Skylarks, sunshine and solidarity on Winter Hill, Lancashire

If the devil had been a Lancastrian, he’d have taken Jesus up Winter Hill and said: worship me and all that thou sees before thee shall be thine.

Because the view really is extraordinary, taking in swathes of the north-west, from the expanse of the flat coastal plain to the landmarks at its outermost edges, including Blackpool Tower, Fiddlers Ferry power station, Liverpool docks and the Ribble estuary. Down below is Bolton Wanderers’ stadium, the pride and joy of the town the government advised us was no-go and no-exit in late May – advice it later retracted.

I went on the Saturday just before the “ban”. The hill was bustling with walkers, corridori, cyclists, and families having coffee and cakes at the cafes around its skirt. Yet, for all Winter Hill’s lofty magnificence and local importance, it’s a place most holidaymakers glimpse from the M6 as they drive on to the Lakes and Dales or down to north Wales and beyond. I know, I grew up gawping at it from my bedroom in south Lancashire and my parents never thought of taking me up. It was not the “great outdoors” – it was merely a bleak moor, and a TV mast, somewhere north of Manchester.

For all that, it was exotic to my childhood eyes. In winter, it had a frosty mantle. In summer it turned hazy and remote, sometimes disappearing altogether. In bad weather it looked fearsome, the needle atop the summit pricking angry clouds and making them rain, hail, thunder and flash with lightning, to punish those who dwelt on the Pennines. sì, Pennines, because while the hill has a semi-suburban aspect because of its proximity to Blackburn, Bolton and Chorley, it is part of the West Pennine Moors, and is connected to the main Pennine Way by a volunteer-run footpath.

I took a well-marked zigzag up and followed a partially boarded footpath across a peat bog, swerving past a group of young people on a Duke of Edinburgh award trip who were wrestling with maps. This took me to the foot of the TV mast, now flanked by mobile masts. It’s a wide, exposed summit and the only place I could find shelter to have a cuppa was beside one of the huge metal pegs to which the guys supporting the mast were tethered. It was breezy, but the early summer sun shone, and you could hear skylarks above the whistling of the steel cables.

We Lancastrians of the pre-digital age have imbued the mast with a sense of belonging. As well as residing in the county, we lived in the Granada TV area. When Coronation Street came on, or the news, or World in Action, you knew they were being beamed from Winter Hill. It was light in the dark (especially during the many blackouts of my childhood); artificial sunshine in the long winters.

That’s exactly how socialist entrepreneur Sidney Bernstein, founder of Granada TV and builder of the mast, would have liked it.

“The north is a closely knit, indigenous, industrial society," Egli ha detto. “A homogeneous cultural group with a good record for music, theatre, literature and newspapers, not found elsewhere in this island, except perhaps in Scotland.” He added, with a wry smile, “And, ovviamente, if you look at a map of the concentration of population in the north and a rainfall map, you will see that the north is an ideal place for television.”

The mast is only a little higher than three older landmarks. Most walkers catch their breath at the Grade II-listed Rivington Pike Tower, built as a hunting lodge in 1733 on the site of an older beacon. Another focal point, a little further down, is the Pigeon Tower – built by William Hesketh Lever (aka Lord Leverhulme) as a birthday present to his wife, Ellen. The tower and the terraced gardens it overlooks were part of Lever’s private estate, landscaped by Thomas Mawson between 1905 e 1925.

The third landmark, il Two Lads Cairn, is a pile of stones on Crooked Edge Hill, large enough to resemble a tower from certain angles. Conflicting legends say the lads were two Saxon princes, two sons of a bishop, or two children employed at a mill.

If the summits of our more celebrated peaks have a generally middle-class atmosphere – the technical gear, the smart gizmos, the “hydration” drinks – the top of Winter Hill felt everyday, multi-generational, multi-ethnic and communal. This was especially fitting, given the hill’s role in our nation’s rambling history.

In August 1896, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth, scion of a wealthy family that had made its fortune in the bleaching trade and resident of Smithills Hall, decided to close a well-used track that crossed his land on the south-east slope of Winter Hill. His business’s reliance on the hill’s watercourses had perhaps given him a proprietorial outlook. Moreover, he regarded walkers – whether tramping to work or heading up there for a breath of clean air after a week’s slog in factory, mine or mill – as unwanted intruders on land he used for grouse-shooting. He had his gamekeepers turn people back and build a gate on Coalpit Road to show the way was closed.

Local people took umbrage at Ainsworth’s decision. Cobbler Joe Shufflebotham, secretary of Bolton Social Democratic Foundation, advertised a march up the disputed road, which won support from journalist and Liberal party radical Solomon Partington. La domenica 6 settembre 1896, di 10,000 people joined in the march as it progressed along Halliwell Road through a densely populated working-class district, and up the hill track. A handful of police and gamekeepers were waiting for them at the new gate. A melee ensued, but the colonel’s private army was no match for the great mass of demonstrators; the gate was smashed and the procession continued. When the victorious party arrived at their destination, Belmont, on the north side of Winter Hill, they drank the hostelries dry.

The Bolton Journal reported that “the multitude far exceeded what had been anticipated … the road was literally a sea of faces and the multitude comprised thousands of persons of all ages and descriptions”. During that fervid September, there were three weekend marches and one on a Wednesday, the only day shopworkers were free to join. There was a further march on Christmas Day.

Despite the numerical success of the popular uprising, Ainsworth had writs issued against Shufflebotham, Partington and others. The marches were stopped while the case was heard in court. The colonel won, leaving the marchers to bear the costs. The tail of the trial was long: though locals were able to use the path from the 1930s, it wasn’t until 1996 that public access was formally secured.

The massed march (the walkers wouldn’t have thought of it as a “trespass”) of 1896 has never been accorded anything like the attention given to the 1932 march up Kinder Scout, led by Manchester communist Benny Rothman, which is usually credited with leading to the creation of the UK’s national parks.

“Although the march was a massive event, it was very local, only involving people who lived within two or three miles,” says Bolton-based historian and author Paul Salveson, an expert on the Winter Hill events. “That, and the fact they lost the case, might explain why it’s not better known, though it did lead to greater awareness about rights of way in the Bolton area. The first world war led to the slaughter of many of the participants and brought the curtain down on so many working-class activities. When I met Benny [Rothman] for the Kinder Scout 50th anniversary in 1982 he had never heard of Winter Hill.”

Paul has written a book about the march and was involved in commissioning a play for the first commemoration, back in 1982. His most recent publication, Moorlands, Memories and Reflections, celebrates the countryside writing of dialect writer and radical thinker Allen Clarke, who wrote about the march and penned the stirring song about the Winter Hill protest, Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Mornin’?

A memorial stone to the marchers stands on Coalpit Lane. Ma, unless you go looking for it, you could walk for miles around without seeing any record of the historic clash. Just as most drivers ignore Winter Hill, so many walkers miss the glorious story of their recreational space.

This year – the 125th anniversary of the march – things might at last be about to change. Bolton Socialist Club, the Ramblers, il Fiducia nel bosco, housing association charity Bolton at Home and other community organisations and unions have joined forces for a commemorative march along the original route for the weekend of 6 settembre. Folk singer Johnny Campbell is releasing a single for the occasion. There’s even talk of a new memorial, to be built by a local quarrying company.

“The events of 1896 showed how important the countryside was to working-class people in the north,” says Salveson. “It still is. This year’s celebration of those momentous events 125 years ago isn’t just a reminder of Britain’s biggest-ever rights of way demonstration. It’s intended to be a rallying call that the countryside is still under threat, with rights of way being eroded and inappropriate development threatening the landscape.”

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