Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Protest Walks #2: Bluebells in Stanworth Valley

This is a five hour walk through Lancashire countryside that takes in a secret Holy Well, a tower celebrating a Victorian right to roam and the scene of Britain's first almost entirely aerial road protest.

The walk starts at the Roddlesworth Cafe and Information Centre Tockholes, Darwen, Lancashire, BB3 0PA. There is a public car park next to the Royal Arms pub and the number 223 bus runs between Blackburn and Tockholes four times a day.

The best map is the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 287.

There is some climbing and, this being Lancashire, it can be a bit wet underfoot.

Actually, very wet.

1. Hollinshead Hall

Opposite the cafe is the Tockholes plantation, an area of broad leaf woodland that surrounds some reservoirs. Cross the road from the cafe and follow the path that descends into the trees. When it crosses a paved path turn left. About a mile and a half further on you come to the back of a car park that is now permanently shut. Continue on about 200 meters and you find yourself in the remains of the enigmatic Hollinshead Hall. 

This is now in ruins except for one building, the Well House.

Little is known about the origins of this hall, which dates from some time in the Middle Ages but was abandoned in the late nineteenth century and then demolished in the twentieth.

The Well House is kept locked today, but inside you can just about make out the sculptured lion's head out of which the water flows, flanked by two stone troughs. Above and behind the building is another stone trough, which is accessible.

This all suggests something important, but what?

The name of the hall may not come from the Hollinshead family, or it may be derived from the Old English haeligewielle meaning holy well, which then became Holy Head and hence Hollinshead. This is backed up by the 1845 book Mansions of England mentions the Well House and says it used to be called 'Thee Holy Spring'.

So we may have an Anglo-Saxon holy well, but that's not all. The building is inscribed with the coat of arms of the Radcliffe family, which used to own the land. The Radcliffe's were Catholics and if the well house dates to the 1680s, as it appears to, they may very well have been using it as secret baptistery.

On top of that the place is apparently haunted, although the time I spent the night here - admittedly in the back of a transit van and not the Well House - I didn't notice anything out of the ordinary.

Whatever you make of it, enjoy the peace of the woods around the halls, as it's likely to get a bit windy as we go on.

2. Jubilee Tower

Return to the closed car park and cross the road. On the other side, a few meters to your right, a large sign welcomes you to the West Pennine Moors. Follow the stone signs which show the way to Jubilee Tower, also known as Darwen Tower, which soon comes into sight in front of you, standing on Beacon Hill like a Victorian space rocket waiting for blast off.

The best time to do this bit of the walk is mid-August, when the heather is purple. I did it in May, when the wind was a tad more bracing.

The tower gets its name as it was completed for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, but it also marks a rare victory in the ancient battle for a Right to Roam.

In 1870 the local absentee land owner had closed the moor to people and turned it over to grouse. A local man, William Thomas Ashton, crossed the moor regularly to deliver coal, and whenever the gamekeepers blocked the path, he cleared it.

Eventually the matter ended up in court, where Ashton won.

The tower is open all year round, although you probably won't want to hang around too long at the top. From there you can see Kinder Scout, Blackpool Tower and on a good day the Isle of Man. However even on a bad day you should be able to see Winter Hill to the southeast. A fairly non-nondescript lump with radio transmitters on top, the hill was the scene of a less successful trespass in 1896.

3. Tockholes

Once you've finished pretending to Saruman in the tower leave Beacon Hill by taking the path north, following signs marked Witton Weavers Way. Once you leave the moor you take a left - but you can't see the sign until after you've passed it. The path then joins a concrete Water Board road. When it joins a tarmaced road keep right on the black stuff, eventually passing Earndale Reservoir on the left (pictured) and Sunnyhurst Woods on the right.

Once past the reservoir carry straight on and once you've gone up the hill turn right. You pass Belstone Stables on the right and the path becomes Weasel Lane, eventually emerging in Tockholes itself just opposite the United Reform Church.

If you've had enough your starting point is a mile down the road to the left.

If you're game to press on turn right and then left immediately after the church, going down Silk Hall. If you have a spare pound you could buy a snack or half a dozen eggs from Julie's Cake Box (pictured). At the end of the short road ignore the sign which suggests the path goes left and carry straight on across the field in front of you. Keep to the left of the wall and cross two styles.

When you reach a Chapels Lane turn right, passing the dramatic entrance to St Stephens Church. Unfortunately behind the fine gateway is a rather disappointing modern building.

Turn left after the church following the sign "Public Footpath" and at the end of the lane, where you appear to be in someone's garden, follow the sign "Rambler's Footpath".

This leads you out into a series of fields, linked by styles, and you should be heading towards the sound of traffic, still following the Witton Weavers Way.

Before you get there you you will find yourself in an area of woodland. I found myself in a field of bluebells, late thanks to snow in April (possibly caused by the premature melting of the Arctic ice) but still a very welcome sign that the season of Beltane was upon us.

On the other side of the woods though you cross a field and find a very different view; the westbound carriageway of the M65 motorway.

4. Canals, Railways and Motorways

Follow the path alongside the motorway, taking care to observe the interesting debris on its verges. When I was there these included plastic bags, fast food containers, a ring-binder file and what looked like a pair of trousers - an unusual thing to loose whilst heading towards Preston at 70mph.

In 1995, as part of the "biggest road building program since the Romans" the motorway was extended eastwards, with this bit being opened in 1997 by Jack Straw and a large contingent of police. One of the most deprived parts of the country received a major new transport link, and the 52,000 vehicles a day now fly through an area of
"Special Landscape Value".

When you reach the road, turn right and use the charmingly graffitied underpass to cross to the north side of the motorway. Mercifully, you are soon on a quiet country road again.  You pass an airgun range on the left. Ignore the Witton Weavers Way as it heads off right and stay on the road. You are looking for a footpath off on the left. It's hard to spot as it's signposted from a short road that joins on the left and is next to Stocklough House. If you get to some industrial units you've gone too far.

