Journey to the Source of the Stream Behind Our House

 

 

 

I consider myself richer than a king when I can walk out of my house on a summer’s evening and climb Pendle Hill to watch the slow sunset over Bowland’s western fells. Then by the light of June’s strawberry moon I can drop down to the hedged back lanes of silent Worston and traverse the normally treacherous A59 bypass with ease, the hours of dusk at least providing a relatively safe crossing for humans, if not for less fortunate nocturnal mammals.

The 1970’s Clitheroe bypass was built in an age of short-sighted planners – even more short sighted than the badgers that reveal themselves at dawn as red, black and white pancaked streaks of fur smeared across the tarmac. Pen pushing bureaucrats simply stopped up rights of way that crossed the new highway, without any provision for walkers in the form of a footbridge or underpass. Forty years on, the treeless gravel verged A59 is now so heavily laden with daytime traffic it forms a major physical barrier to walkers trying to link the town of Clitheroe to its natural hinterland.

The faraway country beyond the bypass is a lush patchwork of meadows slowly rising eastwards to a line of 17th and 18th century farmsteads and manor houses sitting at the foot of Pendle Hill. From the well-kept farms, the slope shoots a dramatic twelve hundred feet skywards to the stark gritstone plateau that leads to Pendle’s moorland summit. A natural monolith, like the duller northern cousin of the sun red Australian Uhuru rising from its bleached plain. On the steep western flanks of Pendle, cattle give way to sheep and lazy meadow streams give way to thinly wooded cloughs and rocky chasms.    

Always trying to find new routes on to Pendle Hill, it was a June evening close to the solstice that I decided to follow the stream at the back of my house in Clitheroe to its source on top of Pendle. Having traced its course so many times on the map I knew exactly where it started and where it went. Clitheroe stands on the banks of the Mearley Brook, not the River Ribble, and the brook has flooded the town in the not so distant past, a watercourse prone to flash floods, rising and falling quickly in direct response to the nearby rainfall on Pendle Hill. Mearley Brook enters the town via the Upbrooks industrial estate, skirts around Lidl and Sainsburys, and exits the town via Primrose Mill, goes under a railway viaduct and merges with Pendleton Brook to make a remarkably low key entrance to the Ribble near the town’s tip at the end of Henthorn Road.

           Mearley Brook beyond the A59 bypass

I live by Mearley Brook at the point where it enters Clitheroe and from here it has a rural character upstream to its source in the peat beds close to the Scout Cairn on Pendle Hill. Behind my house the brook is a nettle infested drain where a patrolling heron spends the spring picking off and swallowing stray ducklings. Although walking to the source of Mearley Brook can partly be done by existing footpaths, to stick close to its banks it is necessary in parts to trespass through several fields and climb over a few gates.

I offer no apology for this. I believe we should be able to walk anywhere on uncultivated land if we go about it in a solitary unobtrusiveness manner, without damaging any walls, fences or hedges. If you are light on your feet you will not disturb the wildlife. Over many years I have realised that unless you trespass, you miss a lot of what you set out to see. I could never fully appreciate the micro-geography of Mearley Brook, be familiar with all its little twists and turns, discover its little pebbly beaches where cows sip, unless I leave the rights of way behind and cling steadfastly to its banks.

Like a stealthy stoat skirting secretly along a hedgerow, I wound my way along the brook past Upbrooks Farm, leaving the public footpath to follow the stream course through overgrown thistly fields full of biting midge, arriving at the point where the brook disappears into a dark culvert underneath the bypass. The tiny winding brooks that flow from Pendle Hill towards Clitheroe are blissfully ignorant of the A59 road. Highway engineers have had to cater for their passage.

Crossing the bypass, over another gate and rejoining the brook, the OS map indicates that the watercourse here forms the parish boundary between the rural hamlets of Worston and Mearley. In fact, Mearley is nothing more than a scant collection of farms and thanks to the wonders of Wikipedia I am ‘reliably’ informed that it is the second most sparsely populated parish in Lancashire with a population of just twenty-five people!

                                           Little Mearley Hall

As the brook winds its way up towards Little Mearley Hall and its prominent hillside woodland, I rejoin a right of way – a bridleway – which pleasantly follows the banks of the stream in fields where cattle graze. Hereabouts, the hedgerows of the Ribble valley also give way to the drystone walls of gritstone country.  The bridleway reaches a crossroads of paths near Little Mearley Hall and the brook goes under the bridleway track linking Pendleton with Worston and Downham. I went straight ahead towards the Hall, its mullioned windows and turreted end showing little sign of change since the days when the Nowell Family lived here in the 16th century. The footpath gives a good view of the house and the two storey octagonal bay window at its left end is believed to be part of the spoils of ruined Sawley Abbey, brought here by Christopher Nowell, a relative of Roger Nowell, the local magistrate who first interrogated the Pendle Witches.

The footpath turns left away from the house and through the adjacent farm buildings. Behind the house it is necessary to leave the right of way, which heads for Angram Green and links several farmsteads at the foot of Pendle, and pick up Mearley Brook again which seems to have disappeared under the Hall. It re-emerges in the thick wooded hillside behind the house. A stile and gate leads to a track uphill through Little Mearley Wood. Although not marked as a right of way on the OS map, this appears to be a traditional way up Pendle from Worston and is mentioned in Jessica Lofthouse’s 1960’s book, Lancashire Countrygoer. She notes it as, “a frontal attack on the hill” from Worston, and from here the way does get steeper. At the top end of the dense wood is a stile leading onto the moor. To the left of this is a field gate with a ‘WARNING Bull in Field’ sign on it, worth mentioning only as Jessica Lofthouse mentions a similar sign being on this same gate over fifty years ago!            

     Gateway to the upper reaches of Mearley                                          Clough

Only emerging out of the woodland do you appreciate the dramatic change in nature of Mearley Brook. No longer hidden in a canopy of green, it is a proper moorland stream, dotted with stunted hawthorn trees, falling in a series of rocky ledges and cascades from the great curving gash it has sliced for itself into the side of Pendle. Although the stile at the top end of the wood does not quite mark the arrival at the boundary of open access country, it is presumably here to provide an access to what is now officially known as Little Mearley Clough – a designated site of special scientific interest. The interest lies mainly in its geology, the incisive stream having cut deeply through a series of strata, exposing rock layers dating from about 320 million years ago.

It took me a good half an hour to climb steeply for three quarters of a mile through the Carboniferous Period. A narrow path, popular with sheep, clung to the sides of the clough as the buttresses of Pendle gradually closed in. Here I spied the only person I saw on the entire walk – a fell runner climbing up the steep spur of Pendle Moor to my left. The pastures became thinner and the view became wider as I swung left up the deep cleft and finally got my boots in the trickling waters and awkward pools of the brook that runs sedately behind my house. To my right, rivulets cut into the almost vertical wall of rock and ferns, cascading down into the stream.

