I spent Wednesday afternoon being walked up and down muddy lanes in Rochdale by my wife. Rather than consulting a map she had decided to trust to some rather distant childhood memories of the route, so it took a while before we found the right path, which was the one leading to Cowm Top.
I need to explain a bit of background here. My wife grew up in Rochdale, which is a complicated town. It used to be the wealthiest town in the North West, when the mills were providing constant employment and there were engineering firms and other small industrial enterprises all over town. Now the mills are closed, along with most of the industry and, while wealthy pockets like Bamford remain, the town is pretty run-down and tends to make the news only when they want an example of an estate with high unemployment or a closed down high street. It also has a problem common in the mill towns, resulting from the immigration in the 1960s (to fill the many jobs that still existed). As a result of the specific local circumstances this has led to a situation where there is a large white working class population and also a large Asian working class population, but the two are not at all well-integrated, both have problems with employment, housing and so on, so there is some hostility between the two, more than you find in cities where immigration has been more incremental over longer periods.
Rochdale is surrounded by the moors – it lies below Saddleworth to the east and is close to scenic parts of the Pennines such as Blackstone Edge. It also has surprisingly rural outskirts. My wife spent a lot of time with her grandparents as a child – they lived on Malcolm St, off Queensway (which is a rather grim line of mills along the canal at that point). At the end of the short terraced street, you could walk straight up into the fields of Cowm Top, a pretty hilly area, and watch rabbits, walk the hedgerows looking for birds’ nests and so on, and she was often up there with her grandad.
There have been some major changes since then. Firstly, the M62 was driven through the area in the early seventies. The planning juggernaut driving this road through (against a lot of local opposition) was pretty unstoppable – one poor farmer on the Yorkshire side was left with the twin lanes of the motorway spitefully hemming in his land when he failed to comply. It doesn’t go across Cowm Top, but it is close by, running alongside Kirkholt, and the the noise is inescapable. It is still widely hated in the area.
Secondly, an industrial estate was built at the end of Malcolm Street, blocking off the residents’ direct access to Cowm Top. Which is why we were wandering the muddy lanes.
We started at Thornham Church, where her grandparents are buried. Here you have some lovely rural views, looking up towards Tandle Hill. Then after a few false starts, we went up Trows Lane. This leads to an old mill and millpond, now back in use as an auto works and fishing pond. From there, Sandy Lane leads up to Cowm Top – it used to be a wider green lane, now there is a road adjacent so it is hemmed in by the back gardens. It is still a rather lovely little walk, as you come out to the hilly ground of Cowm Top, by the rabbit hill and an overgrown allotment, and a field of friendly horses from the local stables. At the top there is a crossroads, with both footpaths showing the signs of antiquiy – a deep path running through a holloway between banks with old hedgerows, with a wide variety of species suggesting they have been in use for a long time (although they are neglected and overgrown today). Rochdale has been a town since the 12th century at least and there is no reason to believe these paths haven’t been there for much of that time.
The top of the hill is rather sad though. As the motorway noise increases, so does the encroachment from the industrial estate. A few years ago a campaign was fought (and lost) to prevent further development, either by buying the land or having it declared a village green. It was certainly in use as common land for centuries, but it was denied this protection and now there are more monstrous warehouses being built up the side of the hill. So it was with mixed emotions that my wife revisited this particular childhood memory.
One particular reason to mourn this vandalistic piece of planning is that Rochdale is a town full of brown field development opportunities – old mills and factories where there is no rural beauty to destroy. In theory we are supposed to be encouraging brown field development over green field. But while many developers have just taken advantage of loopholes to build on playing fields and back gardens (both ludicrously categorised as “brown field”), elsewhere this kind of destruction continues.
Not all development can be avoided, of course, but this is a good example of a situation where the supposed goal of avoiding green field destruction in favour of brown field development has spectacularly failed. Cowm Top is still a nice place, but it will never again be the place my wife remembers.