side of the gate was a large carved memorial stone erected in 1996 on the centenary of the Winter Hill Mass Trespass.
In August 1896 local landowner Colonel Richard Ainsworth planned to use the whole area of open moorland for grouse shooting and decided that the lane known as Coal Pit Road was private so he put a gate across the lower end to prevent public access, but two local men who were against the idea decided to organise a mass trespass to reclaim the ancient ‘historical right of way’. On September 6th that year around 1,000 people assembled just to the north of Bolton town centre and set off on the seven mile walk through the Halliwell and Smithills areas and over the top of Winter Hill via the disputed track – as they headed towards Coal Pit Road many more joined the march and by the time the gate was reached there were 10,000 people walking, led by a brass band. Although Colonel Ainsworth’s men and members of the local constabulary made a stand the gate was attacked and demolished and the protesters rushed through onto the disputed land, eventually forming a stately procession over the moor to the summit.
Over the coming three weekends more marches were held but eventually Ainsworth succeeded in getting writs issued to the leaders and the marches stopped while the court case was held. Unfortunately for the leaders the Colonel won the case and proceeded to take it out on them by claiming damages and court fees which bankrupted them – Smithills Moor was finally closed off and the Colonel was able to indulge his love of grouse shooting. By 1938 the moor had passed into the possession of the local council and on the back of the smaller but more famous 1932 mass trespass of Kinder Scout in the Peak District the path was reopened to the public, though it wasn’t until June 1996 that it was finally declared to be an official Right of Way. The first words on the memorial stone are from a short poem written by one of the locals at the time of the mass trespass –
“Will Yo’ come O Sunday Mornin’ Fo a Walk O’er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday But there’s room for thousands still!
O the moors are rare and bonny An’ the heather’s sweet and fine
An’ the road across the hilltops is the public’s — yours and mine.’
A couple of hundred yards from the gate the path curved round to the right for a short distance then crossed a stream via some steps and a short boardwalk and continued uphill across the moor, but my route took me up a small but very steep hill on the right via some very rough and uneven rocky steps. At the top of the hill I was faced with a second steep hill and a rough path up it, though once I got to the top the land levelled out and the path became more grassy. It didn’t take long to reach the reservoir – looking at Google Maps satellite view I’d got the impression it was quite a distance from the gate but it had only taken twelve minutes to walk up there so it was no distance at all really.
The reservoir itself is situated in one of the most exposed and wind swept parts of the moors and is nothing special to look at, but being so high up it gave far reaching views to Manchester and beyond although those views were a little hazy in the warm sunshine. Looking round at the immediate area there was much evidence of the recent fire – huge areas of burnt and blackened moorland, patches of heather which should have been blooming but which were a charred and blackened mess, and over the far side of the reservoir I could see where the fire had burned right down to the water’s edge. Apart from the occasional bleat of a sheep in the distance there was no sound anywhere, and with no other humans around I had the place completely to myself.
Unfortunately I was prevented from walking all the way round the reservoir by a stream and some very boggy land at each end so once I’d got the photos I wanted I retraced my steps along the south side; the views over the nearby countryside and farm land were good and in the distance to the west I could see the small hill with the three cairns of the Two Lads on another part of the moor. Away from the reservoir the patches of burnt land encroached closer to the path and in several places the path itself had been burnt, evidence that the reservoir had at least stopped some of the fire from spreading even further.
After safely negotiating the rough steps back down the steep hill I made my way back to the van and I’d just got through the gate onto the lane when a carriage carrying three people and pulled by two almost identical ponies appeared round the bend in front of me – it had just got past me when it came face-to-face with a car coming the other way. The car driver must have had to reverse quite a long way back to allow the carriage to pass as I’d put the dogs back in the van, reversed and done a difficult 4-point turn in the narrow lane, avoiding the hidden ditch on either side, and got halfway back to the main road before the car appeared behind me.
Back at home I had just enough time to download my photos onto the pc before going to work, and when I came out of there two hours later I found that in spite of the sunshine quite a lot of cloud had gathered so I was glad I’d done the walk that morning. The weather conditions had been perfect, and having found that the walk itself wasn’t as far or as difficult as I’d first thought it’s one I’ll probably do again another time.