As is our wont on Saturday mornings, Pauline and I often run on Winter Hill but separately. Usually, I go on my own and Pauline runs with a small group of, mainly, Horwich runners whose exploits can be found on the WFDBWGUA blog and very occasionally we meet on the moors but more often we don’t. Last Saturday with low cloud blanketing Winter Hill not only was it unlikely we would see each other it was unlikely either of us, or anyone else, would see anything at all. I returned to an old, tried and tested 16-17 mile route with three climbs to the trig to remind myself what winter training is all about.
With the no prospect of views of anything other than the inside of Stratus Nebulosus clouds (as above) I wondered what the morning would bring, beyond the pain of a long run over, or through, the West Pennine Moor’s saturated peat bogs. My wandering ascent turns for the summit at the “Trespass Stone” which was laid on September 8th, 1996 to mark the centenary of the “Winter Hill trespass”, some 36 years before the better known, and more successful, Kinder Trespass.
The Traveller Tour website contains more details of the area and succinctly describes the events of 1896 as follows:-
“Winter Hill is the highest point on the moors between the towns of Bolton, Preston and Blackburn. Most of the moors are part of the Smithills Estate, owned by the Ainsworths, an old Bolton family who profited from the slave trade in the 18th Century. In the summer of 1896, Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth erected gates across access roads, fixed "Trespassers will be prosecuted" signs and hired men to warn people off the property. The public outcry led to a small advertisement appearing in the Bolton paper, paid for by the Social Democratic Federation. It invited the public to join a demonstration on Sunday morning, 6 September 1896, to test the right of way over Winter Hill.
A crowd of 1000 met in Bolton to listen to some speeches. Numbers increased tenfold as they marched up Halliwell road towards the edge of the moor. At the gate they were confronted by a small contingency of police. According to the Bolton Chronicle, "Amid the lusty shouting of the crowd the gate was attacked by powerful hands…… short work was made of the barrier, and with a ring of triumph the demonstrators rushed through onto the disputed territory. Plans were soon in place to repeat the procession. A song was commissioned.
"Will yo’ come o’ Sunday morning’,
For 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,
And the heather’s sweet and fine,
And the road across this hill top,
Is the public’s - Yours and mine!"
Despite some rain the following Sunday, 2000 people came and listened to speeches. Again the crowd grew as it set off for the moor, completely blocking Halliwell Road. This spontaneous movement of 1896 did not quite achieve what it set out to do. For years the right of access to Winter Hill was embroiled in the British Legal System. However less than 40 years later, better organised and more capable men set in train the events of Kinder Scout, which proved momentous to those who enjoy the freedom to roam our hills and moors.”
In 1996 Paul Stanton reflected, in The Angry Corrie, on both the original events and on the centenary as follows:-
“8th September 1996 saw centenary celebration of the Winter Hill mass trespasses, among the earliest and best attended of fights for access to hills. Winter Hill is a Marilyn just outside Bolton - now most notable for its TV mast and assorted collection of other communications paraphernalia - and has been a popular walking area with locals for many years.
In August 1896, the local landowner (and factory owner) Colonel Richard Ainsworth, decided that a track known as Coalpit Road was private, and put a gate across it to allow him to use the whole area of open moorland for grouse shooting. Two locals, the wonderfully named Solomon Partington and Joseph Shufflebotham, decided to organise a mass trespass to reclaim the "historical right of way". On 6th September, around 1,000 assembled at the bottom of Halliwell Road near Bolton town centre and set off on a seven-mile walk via the disputed track and over the top of the hill. More joined the walk as they headed towards Coalpit Road, many of them employees at Ainsworth's bleach works. By the time the gate was reached, there were 10,000 walking, led by a brass band.
12,000 walked on the 13th. The landowner was quoted in the local paper: "We have heard too much talk and space devoted to 'the people's rights' and too little consideration being shown to the landowner". 100 years on, nothing much seems to have changed. Colonel Ainsworth applied "pressure" on his tenants and his employees, and the third walk (moved to a Saturday partly to appease the upholders of the Sabbath) saw "only" 5,000 turn out in very poor weather. A court case the next March found ten guilty of trespass with costs of £600 being awarded against two of them.
The commemorative walk was less well attended: around 1,500 people. Kate Ashbrook, chair of the Rambler's Association, gave an interesting speech about access to open land and the Countryside Landowner's Association's response to proposed Labour legislation. Apparently, the CLA favour a voluntary access scheme to a legal right to roam. Kate pointed out that such a scheme has existed for the last 50 years, and if the CLA's members wanted to allow access, it could be done tomorrow. The fact that nearly everywhere in England and Wales outside the National Parks isn't accessible suggests the CLA don't want it.
Bolton Corporation bought the land in the late 1920s, and it is now open access with freedom to roam, although their tenant farmers haven't always grasped this yet. Coalpit Road was finally declared a public right of way in June 1996. Sometimes it can take 100 years to right wrongs.”
More recently The Countryside and Rights of Way Act (CRoW) has improved access to Winter Hill and other upland areas in England subject, of course, to certain caveats, discretionary powers and general restrictions but nevertheless it means we can run, walk or cycle to the summit of Winter Hill without having to evade Gamekeepers.
An overnight sprinkling of wet snow, just enough to photograph, lay on the highest ground around the masts and trig point – the first of the season.
Stud marks in the snow suggested I made both the first and second ascents on Saturday morning but by my third the snow was all gone and with it any traces of tracks. Below the cloud base and towards the west of the summit, Rivington Pike stands on a shoulder of the main hill and usually provides views over Liverpool to Snowdonia and north to the Cumbrian fells. This morning even with some weak sunshine it was barely possible to see the see the 16 miles to Manchester.
East of the summit and east of Smithills Shooting Hut on Smithills Moors is small reservoir away from the main trods and tracks where it is often possible to see wild fowl and enjoy views over Bolton with Manchester beyond. Today seeing the far end of the 350 yard long reservoir wasn’t easy.
However, here a surprise awaited me on the soft muddy path that circumscribes the reservoir. Although I had seen no other stud marks or boot prints at the summit I had seen plenty of other stud marks on paths leading to and from most of the major features on the hill so there were plenty of other runners out and about, even if I hadn’t seen them. About half way round the reservoir I realised I was running over the stud marks of a small group of runners, including one wearing a small size of Montrail Highlander fell shoes. Highlanders aren’t all that common and small sizes are even less common and I wondered. Sure enough, when I got home Pauline confirmed they were her stud marks. Romantic, or what?