Mearley Brook cascading down Pendle Hill

Following the stream bed near the top of the hill I clung onto grass clumps at the sides of the gully and disturbed a skylark that darted out in a panic from the stream bank. Closer inspection revealed a little hole in the hillside in which, delicately weaved into spirals of grass, I saw, for the first time in my life, a lark’s nest with four tiny brown speckled eggs in it. Having previously said that if you tread quietly enough you will not disturb wildlife, I apologise profusely to the mother skylark but thank you for the photo.

    Skylark nest found in the upper reaches of Mearley Clough

Follow many of the world’s greatest rivers to their source and you are likely to end up at a disappointing damp squib. Mearley Brook is no exception. Clitheroe’s river, the town’s main drain, a tributary of that elegant dame, the River Ribble, flowing west to the Irish Sea, begins its life as just one of numerous vague springs seeping sluggishly out of the brown peat of Pendle’s flat topped gritstone plateau. For the record, if any intrepid explorer wishes to seek out for themselves the source of Mearley Brook it is located at OS Grid Reference 789413, nearly one mile west of Pendle’s summit and about 150 metres south of the Scout Cairn.

Mearley Brook’s grand entry to the surface of the earth may be even less eventful than a damp squib but the few miles spent exploring its upper reaches leads the walker through dramatic changes in geography and landscape, not to mention millions of years of geological history. Apart from that, the view north and west from the Scout Cairn as the sun set on a summer’s evening revealed an exquisite layered effect. The vast dusky carpet of the Ribble Valley gave way to the stark black line of the Bowland Fells and further to the north-east, the sharp stepped contours of Penyghent. Above Fairsnape Fell the sun slowly sunk and radiated a thin red line across the top of the ridges, daubing the white clouds with a haze of pink.

As I stumbled in semi-darkness back down to Worston and crossed the silent bypass, I thought that the evening horizon’s lines of red, black and white sadly echoed the lines of red, black and white that would taint the tarmac of the A59 by sunrise.          

                      Journey home at sunset

2,500 Names. 2,500 Tragedies.

June 2014

I have known for some time that my great grandad, Andrew McDonough, who died in 1915, has his name recorded on the giant obelisk of the Helles Memorial, standing over 30 metres high and visible to passing ships sailing by the Gallipoli Peninsula in modern day Turkey. Private McDonough, aged thirty-nine, a coal miner from Wigan with six children, a veteran of the Boer Wars, signed up voluntarily for war service in December 1914. Less than eight months later he was dead.

      Surprisingly, I have only recently discovered that Private McDonough, who served in the Lancashire Fusiliers, also has his name recorded on the cenotaph in his hometown. On the weekend exactly one hundred years on from when Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the catalyst for the cataclysmic continental war that followed, I decided to pay a personal pilgrimage to visit the Wigan cenotaph and seek out my great grandad’s name. I could have got the bus or the train (perilous adventures in themselves), but I decided to walk to it.  From my home in Clitheroe about thirty miles away.

Having drawn a straight line on the map between Clitheroe and Wigan, it became clear that even in trying to walk the most direct way between to the two, I would pass along the way villages and towns with their own war memorials. So my walk became not just a pilgrimage in memory of Andrew McDonough, but I would pay my respects at each of the other memorials passed by chance along the way – places like Whalley, Blackburn, Tockholes, Abbey Village, Brinscall and Adlington.

Even walking through just one thirty mile cross-section of Lancashire – from the Ribble Valley to the industrial conurbation of Greater Manchester along the edge of the West Pennine Moors – it quickly became clear that the scale of the county’s loss of life in the conflict was huge. This sacrifice was not just felt in the industrial towns. Rural villages and even the tiniest of hamlets all lost men.

I started the walk from my house and visited Clitheroe’s cenotaph, the peaceful fallen soldier memorial so perfectly placed in the tranquil garden of remembrance beneath the Norman castle keep. This memorial has a breathtaking view across the town which encompasses the grand moorland sweep of Pendle Hill, a familiar view lost forever to the 330 men named on the monument.

                      Clitheroe War Memorial

From here I followed field paths and lanes through the ripening meadows of the Ribble valley. I passed along the way the well kept roadside memorials in the villages of Whalley (52 names recorded) and Billington (48 names recorded). I climbed up the surprisingly steep-sided ridge behind the Nab, that separates the Rivers Ribble and Calder, and headed south-west along the ridge top to Dean Clough Reservoir, eventually dropping down to the industrial town of Blackburn. The town’s main war memorial is in Corporation Park but this was slightly off route. Yet virtually on the straight line of the route from Clitheroe to Wigan is the memorial clock tower at Little Harwood on the edge of the town centre, upon which some 96 names of the fallen are recorded.

Little Harwood War Memorial

Tired and hot, it seemed to take me an age to cross Blackburn town centre via the Boulevard – presently a building site, as the old bus station has been erased as the first stage in its redevelopment into the optimistic sounding ‘Cathedral Quarter’. Crossing Wainwright’s Bridge and heading to Ewood, to save time I avoided the less direct field paths and followed the main road uphill to the straggling moorland village of Tockholes.

Halfway up the hill on the road from the town to the moors is the sad sight of the boarded up New Row Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, a simple listed structure with an 1828 date stone. Despite the overgrown nettles that choke the extensive chapel graveyard, even from the lane I spotted one solitary war grave: the simple white memorial to Private John Wolstenholme of the Manchester Regiment who died in 1917 at the age of 28. Another forgotten story. Another forgotten tragedy lost under the weeds of time.          

        New Row Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Heys Lane,                                                      Blackburn

Uphill from here the road into Tockholes crosses over the M65 motorway and a brown road sign announces your arrival in the ‘West Pennine Moors’, the only significant geographical obstacle between Clitheroe and Wigan. I had still not decided whether to go over the moors or around them and was waiting to consult the OS map during my brief and long overdue lunch break sat on the bridleway by Tockholes church. Cheese butties never tasted so fine.

The long history of the cotton industry is woven tightly into the fabric of this village. I sat and ate my lunch on an old packhorse route that once linked Preston with Rossendale. Nearby are the surviving handloom weavers’ cottages that predated the mills – but even these came to Tockholes and were still thriving when their workers signed up to fight in the Great War. Six names are recorded on a simple plaque attached to the lych gate of Tockholes United Reform Church recording those, ‘Who Gave their Lives For Their Country and Humanity In The Great War 1914-1919’. It is a reminder that every Lancashire community was affected by this conflict.

