A few swallows were flying low over the heather as we emerged in bright sunlight onto Winter Hill from the top of Coalpit Road in Bolton. We were one thousand strong, about one tenth of the numbers said to have poured over the hill on 6 September 1896. They broke down Colonel Richard Henry Ainsworth’s locked gate across the path, ignored the minatory notices, and dodged the game keepers.
We were there on Sunday 5 September to celebrate the 125th anniversary of that mass trespass, when the people of Bolton defied the wealthy landowner and asserted their rights to use the road. Outrageously, Ainsworth took the leaders of the trespass to court which found in his favour and issued heavy fines. As a result, formal trespassing ceased, and the matter did not start to be resolved until the Ainsworth family sold the estate to Bolton Corporation in 1938 and access was gradually allowed. The path was added to the definitive map at the centenary in 1996, and we won freedom to roam over the whole area by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.
I spoke at the centenary event in 1996, and was delighted to join the 125th anniversary demo.
We met by the Halliwell health centre in Bolton, for speeches from Mayor Linda Thomas, campaigner Guy Shrubsole, and me.
My message was that the trespass was an immensely important milestone in the history of access, but we still have a long way to go. The government is intent on extending the criminalisation of trespass in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill; the planning bill is set to encourage further trashing of open spaces by development; country paths are made hostile by fencing, CCTV notices and big gates; local authorities have insufficient resources to defend paths and spaces; there is no evidence that access will be part of the new agricultural funding system, and the government has refused to add access targets to the Environment Bill—to name a few threats. We must follow the example of the Winter Hill trespassers and tramp on bravely.
And tramp on we did, up Halliwell Road, accompanied by the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) samba band, and numerous banners. It was just like old times, with banners from Manchester Ramblers, Pendle Ramblers, the Socialist Club, the Diggers, the Levellers, Extinction Rebellion, anti-frackers, and many others, all using this occasion to demonstrate for equality, freedom, our planet, and people’s rights.
People came out of their houses along the route to wave us on, and at the top of Halliwell Road, the Ainsworth Arms said ‘Trespassers welcome’—and snorks to Colonel Ainsworth.
On we went, up Smithills Road to the contested Coalpit Road, the countryside opening out around us.
At the top, by the controversial gate, the Bolton Clarion Choir was singing the Winter Hill song, Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’. It is by Bolton writer Allen Clarke and was published in his paper, Teddy Ashton’s journal, following the first demonstration in 1896.
Will yo’ come o’ Sunday mornin’
For a walk o’er Winter Hill?
Ten thousand went last Sunday
But there’s room for thousand still!
And the heather’s sweet and fine
And the roads across the hilltops—
Are the people’s—yours and mine!
The words are etched on a stone which was erected here at the centenary.
The long trail of walkers wound its way up to the top, with its array of masts.
The view over Manchester and Liverpool was misty, but it was exhilarating to be back on moorland with a spread of cotton grass.
Meadow pipits flitted from the posts and I was surprised to see a grey squirrel sitting on one of them, miles from habitation.
At the top we stopped by the buildings for lunch, and noted the various memorials: to an air crash in 1958 and to George Henderson who was ‘barbarously murdered’ in 1838.
We descended on the Blackburn with Darwen side, and the view was much clearer, over the West Pennine Moors to Rivington and Darwen, where we fought for access to be protected, in the water bill in 1989.
At the bottom is a solid Peak and Northern Footpaths Society sign, asserting beyond all doubt the path to Winter Hill from the north.
We arrived at Belmont which has two pubs. On 6 September 1896, these were promptly drunk dry by the thirsty trespassers.
A succession of Diamond buses was laid on to return us to Bolton, with the drivers generously giving their own time to support our movement. It was all extremely efficient.
Special thanks to historian Paul Salveson who uncovered the colourful history as told in Allen Clarke’s 1920 book, Moorlands and Memories, and to all the organisers who made it such a memorable day. Thanks also to Julia Uttley who has allowed me to use the photos from her splendid blog of the day here.
It is so important to mark these anniversaries, to celebrate what our predecessors achieved for us, often through personal sacrifice, and to take up their baton in the fight for our rights to enjoy our countryside and green spaces.