GM Ringway Stage 11: Littleborough to Norden

Published 24 September 2023

A track snakes along a wild looking hillside
Great weather to be out and about on the hills!

The 186 miles long GM Ringway is Greater Manchester’s very own orbital walking trail. It’s a perfect walk for someone who wants to explore more about the Greater Manchester area. I starting walking it in January 2020 with the intent of doing it in 12 or 18 months. And I’ve been going on at rather a slow speed ever since. Three years after walking the first stretch, I was back at Littleborough to explore some more parts of the area that otherwise I would never have discovered.

I had intended to get to and from each stage of the GM Ringway using public transport. The walk was, after all, one that was designed around public transport. It made sense. True, there was that blip where I’d revisited part of Stage 9 to catch-up on a section near Denshaw that I’d missed in bad weather. I’d used the car for that because Denshaw from my house. But Denshaw isn’t the start or end of GM Ringway stage, and the public transport isn’t amazing. So that was far enough.

But the end of Stage 12 is at Norden. And Norden is one of two stage ends on the GM Ringway that has no rail links. And the result of that was that getting from Norden to my house would take nearly three hours on a Sunday. Add the two hours it would take me to get to get to Littleborough to start the walk, and I’d spend almost as much time on public transport, as I would walking.

An empty road on a Sunday morning in Littleborough.
It’s all go in Littleborough on a Sunday morning.

In contrast I could drive to Littleborough in forty five minutes, and park there. After my walk, I could get a bus to Rochdale, then one on to Littlebough and be back at the car in about fifty minutes. Best case scenario, using my car would take me half the time. Well, it would assuming I got to Norden in time for the bus. The one that on a Sunday only runs hourly. But even so, I’d be saving myself a good two hours.

It was a no-brainer. So I parked up near Littleborough, pulled on my hiking boots, bade farewell to my vehicle, and tried to not feel so bad about the whole endeavour.

My first task was to get back to the Rochdale Canal. The previous stage had ended with a brief stroll down it, but it had been getting dark and was rather wet. I hadn’t felt like I’d got a good feel for it. But now I was back and could see that, well I could see that the first bit seemed to be mostly alongside scruffy and tatty industrial buildings. Hmm. Lovely. Okay, not long after there were lots of quaint looking terraced houses. But the introduction to the canal was hardly the best.

Someone had gone to the effort to install some interpretation panels though. From one of them I learned that this canal was the first to cross the Pennines. It wasn’t the only one. Earlier on the GM Ringway I’d walked along a bit of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal. Being wider than the Huddersfield canal, the Rochdale Canal picked up more traffic. Coal, cotton, wool, and salt all got transported along its length. Until, of course, that point when the traffic began to dry up and the canal was closed for navigation. Of course it’s back open now for leisure opportunities. Not that there were many takers on a cold January Sunday morning.

Rochdale Canal near Littleborough.
Walking along the Rochdale Canal – a simple start to the day

And that left the waterway mostly to wildlife. Birds tweeted. Ducks bobbed their heads under water for good. And a pair of Geese patrolled the tow path keeping everyone under control. The goose: the security force of the waterway.

All very appealing. Until I got to the dead goose that was floating on the water further, anyway.

The stint on the canal was only a brief one. A mere introduction to the day. On the edge of Littleborough, the GM Ringway bade me to follow an indistinct and completely unmarked path towards some warehouses. This jaunt included a trip in a tunnel under the railway line where I found a man smelling distinctly of weed, hanging around. It was hardly an obvious place to wait, but then perhaps that was the point.

Woodland above Clough, in Littleborough
Woodland above Clough, in Littleborough

A path next to a Chinese restaurant led me away from the A6033 and the mostly terraced houses that lined it. It wasn’t the nicest of paths, but then you’ve got to expect a good dose of mud when you’re walking in January.

The path led towards a patch of woodland where things got a tad confusing. With no footpath signs to be seen, and several indistinct tracks going on all over the place, it wasn’t long before I lost my way. Which is an impressive feat in an area that’s about 200m long.

In the end I did find the correct footpath. Although only by using the Ordnance Survey maps app on my phone. On the ground the path was completely invisible. Still no signs, and no obvious tracks to follow. I spent more time looking at my phone trying to work out where I was, than I spent admiring the views. And even using the wonders of technology, I still ended up arriving in the wrong place in the village of Clough.

A field, with the village of Clough in the background, set on the slopes of a small hill.
Clough. It’s part of Littleborough or something.