                                 Tockholes lychgate

On the map the straight line from Tockholes to Wigan takes you over Great Hill and Anglezarke Moor. I decided to save my legs this climb, despite the long spell of good weather which probably meant the route on to Great Hill was surprisingly dry for a change. Most of the year it is a muddy morass from Belmont Road to the summit shelter. I opted for the flatter, longer route to Anglezarke Reservoir via Abbey Village, Brinscall and the Goit to White Coppice. This gave me the chance to take in yet more village war memorials.

The marble pillar topped by an urn on Abbey Village’s main street, next to the primary school, records 19 names of villagers lost in the Great War. From here I crossed the old Blackburn-Chorley railway line to the distinctive hilltop church at Withnell. On the roadside by the church is the Celtic cross memorial to Private James Miller, awarded the V.C. after gallantry in relaying messages under heavy artillery fire in the Battle of Somme in 1916. His grave is in France, but the 26 year old has his own impressive Lancashire memorial overlooking the village where he worked in the paper mill. From here it is a short walk to the neighbouring mill village of Brinscall. Here an obelisk lists a staggering 84 names of men who gave up their lives between 1914-1919.

I followed the Goit, a Victorian man-made waterway, constructed by Liverpool Corporation to link its Anglezarke and Rivington Reservoirs with the 1860’s reservoirs it built in the wooded valley of the River Roddlesworth. Before you reach Anglezarke you reach one of Lancashire’s most scenic cricket grounds, White Coppice, the perfectly situated little patch of greenery at the bottom of the brown moors. Thankfully, as I was walking this on a Sunday, the Pavilion kiosk was open – a cup of tea at last!

Sat on a bench overlooking the cricket ground at White Coppice I optimistically felt within touching distance of my great-grandad’s name on the cenotaph in the centre of Wigan. I was at the portal to south-west Lancashire. The moors were behind me, even if I had gone around the edge of them. The reality was, I had knackered legs but was still a good eight or nine miles from my objective.

Cyclists and families congregated at White Coppice but I soon left them behind once I climbed through Grey Heights Wood on the west side of Anglezarke. Through the parish of Heath Charnock, dominated by the rushing traffic along the M6 motorway, I followed field paths and tracks through rolling pastures, crossing the motorway and dropping downhill to the straggling A6 dormitory village of Adlington, with its divided loyalties between Chorley and Bolton.  Just before the train station is reached, the village has its own war memorial set back in a little garden of remembrance. The district shed many men across the wasteful battlefields of France and Belgium and the memorial records a colossal 143 men who lost their lives in the 1914-18 conflict.

I had stomped and stumbled my way on foot across the entire length of the OS Explorer Map 287 – West Pennine Moors. Reaching Adlington I found myself in the bottom left hand corner of this map, having started in the Ribble Valley at the top right corner of the same sheet.

As the sun took its toll on me I succumbed to a swift pint of lager in The Bridge pub overlooking the towpath of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal. I had saved having a drink of beer until the last four or five miles of my walk – it would either act as a last booster or would further drain away what little energy I had left. What remained of my walk was a final slog along the canal towpath via the outskirts of Standish to Wigan town centre. When the green pastures hit the grey town I abandoned the canal and walked the quicker way down Wigan Road.

It was a late Sunday afternoon, shop workers were rolling down metal shutters and beer soaked bluebottles buzzed in and out of the open doors of noisy pubs. Encircled by bland retail therapy –  glass temples to shoes, handbags and mobile phones – Wigan’s sandstone parish church is a surprising gem. It appears a throwback to medieval times, even though the present structure is largely Victorian, designed by the eminent church architects, Sharpe and Paley. Just like the hundreds of war memorials that criss-cross the towns and villages of Lancashire, the diverse buildings restored and built by these two men spring up across north west England from provincial church spires to restored castles and stately homes. Sharpe and Paley even built Morecambe’s original railway hotel, The Midland.

                                 Wigan Cenotaph

Dominating the flagged churchyard, Wigan’s octagonal cenotaph is no less impressive. This was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, the architect famous for designing Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral and the red GPO telephone box. Throughout the 1920’s he was up and down the country creating First World War memorials, including the one at Wigan, unveiled in 1925. The thing that strikes you most standing in front of this cenotaph is the colossal number of names recorded on it. The bronze plaques around the base of the monument apparently record nearly 1,800 names of the war dead in an industrial town that had a population of about 89,000 at the outbreak of the Great War.

       Thankfully I met my dad at the cenotaph. He knew exactly where his grandad’s name, Andrew McDonough, was recorded. So here it was, my great grandad remembered in his hometown. We have no photo of him but thanks to the internet we have seen a photo of the starch collared, iron cross encrusted Heino von Heimburg, the German U-boat commander who killed him.

         Andrew McDonough perished in the Aegean Sea on 13th August 1915. He had signed up for war service with his old regiment, the Lancashire Fusiliers, and was on board the troopship, Royal Edward, heading for Gallipoli along with nearly 1,400 other men. I would like to think he felt the warm Mediterranean sun on his face in his last moments and was not stuck in the deep bowels of the ship when the German U-14 fired two torpedoes which sunk the Royal Edward within six minutes. Some 300 men were rescued by nearby ships but over 1,000 men were lost to a watery grave.

For Andrew McDonough there was no return to the Wigan coalfield. There was not even a body to bring back to its terraced streets and the comforting resting place of a town graveyard. His wife and six children lost their only breadwinner – their resulting poverty making them forgotten victims of the war.

In my thirty mile walk slicing through East and South Lancashire I calculated that I had passed war memorials recording the names of 2,580 men. Over 2,500 names. Over 2,500  tragedies. They are more than unknown names on stone. As the inscription on the Wigan cenotaph records,

                   

A Good Life Hath But Few Days:

But A Good Name Endureth Forever

                                 Remembering Andrew McDonough

 

 

The Wharfedale Men Who Marched Away

                    Upper Wharfedale above Kettlewell

Spring 2014

          Upper Wharfedale is particularly special this time of year when jelly-legged lambs sway unsteadily in biting winds and the distinctive trills of the curlew, oystercatcher and lapwing make a welcome return to the riverside pastures. For the mid-week rambler the busy calls of the breeding birds are the most audible sign of life in the dale, save for the distant engine rattle of a farmer’s tired tractor being forced up impossibly steep tracks through unseen gaps in limestone crags.       

          Part of the timelessness of this, the most inviting part of Wharfedale, lies in the still silence of its village churches. Just as it is easy to link a series of inviting inns from Hubberholme down to Kilnsey, anyone interested in ancient churches and their stories, by turns both uplifting and sad, can have an enriching experience along the stretch of the Rivers Wharfe and Skirfare that take in the village churches of Kettlewell, Arncliffe and Hubberholme.

          It was the antiquities of these Norman places of worship that brought a young Alan Bennett cycling up the dale from Leeds. He was particularly moved by the memorial on a pillar in St. Michael and All Angels Church, Hubberholme, to the young men of the upper dale killed in action 1914-1918.

