So, the snow’s back. Seems it barely went away this year. This latest lot has been a little extreme. I’ve got quite used to being snowed-in. I quite like the forced isolation really. But this little lot has had a good go at burying me. This morning I needed to get more logs for the cooker and had to climb out of a window to get outside!
Last week I had to cancel a presentation I was due to do in Lancashire because I was snowed in. It was a shame I couldn’t get there as I’d been building up to it as a big reveal for a new piece I’d been working on. It was big, bold and flying. The brief I’d been given just eight weeks before was to come up with something unexpected, ambitious and with a wow factor. I was aching to see if I’d actually got something to provoke a real reaction with the audience.
The project had started at the beginning of February. The start date had been postponed a number of times due to snow and bad weather. I should have taken this as an omen on hindsight. The folks at Mid Pennine Arts had asked me to look at the West Pennine Moors and create an idea for a future piece as a response. So on the very first day we trudged through the snow up to Jubilee Tower above Darwen to see what I was dealing with.
Prior to this I had never heard of the West Pennine Moors, let alone visited them. I was starting from a point of zero information. My landscape works are about uncovering what makes up the landscape and looking at it beyond just surface. These things are easier in places like the Lake District which has a rich cultural history and people have documented the changes there through art and poetry for 200 years. But every landscape has its stories and narrative, just need unlocking.
The West Pennine Moors are a collection of moderate sized upland areas in the South Pennines, surrounded by the Lancashire Mill towns of Blackburn, Accrington, Bury, Bolton and Chorley. In a way they are a clearly defined area within Victorian industrial sprawl. However, this part of the south Pennines has several moorland expanses on the outer edges of Manchester, and one of the challenges was to see what made these relatively minor moorlands unique and distinct from its neighbours.
The starting point for the brief was the three towers which mark the corners of the area – Jubilee Tower at Darwen, Peel Tower near Holcombe and Rivington Pike tower above Horwich.
Peel Tower is a tall, angular structure on the edge of Holcombe Moor. Built by public subscription (today we’d call it crowd-funding I guess), it commemorates Sir Robert Peel – a former prime minister and founder of the police force.
The tower on Rivington Pike is a little more modest. Sitting on top of a natural peak beside Winter Hill. Built as a hunting lodge in the 18th Century, it’s the oldest of the towers on the moors. Although only 6 metres high it still has a commanding presence on the hill and is a prominent landmark from the train between Chorley and Bolton and from the M61.
Darwen Tower is the most visible of the towers and can be seen from almost all the moors in the area. It’s also the only one still open daily to go up. Like Peel Tower, it was paid for by locals to mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (hence the official name), but also, more importantly to mark the opening up of the moors for everyone to access. This was one of the first moors with a public right to roam following protests and mass trespasses which predate those at Kinder Scout by over 30 years.
Of course these towers are all essentially follies. There are plenty more elsewhere in the area, particularly at Rivington:
Moor towers are not unique to the West Pennine Moors. In England there’s a bit of a tradition for building towers on hills for the fun of it. Some were built as lookout posts for hunting (as at Rivington Pike), others as ornaments in the landscape (my favourite type) and even some, bizarrely, built as job creation schemes – something for the locals to do. A kind of 18th century YTS. The tower on Leith Hill in Surrey was built to bring the total height up to 1,000 ft above sea level (small hills down south – bless).
Previous to this spate of random tower-building, the tops of hills have been used for centuries as natural vantage points. The tower on Rivington Pike was built using the stone from a previous signalling beacon, which in turn was built on the site of a standing stone. Walking across the moors there are man-made structures on almost every high point
Great Hill has a wind shelter. Much needed on the day I first went up.
There’s a stone circle on Cheetham Close
While Round Loaf on Anglezarke Moor is a man-made hill of unknown origin, topped by a cairn. Sitting in a bog, the difference in vegetation on the better drained hill is very obvious from satellite pics.
On top of that are the half-dozen triangulation markers (trig points). Built between 1935 and 1960, these were used to map the whole of the UK with an accuracy down to 10 metres. By measuring the angles between one trig point and two others, you got very accurate measurements of the landscape. The same technique is deployed by GPS, only using three satellites rather than lumps of concrete. Trig points have to be on places where they have good all round visibility, so are generally on the highest points around.
Using triangulation calculations between the points you could not only determine distances, but also elevation. It’s a classic example of using elevated points for getting a good idea of where you are.
But to use triangulation points, you need the right equipment and lots of know-how and charts and stuff to get your bearings. Without that it’s still very difficult to know where you are without visual reference points. Back up in Cumbria the fells often have very distinct profiles, so when I look out of my window at the fells on the horizon, I can identify a number of places. On a clear day I can see lined up beyond Wild Boar fell, the distant peaks of the Yorkshire Dales – Wernside and Ingleborough. Further west are the Howgill fells, then swinging round to the Lakeland fells and the identifiable twin peaks of Blencathra to the far right.
On the West Pennine Moors, the landscape is less distinct. From a distance one hill looks mostly like any other. The towers then come into their own as giant triangulation points. Rivington Tower is tucked behind Winter Hill for most of the area. However, Winter Hill with its vast communication masts, is arguably the fourth tower of the moors. So from the top of Darwen Tower, the landscape of the moors begins to have some shape.
Getting out on the top of the moors has always clearly been part of the culture of the surrounding communities. The protests and opening up of Darwen Moor was followed by mass trespasses at Smithills near Bolton. On that occasion the moor road was finally opened to the public in 1996. Getting up the moors part and parcel of our relationship with the land. It gives us a sense of place in the wider world, and a humbling of scale.
In my response to wandering the moors, I wanted to do something which helped people connect with the whole of the moors. Find a way to get a sense of place and overall geography. In other places I could have designed a viewing pavilion with things to see. Only, in the West Pennine Moors, there aren’t things to see. Beyond any of the towers there aren’t any visual reference points. My solution – to create those visual reference points. A more comprehensible system of triangulation points marking every point above 1,o00 ft. So that standing by any one marker you can see and identify every other marker. Even from the bottom of the valleys you would be able to map the peaks of the uplands.
The problem was how to make them visible enough to be useable. Towers are big, solid constructions. It’s really, really windy up the top. This in itself is part of the character of the moors. To the west are the plains out to the Lancashire Coast where the prevailing weather rolls in relentlessly without obstruction. Permanent structures big enough to be seen from any other point would be very costly and not appropriate on a rare wilderness landscape. Temporary structures would again be susceptible to weather conditions too much.
The solution? Why battle the elements, when you can use them.
The Flying Towers are a series of flying markers, each equivalent in size to Rivington Pike tower – the first of the moor towers – which fly around 100ft above the ground at each peak across the entire West Pennine Moors for a few days.
It’s only an idea at the moment. An embryonic one. I’m currently wondering if there should be more of them – should they also fly from sites in-between the moors? At present the idea is for 25 of these kites. A hundred would be even more impressive visually.
It would have been good last week to see what the reaction was when I first unveiled it. I guess that moment is gone – the big reveal more an oozing out now. Still, it’s an idea. It’s a response. Whether it’s the response people were expecting, whether it’ll ever happen, well that’s for another day. A less snowy one hopefully.