Enjoying the daily commute

Arrive in Ramsbottom from just about any direction and you’ll notice it’s much more than a place of rising house prices, quirky shops, bars and coffee houses. Its industrial past is evident in the rough-hewn mills, grand sandstone houses and in the row upon row of cottages crammed into the valley. The town still has its industries – TNT has a huge depot there and the billowing steam from Fort Sterling’s paper works is visible as soon as you start to climb the hills – but now there is tourism, a heritage railway and at this time of year, Santa’s sleigh being pulled along by half a dozen inflatable dinosaurs. Yes, it’s that kind of town. 

Ramsbottom is densely packed, cobbled lanes, ginnels, steps and cut-throughs connect every corner, and even when you leave the hubbub of the centre behind, this continues. The route into Nuttall Park is via a low roofed tunnel at the side of a work’s yard. On the opposite side of the park, there’s the official entrance, ignored by almost everyone who arrives on foot. They nip, like we do this morning, through a gap in the trees. For centuries people have been carving their own routes in the valley.

Beyond the park, a lane follows the Irwell’s course. It’s bounded by high walls and massive channels built to cope with the water flowing off the high ground to the north and west. It’s tempting to follow, but amongst all the stonework is a track you wouldn’t ordinarily spot. We choose it. It winds uphill through solid ancient trees and slender young saplings. There are tree roots and rocks and – already – a significant drop below. It’s a narrow path, so we take care until we join the more obvious staircase that leads to a footbridge high above the M66. We cross a field and then we’re on a cobbled lane that’s been used by generations of millworkers but now sees little foot traffic. 

There’s no one about this morning. No hikers, no one walking a dog, even though it’s a fair, mild day. The forecast rain has already been and gone, and by the time we reach the remains of Grant’s Tower there are fabulous views down to centre of Manchester and right across the Irwell valley to Robert Peel’s monument on Holcombe Moor. Now that most people have taken to getting around using the combustion engine, the valley below us is noisy and bustling. The network of cobbled lanes and interconnected footpaths we are running is, however, deserted. 

It wasn’t always so. The pretty little path through the woods at Bent House and the green lane beyond Ridshaw – now filled with gorse that’s daring to flower in December – aren’t there because they are perfect for a morning on the trails. They’re commuter routes from the 19th century. The Grants – of the aforementioned tower – were a Scots family who moved to this area to set up a calico printing business. With its abundant water supply and steep-sided valleys, this is countryside that’s been shaped by both agriculture and industry.

At every corner, there’s a body of water: reservoirs, headers and millponds. We cross one field and enter the next using a stone stile that’s not there for our convenience. It was built by and for the workers who drilled, cut and blasted out the stone that was used to make this now peaceful spot a thriving hub of textile production. We slip and slide around that quarry’s steep paths, enjoying the challenge of staying upright.  The quarrymen’s workplace has become our playground. The path we take into Deeply Vale is so rutted and mud-bound that we have to laugh, but what was it like in the wet months, two-hundred years ago, when you were trudging to work? 

There are ruins everywhere: traces of wall – long since tumbled – stone bridges and culverts. Tracks connect everything. The population is now reduced to hardy sheep and a few ponies, but we’ve got our ancestors to thank for our trails. Some of our contemporaries, meanwhile, seem determined that we shouldn’t keep using them. We find several stiles long past their use-by date. Another footpath has been used as a compost heap but, by taking care and helping each other across the obstacles, we get through. 

At Croston Close, we head north. We paddle across shallow streams and wade through patches of rush, but the rewards of the lower Cheesden valley are worth it. We are climbing again alongside the brook that snakes up and beyond Lumb Mill’s ruins, and then we turn and look back down the largely forgotten valley where, once, wool was felted and cotton dyed and printed. 

The horizon is punctuated now by wind turbines. High on Scout Moor, today’s engineers have laid yet more tracks, but we stay low, still following the course of Cheesden Brook on a path that stands proud of the marshy ground it cuts through. All around are the remains of stone walls, often now just foundations. We head out towards Turf Moor and then back down the windswept fields, disturbing only the grazing sheep. 

We drop back into the Irwell’s valley. The lane needs either a 4x4 or a quick pair of feet and trail shoes and, as the descent continues, we realise how far we must have climbed today. We run through Shuttleworth’s clustered cottages, past the church and head on to another bridge across the motorway – so much busier now than when we set out before the streets were aired. Another few rickety stiles safely negotiated, and we’re running across the final fields towards the modern industrial units that stand on the Irwell’s banks.

We have spent the morning running through Lancashire’s industrial past but it’s because of that past that the footpaths are there, open and, in the main, accessible. And by heading on foot to these places – these quiet corners – you discover much more than somewhere new to run. 

We are of course, covered with mud, so we scrape off or cover up the worst of it before we head off for breakfast. Ramsbottom’s Room 54 café is tiny but offers a big warm welcome and does a brilliant breakfast – a definite 5-star rating for the poached eggs on toast (thanks, Jackie and Dale). A great collection of signs hangs from the café’s walls. One says, “Do more of what makes you happy”. 

That’s good advice. I’ll see you in the trails.

Kate Woodward