          Whilst the birds from the estuaries return to breed in Wharfedale every year, it was the thought of the men who never got the chance to come back home to the West Riding from the Great War that formed the background to my walk on a glorious day this March. This being the centenary year of the outbreak of the war to end all wars, perhaps our walks in 2014 should make a point of visiting village and church war memorials and hopefully considering them more closely. After all, they are more than a list of names.

           My walk linked three picturesque churches. Starting with St Mary’s Church in Kettlewell, the ‘capital’ of the upper dale, I climbed up and over the windy limestone spur that separates  Wharfedale from its equally impressive tributary, Littondale, to visit the Church of St. Oswald’s, Arncliffe, which sits on the snowdrop clad banks of the fast flowing River Skirfare. From here via the village of Litton there is a steep and steady climb on to Old Cote Moor Top, with a summit of nearly 2,000 feet, following the old ‘Corpse Way’ that once linked Buckden with the church at Arncliffe. The final church visited is the perfectly situated St. Michael and All Angels at Hubberholme, an inspiration for Bradford playwright J.B. Priestley.

           These churches are little treasure houses of history that chart the life of Wharfedale and its people from the Middle Ages to the present day. Thankfully they are usually unlocked for visitors and their porches alone – which will soon be welcoming nesting swallows – are a great rain shelter for ramblers eating their butties.   

           There is a little memorial garden in Kettlewell to those of the village and neighbouring Starbotton who died in the two world wars. Six men from these villages died in the 1914-18 conflict and individual memorials can be found in the form of beautiful stained glass windows in St. Mary’s Church. Most moving is the East Window of three illuminated panels depicting a guardian angel overlooking two soldiers – one on sentry duty, the other sat by a campfire. This is a memorial to 18 year old Charles Hyne, a lieutenant in the Irish Guards, who on November 31st 1916, ‘gave his life for England’.

          The four mile walk from Kettlewell to Arncliffe followed the well used path through the old limestone quarries and over the end of the hill spur that gives a good view down the perfectly formed glacial valley of the Wharfe to Kilnsey Crag. The path drops to the hamlet of Hawkswick, crosses the footbridge over the River Skirfare, and follows paths through fields alive with flocks of oystercatchers to bring you to the brightly coloured flowers blooming in the graveyard of St. Oswald’s.

                             The churchyard at Arncliffe

           Inside the church is a wall memorial to the thirty-four men of Littondale who fought in the Great War. Many of the names listed share the same surname – like Ingleby, Simpson and Mallaby. Thankfully it appears that most of these men came back , only two – Private P Hodson and Private T. Ingleby – listed as dead. The most impressive thing about this list is that over thirty men left this little dale for war. At a time when sheep farms ran on hard manual labour, work must have been left to both the older generation and to the women.

             On the wall at the tower end of St. Oswald’s is a very unique war memorial to a much older conflict. War memorials prior to the 19th century are rare indeed yet here is one to the local dales men who died in the Battle of Flodden Field 1513. This Northumbrian battle between the Kingdoms of Scotland and England killed thousands and in Arncliffe Church, thirty-five men are listed as having taken part in it. Some four hundred years separate the two war memorials in this little church – a stark reminder of the little progress mankind has made towards peace over the centuries.

                                 Littondale in early spring

               The walk continues up the dale to Litton where there is no church. St Oswald’s was the mother church hereabouts and no burials took place at the chapel in Hubberholme, instead corpses were carried over the moor to be placed for burial in St. Oswalds. The medieval corpse road – still a public bridleway – is followed over Old Cote Moor Top and drops down into Upper Wharfedale at Redmires Farm. Carrying corpses up and over a 2,000 foot moor must have been fun in winter – and there is a 15th century account of losing a coffin in the swollen Wharfe.

              The third church visited is one of the most photographed in the whole of the Dales. St. Michael and All Angels at Hubberholme has the most poignant reminder to the local men who fought in the Great War as it is accompanied by grainy old photos of most of the  fallen soldiers. Nine men of the parish of Buckden died in action, all within the years 1916-1918. The youngest was nineteen, the oldest was forty-seven. 

              The names listed on the war memorials of these three Upper Wharfedale churches alone show that seventeen men from just a handful of villages died in action in 1914-1918. This was just a few square miles of two limestone dales in one small corner of the Craven district of the West Riding.

             The easy walk back down the valley from Hubberholme to Kettlewell is a lovely five mile plod along the riverside following the waymarked Dales Way. Apart from meeting a handful of ramblers at the Starbotton footbridge and a contractor chainsawing storm damaged trees in the fields, the walk back was a solitary one in the company of the birds. The lambs had not arrived yet but the memory of the photographs of the uniformed soldiers in Hubberholme church reminded me that they were all lambs to the slaughter. In the horrors of the trenches how the men of Wharfedale must have dreamed about hearing once again the calls of the curlew, oystercatcher and lapwing. The familiar sound of home.

Pendle to Parliament: Visions on Pendle Hill

                         Walking from limestone lowlands to gritstone uplands

From Clitheroe to Pendle Hill

          Beyond Mearley Hall the softer Ribble Valley landscape of hedges and cows quickly gave way to drystone walls and sheep, the sign of a changing geology. Here is the transition, visible in the features on the ground, from the pastoral fields of glacially deposited boulder clay to the coarse, spiky grasses and rushes of the Pendle escarpment. I started to climb gradually to Pendle’s photogenic north face, a whale-back giant incised with deep clefts. Known locally as cloughs, these water-eroded cuts in Pendle’s steep-sided flank reveal exposed geological bands of lime, shale and grit, layered in sandwich fashion on top of each other.

          The hill from this side was used dramatically as the representation of the primitive god-fearing north in the 1960’s film, Whistle Down The Wind. Sheltered underneath it was the barn in which Hayley Mills and her ragtag gang of rough-hewn children thought they had discovered Jesus in the form of wanted criminal Alan Bates. The barn is still there, down a back lane from Downham, just a few miles from where I walked.         

          A footpath led uphill across Pendleton Moor at the western end of Pendle Hill. It leads to the crest of the ridge, the bleached grassy spur of Apronfull Hill, from where a stone track forms one of the popular walking routes to Pendle’s summit. Standing on Apronfull Hill on the mid-morning of a June day, the sun was hotting up. A water break on the ridge top was my last chance to view home before leaving the path to Pendle Hill summit and turning south. I could retrace the three miles back to my house following the lowland hedgerows of the Ribble Valley snaking back to the A59 bypass. Beyond this badger bloodbath of a road is Clitheroe, its little grey castle keep perched on a clump of limestone, dreamily watching over the 19th century terraced town like some ancient Babylonian fortress.