As you walk though the wood you cross an old stone bridge that is one of the relics of an earlier transport system; the Blackburn to Chorley line of the Lancashire Union Railway. It closed to passengers in 1960, three years before the Beeching axe fell on other branch lines. By the time the M65 extension was built, British Rail itself was being broken up and privatised and the West Coast Mainline was in such a parlous state seasoned travelers were allegedly getting off Scotland to London trains at Preston and getting buses to Manchester, which usually overtook the frequently held up trains.

The path emerges from the trees next to the Leeds-Liverpool canal, another transport system, and one the dates back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.

Today, people who oppose new roads look back nostalgically to the heyday of the railways. But when the railway boom was at its height, early environmentalists like William Morris and John Ruskin looked back fondly to the days of the canal. In Morris's Utopian story, The News From Nowhere, goods moved on barges powered by a mysterious clean energy source.

Ruskin meanwhile railed against the Headstone Viaduct at Monsul Head, claiming "The valley is gone, and the Gods with it". Seeing as how this is now subject to a preservation order and one of the most photographed structures in Derbyshire, you wonder what he would have made of what happened to Stanworth Valley.

5. Stanworth Valley

Opposition to the motorway extension started almost as soon as it was announced, but protests stepped up a gear when veterans of the campaign against the M11 in London moved into Cinderpath Woods in May 1994. They were evicted, and after several other preliminary skirmishes the protesters ended up accumulating in Stanworth Valley for a new experiment in direct action - living without the ground.

The valley being low lying, and the Lancashire weather being somewhat inclement, the bottom of the valley rapidly became a 'quog'. So the protesters took to the trees.

Not only would they have to be physically removed from the trees before the road could be built, but after a well-wisher from Cheshire had had a letter delivered to the occupants of a Sweet Chestnut tree standing in the path of a the M11, inhabited trees were recognised as legal dwellings and so formal eviction proceedings had to be held before clearance work could start.

Hidden away from the world in the valley, with less support from the locals than at other protests, the inhabitants of the 40 odd (some very odd) tree houses were mostly in a world of their own. People could loose each other for days along the four miles or more of rope walkway linking the twigloos.

When evictions eventually started the Under-Sheriffs men quickly cleared the ground, but struggled to clear the trees. Until they learnt to cut walkways with knives on poles, this left the security guards living like Morlocks on the ground whilst the elevated protesters moved freely above them.

The Under-Sheriffs men moved in on May morning 1995, after a raucous and skyclad Beltane party by the protestors. Previous tree evictions had used raised platforms called cherry pickers, but for the first time contracted climbers were brought in. This was a move that would eventually see the Sheffield based team who did eviction work ostracised by the rest of the climbing community, but here in Lancashire the main problem they faced was how to deal with people who moved through the trees without harnesses and showered them with pasta and baked beans.

Eventually the inevitable happened and the last protestors was removed and the trees felled.

Two bridge sections each of 270 meters in length and weighing over a thousand tons each were manoeuvred into place a hundred feet above the valley.

AMEC appear to be quite proud of the work, and it's true that the direct destruction only extends 10 meters either side of the road and that wildlife is free to pass under the motorway - not an insignificant fact as one of the worst things about busy roads is the way they divide up eco-systems into tiny islands.

However directly under the span of the bridge no plants grow and litter has rained down from the carriageway above into the beautiful valley.
6. Back to Tockholes

The path picks up the Witton Weavers Way again, which turns left and passes under the motorway on the west side of the valley. A couple of hundred meters further on you turn left again at a style and descend into the valley. 

Away from the M65 it is a pleasant place once again. Amongst the bluebells I found the remains of a firepit. What camping in the lee of a six lane motorway would be like I don't know, but that aside this is a magical spot.

The path crosses the stream at a wooden bridge, and when you ascend again you can see Jubilee Tower in front of you again. Another old bridge
means you've again crossed the trackbed of the Lancashire Union Railway. Continue on to Bradley Farm and turn right in the farmyard, leaving by a farm track that heads due south, again following the Witton Weavers Way.

At a confusingly signposted junction turn right and then almost immediately left. Don't go down the slope. You follow the vaguely marked path across fields staying to the left of the fence. Cross the valley at the footbridge by Red Lea
Farm. On the other side it joins a paved road. You can either turn right on the road, which soon doubles back on itself, or take a shortcut by following the footpath in front of you, but it is a bit steep. 

When the path rejoins the road turn left and head towards Abbey Village. Arrive in the village just behind the Hare and Hounds pub and turn left towards the rake Brook Reservoir. Just after the water turn left, still following the Witton Weavers Way. When you get to the Roddlesworth Reservoir turn left again, even though this puts the Jubilee Tower on your right. However the path follows the edge of the reservoir
back round to the east and towards where you started from.

The Witton Weavers Way eventually exits left, but ignore it and carry straight on on the main path. there are two Roddlesworth Reservoirs, and just after the second one the path you are on is crossed by a footpath. this is where we began and if you turn left you find yourself back at the cafe where we began. 

They sell locally produced produced and fairtrade food and organic pies, so if you've made it this far please treat yourself.


Louise Maclaren said...

Lovely to see someone write about this beautiful place! For years I have tried to find things online about it! having spent time there in 1994 too! I shall try and follow your excellent Blog! have a very happy new year!

Martin Porter said...

Thanks Louise. I missed the fun in 1994 as I was still living in Ireland. However it was seeing Stanworth Valley on TV that made me come home and I caught up with the party in Newbury Woods.

Happy New Year to you too.

Nathalie Uy said...

The best way to predict the future is to create it.