                                 Looking north to Clitheroe Castle

From Clitheroe looking north rise the uplands. First, wooded Longridge Fell, the most southerly named ‘fell’ in England, along the lower slopes of which Oliver Cromwell rode eastwards with the New Model Army in the wet summer of 1648 to engage with Scottish Royalists at Preston. Then there is the wilderness of the Bowland Fells, stark, dark ridges, over which Roman soldiers marched north to military bases on Hadrian’s Wall and the Pendle ‘Witches’ were carted off to their doom, executed in Lancaster, in 1612.      

              Despite recent open access to the Bowland Fells, closed for walkers to generations, these moors are still the preserve of cruel money-making grouse shoots. Gamekeepers, acting on behalf of their lords and masters, have single-handedly managed to furtively decimate the nationally significant hen harrier population through a deadly mix of guns and poison. Ironically, the hen harrier is the symbol of the Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and appears on local road signs. Sadly you will not see a single one of these raptors sky dancing over the Lancashire moors. 

              Pendle Hill is the roof of Lancashire. Looking north and west is a breathtaking sweep of countryside from the silvery sparkle of the Lancashire coast to the mountain tops of Yorkshire’s ‘Three Peaks’. Looking south I have even viewed a distant Snowdon glowing blue at sunset from the heights of Pendle. For centuries it has been a place where travellers have been inspired by their own visions.     

Visions on Pendle

             In 1652, when the political and religious world was turned on its head at the height of Oliver Cromwell’s Interregnum, a long haired troublesome preacher called George Fox walked north from Derby, without any great plan but with plenty of raving about the imminent arrival of God. He slept under hedges, in haystacks and used ferns and bracken as his mattress. He ate and drank little, walking all night in a great deal of mental confusion to receive the teachings of the Lord. He gathered crowds in obscure places, fields and rock outcrops, preaching his simple message of religious truth.  

              Fox ended up climbing the steep end of Pendle Hill from Barley village where the inspiring view north to the Lancashire ‘sea’ cleared the fog from his head and gave him his life’s purpose. Drinking from a spring near the summit – it’s still there if you can find it – he realised that the poor and simple people of this upland wilderness were ready for the message he carried.

             Descending Pendle, what did George Fox do? He carried on walking. He walked north through the West Riding Dales, rural Westmorland and into Furness, Lancashire beyond the sands, seeking ‘Seekers’ along the way amidst the plain-speaking, hard-working folk of the rustic north country. Fox knocked on doors, invited himself into pulpits, gathered congregations, and eventually arrived at Swarthmoor Hall near Ulverston. By the end of his long distance journey he had shaped his own religious mass movement on foot – the ‘Quakers’ or the Society of Friends. Such is the power of walking.

             Two hundred and sixty years after Fox’s vision on Pendle, an Edwardian mill worker had another spiritual vision on the same hill. This was Tom Stephenson, aged nineteen, on his first ramble. He fell in love with the view and with the freedom of the great outdoors. Looking north beyond the green hedges of the Ribble Valley to an unfolding wave of ridges, most distinct in the peaks of Ingleborough and Penyghent, it was this heavenly vista of an unspoilt countryside ripe for exploring that kick-started Tom Stephenson’s love of walking.

              The paths on Pendle Hill led Stephenson to escape mill town life and forge a new career as a writer and journalist. He edited Hiker and Camper magazine and reported from the frontline of the Kinder Trespass in 1932. Becoming press secretary, then secretary, of the fledgling Ramblers Association, Stephenson campaigned at outdoor rallies for access to mountains and moorlands.

              The Countryside Alliance and its pro-hunting lobby are more likely to catch the ear of today’s Conservative government than the modern day Ramblers. But in the 1940’s the Ramblers Association was a significant political force, a strong influence shaping the groundbreaking countryside legislation of Attlee’s Labour government. Tom Stephenson sat on the various advisory committees which initiated the passing of the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act.       

              Tom Stephenson’s other great legacy celebrated its fiftieth anniversary as I set off to London. Writing an article in the Daily Herald in 1935, Stephenson, no doubt recalling his happy days tramping over Pendle Hill, set out his vision for a long, green trail along the backbone of northern England. Officially opening in 1965 it took 30 years for the ‘Pennine Way’ to become a reality on the ground. This first government-funded long distance path, with a guidebook written by Stephenson, paved the way for our modern network of National Trails.   

              The ridge top footpath over Apronfull Hill is a prehistoric highway, littered either side with the cairn remnants of Neolithic and Iron Age tombs. I carried on walking up the ridge past a feature marked on the OS map as the Chartists’ Well. Difficult to locate on the ground, just one of many sluggish peaty trickles amidst broken cairns, the name is a reminder this footpath was still a focus for human activity in the 19th century.

              The well celebrates a meeting of local Chartists in 1842, who raised hustings from the ancient earthworks to create a moorland rallying point for 2,500 discontented men, women and children from the surrounding textile villages and towns. Looking down on the mill village of Sabden, where manufacturer Richard Cobden had established a calico printing works, the crowd were addressed by an Accrington chair maker, William Beesley, who, two days later brought the Chartists’ leader, Feargus O’Connor, to nearby Padiham.

             The 1840’s were the high point of Chartism, a grassroots political movement that had evolved from the same working class hardship, hunger, unemployment and poverty which  had sparked the 1817 Blanketeers March from Manchester to London. When William Beesley addressed the crowd at Apronfull Hill on a hot June Sunday in 1842, the Chartists had just presented a second petition to the House of Commons signed by well over three million names. The petition sought recognition of the six points of the Charter which demanded electoral reform to ensure working men, and not just men of property, had the vote and to remove the excesses of rife corruption amongst MP’s.

             The petition also raised concerns that have a familiar ring today: loss of liberties, the heavy handed approach to policing demonstrations, unfair taxation and poor working conditions. In an echo of the present day ‘all in this together’ mantra, the dominant sound bite of the coalition government years, the Chartist petition of 1842 included an attack on the outrageous income of Queen Victoria. She earned in excess of £164 a day.   

             When the Charter was overwhelmingly voted down by the House of Commons, the people of the industrial north took to the hills to protest, the moorland high points surrounding the textile towns being the traditional meeting places for political rallies away from government spies, jittery town officials and the sabre-rattling yeomanry who had showered themselves in bloody glory in the 1819 massacre of ‘Peterloo’.

The Deerstones Devil

              From the site of the Chartists’ 1842 protest I soon turned off the path leading to Pendle’s summit and headed south to the craggy outcrop of Deerstones where I spotted a kestrel returning to its nest in the rocks. At the top of this sheer south-facing crag I reached what was to be the highest geographical point of my walk to London – a contour line of 410 metres or 1,345 feet in old money. This was nearly 550 feet lower than the trig point on Pendle Hill summit a few miles to the north-east.           

               Deerstones reveals physical evidence of the strangest creature ever to walk over Pendle Hill. Namely, the devil. Apronfull Hill, once known as the ‘Devil’s Apronfull’, takes its name from Old Nick having accidentally dropped a heap of boulders he carried in his apron when he was hurling them at Clitheroe Castle in the valley below. The scattered heaps of stones on the ridge top today were, in medieval myth, thought to have been the stone litter left by the devil.

               Walking down the grassy track leading to the quarried boulder field at the base of Deerstones, there are more tangible signs of the devil’s visit. Several fallen boulders have curious deep horseshoe shaped indentations in them. These were believed to be the hoof marks left by the evil old goat as he leapt across the northern hills from Hambleden to Pendle to lay siege to Clitheroe’s stone fortress. It was said that the devil could cover seven miles in a single stride. Fast walker he may have been but he was not a brilliant shot. One of the boulders the devil hurled off the hill towards Clitheroe only got as far as Pendleton village.           

                The path from here heading downhill to the Sabden Valley leads past the ruins of Craggs, a farm still occupied in the early 1900’s, then skirts around the side of the late Victorian Churn Clough Reservoir. The compact mill village down to the right is Sabden, which had its own Lancashire to London traveller in the 19th Century. This was the industrialist Richard Cobden who set up a successful calico print works and helped build a school, libary and workers’ houses in the village. He also had a factory in Manchester and a sales outlet in London. He became the Liberal MP for Stockport and the radical co-founder of the Anti-Corn Law League, fighting for free trade and cheap bread.

                  In these 1830’s days before the fledgling railways had cast their web across the nation, it is interesting to examine how cross-country businessmen like Richard Cobden got about. It is known that he travelled from London to Manchester with business colleagues in the stage coach, the ‘Peveril of the Peak’. The journey took 20 hours. Later in the 1830’s, Cobden brought a horse drawn omnibus of Manchester school children to the village of Sabden.     

                          Looking north to Pendle from the Sabden valley

Pendle Forest to the Calder

                 From Deerstones I spent the next four miles walking through the old hunting grounds of the Forest of Pendle. This is a backwater landscape of thin valley pasture, meagre woodland, mullioned farmhouses and open fell. The administrative centre of the medieval forest, clinging to a south facing hillside, is the village of Newchurch.

                The intricate geography of the Forest of Pendle is best discovered on foot since the motorist sees little from the narrow sunken country lanes that wind up and down through the district. Its central feature is the saucer-shaped valley drained by tiny Sabden Brook from east to west, from Newchurch towards the village of Sabden. On either side of this lowland is tricky countryside for cars – to the north, the moorland of Pendle Hill; to the south, the steep-sided wooded ridge of Padiham Heights.

               The enclosed nature of the forest played a major part in creating the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the tales of the Pendle Witches developed. The route from the southern slopes of Pendle to the roadside village of Higham was a wander along the actual paths and tracks woven into the superstitious stories of the infamous 17th century coven of poor, farming women, who travelled on foot through the district dispensing their hollow curses on a variety of uncooperative farmers, pedlars, children, cows, dogs and chickens.             

                      Pendle Forest – haunt of the 17th century witches

                I passed close to Bull Hole Farm, lying in the low lying rushes of Sabden Fold, where chief witch, Elizabeth Southern, was asked to cure a sick cow but instead cursed it to death. The irate farmer ran off to give his account of such unexplainable witchery to the sympathetic magistrate Roger Nowell of Read Hall, who was gathering the testimonies of locals who had fallen out with Southern and her clan. Her notoriety gained her a more impressive and scary moniker, ‘Old Mother Demdike’ and she hobbled around the patchwork of scraggy fields below Pendle Hill being spiteful and vindictive, a vicious streak probably born out of her own helpless poverty.  

                In the testimony of the Bull Hole farmer Demdike had been asked to cure a sick cow. The modern rational explanation is that the cow subsequently died due to its existing sickness rather than a verbal curse by some half-blind octogenarian washer woman. Yet it was the hearsay and false accusations of their neighbours and even members of their own family who finally did for Demdike and her disagreeable company of fools. Nine witches from the Pendle district were hanged at Lancaster Castle in August 1612.   

               Skirting around the east side of Higham village I came close to the roadside building,  Ashlar House, where magistrate Roger Nowell first interrogated some of the Pendle ‘witches’. I also followed a footpath which runs through Higher White Lee Farm, the former 17th century residence of yeoman farmer John Moore, whose young son was thought to have been a victim of another of the witches, Anne Whittle, alias ‘Chattox’.               

              The Pendle Witches link with the Moore family of White Lee is an interesting one. Part of the evidence presented at the witch trials leading to their conviction was the case of Chattox bewitching the drink of John Moore. His son, also called John, subsequently fell ill and died in 1610. ‘Chattox’ was spied in her garden hiding a clay image of the son in her apron. Seven years later John Moore and his wife gave birth to another son, Jonas.

              Perhaps the tale of his poor brother dying at the hands of medieval witchery influenced Jonas, who grew up to be a man of scientific reason. As a mathematician and surveyor, Jonas Moore was employed by James Stuart, the Duke of York, and was involved with one of England’s greatest engineering schemes of the 17th century, the drainage of the East Anglian Fens. He not only surveyed and mapped the Fens but went on to map the River Thames from source to sea, an achievement that impressed Samuel Pepys so much he noted it in his diary. Jonas Moore, born in the superstitious backwater of Pendle Forest, went on to become a founder of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich.                

             From Higher White Lee I crossed the A6068 road where it bypasses the village of Higham. Crossing this fast road marked another change in the landscape as hedged paths led down to River Calder, a softer valley landscape below the heights of Pendle Hill. I was heading for the Pennines and there were still a few miles to go before the county border with Yorkshire was reached.

Pendle to Parliament – A Long Distance Walk across England

                         Any man can draw up a petition, and any man can carry it up to

                         London, with instructions to deliver it into trusty hands, to be

                                         presented whenever the House shall meet.”

                                                                                                          William Cobbett, 1816

            Over the last eight years the traditional English field path has become the innocent victim of Tory austerity. A report by the walking charity the Ramblers in 2012 could have been written in the blood of axed public rights of way officers. It stated that 70% of highway authorities – county and borough councils – had cut their footpath maintenance budgets and that many councils were considering axing rights of way teams all together.

            Highway authorities have a statutory duty to maintain and protect footpaths and bridleways. But in an age when the coffers hidden away in the deep recesses of county halls have been spent there is no money left to improve, protect and promote our public rights of way. They have always been given a low priority even though they provide a vital and cost effective means by which families can access the countryside for outdoor recreation.

            Whilst the total mileage of our public rights of way network has remained fairly static over the last ten years, in that same period nearly 2,000 miles of new roads have been constructed. David Cameron’s coalition government (2010-2015) trumpeted its own roads revolution in 2013, earmarking £15 billion to be spent on over 80 new road schemes and 1,300 miles for extra lanes over a five year period. There was, sadly, none of these billions earmarked for new walking, cycling and horse riding routes. Even though road transport already accounts for one fifth of British carbon emissions there is no seismic shift in transport policy imminent. It is forecast that road traffic is likely to increase by 40% over the next twenty years.               

Symbolic of neglected austerity England

             It is against this depressing backdrop that in June 2015 I decided to descend on London  the old fashioned way, on foot, and present a petition to Parliament. I would walk from my home in Lancashire to the capital city to raise awareness of how public sector cuts in the name of austerity were impacting on the ability of people to walk through the British countryside and enjoy its simple pleasures. I would demand that the government deliver more investment in walking. To emphasise the point of my campaign I would also attempt to do the walk by not following any classified roads. I would have to cross them and link rights of way on either side.  But I would not follow them.

               In walking from Lancashire to Parliament with a paper petition and a rolled up sleeping bag in my rucksack I would be following in the tradition of early 19th Century protesters. On the 10 March 1817, some 5,000 unemployed hungry weavers met in the open space of St.Peter’s Field, Manchester. Their plan was to march down to London with their signed petitions and present them directly to the Prince Regent; their ultimate request was that the fashionable beau, Prince George, sitting in for his mad parent, King George III, take measures to remedy the distressed state of the Lancashire cotton industry.

               Appealing directly to the monarch for help was a romantic and desperate notion. But for a poverty-stricken people ravaged by the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars, high food prices and the traumatic shift from handloom weaving to the factory system, the destitute Manchester weavers had little alternative. They did not have the right to protest in any great numbers. They did not even have the vote.

              The Blanketeers arranged themselves in small groups of ten to avoid being arrested for illegal mass assembly. Each group carried a petition signed with twenty names. The idea was they would march south following the legal public highways, only stopping to sleep but not linger, for fear they would be arrested under vagrancy laws. The leaders of this peaceful crowd of South Lancashire weavers and labourers, the radicals Samuel Drummond, John Bagguley and William Benbow, had hoped the march south would pick up discontented hungry people along the way.  They would arrive in the capital as a swelling mass of tens of thousands protesters that could not possibly be ignored by the nation’s rulers.

               The walking weavers took their inspiration in part from the vague notion of the Magna Carta of 1215 and its establishment of almost mythical personal liberties. But more relevant in the popular imagination of the Blanketeers was the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, when Wat Tyler entered London with a mob of Kentish rebels to personally negotiate with young King Richard II. The grievances of the 14th century rural poor largely concerned high taxation and slave labour – and the King listened to their list of demands.

               Allied to this quaint idea that the hungry northern weavers could gain a sympathetic ear through personal engagement with the Prince Regent was the belief in the statutory right to petition the monarch directly. Only four months before the 1817 Blanketeers March, the popular radical writer William Cobbett had published his Address to the Journeymen and Labourers, in which he stated that any man could draw up a petition and take it to London.

             So it was that the 5,000 marchers ready to set off from St. Peter’s Field, Manchester, on the 10th March 1817 believed they had a just and popular cause and were acting legally. The local magistrates had a different view and sent in the cavalry in the form of the King’s Dragoon Guards to arrest twenty-nine of the ringleaders.

             It was a relatively bloodless prelude to the national tragedy that was the Peterloo Massacre, which occurred on the same spot less than two and a half years later. In fact, it was the response to the civil unrest of the Blanketeers’ March that led to the formation of the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry. This was the infamous troop that scythed down innocent people during the bloodshed of St Peter’s Field in 1819.

            As for the leaderless Blanketeers, it is estimated that some 600 of them still set off marching from Manchester but the authorities had dispersed or rounded the majority of them up by the time they had reached the outskirts of the city. Some 200 marchers were arrested on the London Road on the outskirts of Stockport. The rest were largely turned back by the time they reached Macclesfield and Leek with a few stragglers arrested at Ashbourne. So what had been planned as a major working class insurrection fizzled out along the highways of Cheshire and Staffordshire.

Walking through the English Midlands – a typical Leicestershire field path

              Just as the original leaders of the Blanketeers were imbued with the spirit of Wat Tyler and the Peasants’ Revolt, I was carried away by the romance of the 19th Century weavers’ hunger march. My petition demanding the government invest in walking was not signed by thousands of impoverished ramblers. It was signed by only me. As parliamentary procedures state, e-petitions aside, anyone can submit a public petition to the House of Commons and ask your MP to present it in Parliament. It only needs one signature. You are then reliant on your MP taking up your cause and formally or informally presenting the petition to the House on your behalf. They are not obliged to. So the whole system relies on your elected MP being sympathetic to the cause.     

               With my own journey from Lancashire to London I wanted to show that walking across England on footpaths and bridleways  free of motor traffic could still be done. Hopefully not as a last hurrah to the neglected underfunded definitive rights of way network but as a rallying call to reinvest and give greater priority to one of our greatest national assets. For the health of the nation, we need our footpaths and bridleways.

The rambler arrives at Westminster

Out of the Manchester Blitz there came a Wimpy Bar

 

          Piccadilly Gardens is a scruffy shadow of its former self. A truncated patch of muddy grass and concrete next to a tram stop. Yet for most of the 20th century it was a green oasis of sunken lawns and colourful flower beds tended by Manchester Corporation’s Parks Department. The formal gardens, created partly on the site of a Georgian lunatic asylum, even survived the major redevelopment of this part of the city centre in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. This was a period bookended by L.S. Lowry on canvas and Julie Christie on film. I always think of these two when I walk around Piccadilly today.                  

           Lowry’s oil on canvas, ‘Piccadilly Gardens’, was painted in 1954 and is on public display in the nearby City Art Gallery. The artist’s familiar throng of matchstick figures are depicted promenading through the gardens with prams and dogs on leads, idling on benches, enjoying the water fountain with their children. Around the fountain, which is placed slap bang in the middle of the painting, the green lawns and triangular flower beds radiate out in a series of straight lines.

L.S. Lowry’s ‘Piccadilly Gardens’ 1954. Manchester City Art Gallery

         

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

                The gardens alive with Lowry’s people contrasts with the row of high warehouse buildings dominating the background of his painting. They give the impression that the green space is enclosed on all sides even though we only see the buildings alongside the junction where Piccadilly meets the top of Market Street and Mosley Street. The most dominant building is the elongated white Portland stone warehouse of the Rylands textile firm, built in 1932 by Harry S. Fairhurst, who designed many of central Manchester’s most iconic Edwardian warehouses. In the 1950’s this became Paulden’s department store and later Debenhams. A bit further to the right, Lowry even offers a glimpse of another Portland Stone building – the Woolworth’s store built in 1928.       

           Behind the spot where Lowry painted was a big hole. This part of the city came off badly in the Christmas Blitz of 1940 when the Luftwaffe dropped tons of high explosives and incendiary bombs across the city targeting key commercial institutions like Trafford Park and the warehouse districts around Portland Street and Victoria Station.

            Piccadilly Gardens was covered by air raid shelters for city workers. On the night of 22nd December, a whole row of buildings fronting the gardens from Mosley Street to Portland Street was bombed and reduced to a pile of smoking rubble. The burning warehouses were one of the most serious incidents in the several nights of bombing that peppered the city and led to nearly 700 civilians dead and over 2,300 injured.     

             At the same time, thanks to the Luftwaffe, another warehouse block behind the Co-operative Wholesale Society buildings was wiped off the map opposite Victoria Station. The CWS responded with a short propaganda film, Manchester Took It, Too, made by the publicity department of the CWS film unit as a morale booster to staff. It highlighted the efforts of the CWS’s own home guard and fire units against the backdrop of the clear-up operation in December 1940, the key message was that, ‘The spirit of co-operation cannot be destroyed’. The film was shown in northern cinemas in the autumn of 1941 and included footage of U.S Republican politician Wendell Willkie, born in Indiana the son of German immigrants, being shown around war damaged Manchester by the city’s Lord Mayor. The sombre voice-over announced him, ‘A friend from a friendly land’.   

 

Postcard of Piccadilly Gardens 1949. Left of this is a bomb site!

 

                The city’s bomb sites lingered on for decades after the war. The rubble was crushed and simply rolled flat over the exploded craters as post-war austerity gripped the industrial north. Yet it was the two huge vacant plots by Victoria Station and Piccadilly Gardens which heralded the dawn of a new modern-looking Manchester in the 1960’s.       

               Near Victoria Station, on land once occupied by warehouses enclosed by Dantzic Street, Miller Street and Angel Street, 1959 saw construction work begin on what was to be Manchester’s first ‘skyscraper’. The modernist CIS Tower built in steel and concrete was completed in 1962 and took its inspiration from the Inland Steel Building in Chicago. It was the tallest building in Manchester as well as the tallest building in the UK for a short time. It became the national headquarters of the Cooperative Bank, in the shadow of the Co-operative’s Victorian premises that had survived World War Two relatively intact.

              ‘Cottonopolis’ with a touch of the American Midwest skyline was absurd enough but it was soon topped by the space age bonkers that sprung up on the vast crater overlooking the south side of Piccadilly Gardens. In 1954 Lowry had captured the open space on canvas less than a generation after the Manchester Blitz. If he had painted from the same spot just a decade later then his harried working class figures would have been even more out of place,  staring upwards to the top left of the painting wearing an expression of shock and awe. They would have all been agog at the crazy skyline of the newly opened Piccadilly Plaza.

               The person called upon to develop this bomb site was a man who had spent the war years constructing air strips and military establishments – Bernard Sunley. After the war his London-based construction and property empire set about the task of rebuilding battered British cities. Piccadilly Plaza – the exotic name given to a disjointed collection of brutalist glass and concrete edifices – was constructed by the Sunley Group in the first half of the 1960’s. The developer did have the misfortune to die in 1964 before his Manchester project was finally completed. Still, two of the new office buildings – Bernard House and Sunley Tower – bore his name.

Rising from the Blitz: Piccadilly Hotel, Sunley Tower, Bernard House. Manchester’s ‘Three Graces’ ?

 

 

 

                 

 

 

 

 

                Piccadilly Plaza was an attempt to bring modern shopping, offices and hotel accommodation to the heart of the city. Just across Piccadilly Gardens were the traditional department stores of Lewis’s, Pauldens, Woolworths and, in nearby Oldham Street, the Harrods of the North, the furnishers Affleck and Brown. These were all housed in vast three or four storey Victorian and Edwardian warehouses.

                  It was tradition for the staff of Pauldens to change into evening dress in the afternoons but Piccadilly Plaza’s first retail outlets reflected a changing shopping scene. It offered indoor units as well as shop fronts facing the bus station. A Wimpy Bar, H Samuel the Jewellers, Wakefield’s Army Stores, Mothercare, the Milkmaid Cafe and numerous banks, travel agents and gents and ladies outfitters established themselves here. You could even get a pizza on the piazza! The plaza’s  upper floor attracted the offices of Air India, Air Canada, the Milk Marketing Board and Gus Demmy the bookmakers.

                  Rising above these offices and shops was a rooftop car park and the multi-storey Piccadilly Hotel. Next to it was the 24 floors of the office block Sunley Tower, and next to this was the eight storey Bernard House with its distinctive ‘hyperbolic paraboloid’ roof. In essence this was a giant glass and concrete Japanese pagoda planted on top of a car park in the middle of a townscape of Victorian warehouses.

                   Like three odd siblings who had nothing in common and never spoke to each other, Piccadilly Hotel, Sunley Tower and Bernard House struck an incongruous note. But anything went in the swinging 1960’s. This was not the age of scruffy old Lowry getting the bus in to town from the drizzly grey Pennine suburbs, but that of foxy young flirt Julie Christie arriving up north on the Intercity train from the cosmopolitan concourse of London Euston.

                  Nonchalantly swinging her handbag through the streets of an industrial city being knocked down and rebuilt, Julie Christie’s first scene as unconventional north country girl ‘Liz’ produced one of the seminal images of post-war British cinema. The film was 1963’s Billy Liar and one of the locations used for Liz’s carefree skip about town is Manchester’s Piccadilly. She cheerfully breezes past Piccadilly’s statues contrasting with the middle aged women in heavy overcoats and men in macs and trilbies. Behind her can clearly be seen the   scaffolding clad around the the emerging towers of the new Piccadilly Plaza.

                    Unkempt but sexy, upbeat but poor, Liz moved and acted quite unlike any northern woman seen on the big screen. In Billy Liar, the eponymous hero’s two other love interests – the docile Barbara and the beehived banshee Rita – were more traditional 1950’s stereotypes. Liz returned to a northern city reinventing itself (most of the locations used in the film were around Bradford) and she symbolised the modern transformation.

                     Julie Christie’s fictional Liz and the Piccadilly Plaza were made for each other. New woman. New city. In physical form they both stuck two fingers up at the crumbling old industrial townscape painted by Lowry. The flower beds of Piccadilly Gardens at least survived a few decades longer.   

Julie Christie in ‘Billy Liar’ (1963). Behind her the scaffolding rising up the new Sunley Tower (left) and Bernard House (right).