The path I’d inadvertently followed didn’t result in a massive detour or anything. But it did pose a problem when it came to exiting the field and getting onto the road. For whilst there was a public footpath sign pointing over the field, how you were supposed to traverse the boundary, was a complete mystery. The wide metal gate had been chained closed with a padlock. Next to it, where you’d expect a stile, a kissing gate, or a simple wooden gate, was a fence. The public right of way had been completely blocked off. The only way in or out was to climb the fence. Looking on Google Streetview later, it transpired there had been a stile there once but it was long gone. There weren’t even any visible remains of it being there.

Things weren’t much better once I’d got through the village either. At least, until my route joined the Pennine Bridleway, which would be with me for much of the rest of the day.

Hills and wind turbines above Clough
The moorland hills above Clough.

All of a sudden, the tracks got better to walk on, navigation became easier. Which is how it goes when your own route starts to coincide with a National Trail.

Now I could relax a little and enjoy myself, as I found myself on grassy moorland. It was a bit bleak in the January weather, and a very cold wind was now blowing through the holes in the knit of my woolly hat. But still, this more like it.  This is what I had been needing to brush the winter cobwebs away.  A good bit of Pennine hillside and an icy cold strong wind. What more could anyone ask for?

Grassland with a reservoir in the background.
Approaching Watergrove Reservoir.

I made my way down to Watergrove Reservoir. It was built in the 1930s by Rochdale Corporation after a long drought that meant saw water had to be brought in from neighbouring Oldham. You can imagine the dent to local pride that resulted in. The reservoir’s name came from the village of Watergrove, which was submerged under water for the greater good.

It was hard to picture the scene I would have seen if I’d stood on the same spot a hundred years ago. Now though, Watergrove’s a rather lovely place, surrounded by trees. About 5km of tracks wind their way round the whole circuit of the reservoir, which is shaped like some sort of inverted speech bubble.

The edge of Watergrove Reservoir
Walking the edge of Watergrove Reservoir.

The path along the waters edge was a nice one. I joined the crowds of people walking it, accompanied with dogs, or children, or sometimes both. Much as I liked being up on the heather-topped moorland, it was rather pleasant to be walking along the water.

So nice was it, that I rather switched off and found myself gently swept along with the flow of other people. My mind began to drift, and I only “awoke” again a kilometre after missing the path going back on the moorlands. Now in my defence, I’d only seen one path leading off. And that had been closed as the board walk it followed was rotten and under repair. It hadn’t even looked like a proper path. More a simple route you could walk along to look into a pond or something.

A moorland path, with wind turbines in the far distance
It’s wild up here.

Finally realising my mistake, I double backed whilst studying the map. Unsure if there was an actual official diversion for the closed board walk (or even if the board walk was where the GM Ringway went!) I opted to head up hill to a bridleway that would take me in the right direction. There was even a path to the bridleway from near where I was. Well so the map claimed. In reality it didn’t look like had actually used it for years.

Back on track, I followed the path along the ridge of Brown Wardle Hill, a patch of moorland dotted with ruined walls and buildings. Although silent now, this had once been an area full of stone workings and coal mines. The ruins, coupled with the cloud and mist that hugged the hillside, gave it a rather eerie feeling. At times I’d felt like I was deep in rural Yorkshire or Derbyshire. Even Northumberland. Not for the first time on the GM Ringway, I struggled with the concept that all this was within the boundaries of a large urban area.

Wet tracks with a reservoir in the background.
Brownhouse Wham Reservoir. Seriously. That’s what calls is.

I ate my lunch sat on a bridge over a small stream, near an equally small reservoir. A cheese sandwich if you must know. And a meal that a passing dog seemed extremely enthusiastic for me to share with it, much to the horror of its owners.

It had begun to rain; something the weather forecast hadn’t predicted. And for the second time on my GM Ringway journey, I found my map – printed out from my computer – had become a soggy pulpy mess. Yet again I’d failed to learn about the benefits and uses of map cases. At least this time my phone was still working. The A4 paper with my map on it however, ended up in a bin next to a toilet block in the village of Healey.

A street lined with shops and houses
Welcome to Healey in the rain.

At some point on Brown Wardle Hill, I’d crossed into the Borough of Rossendale, in Lancashire. It was a rare diversion over the county boundaries for the GM Ringway. But at times the Greater Manchester county boundary seems rather arbitrary and random. Most of the border was a few miles north. But for whatever reason, a chunk had been taken out. The northern part of Healey, and nearby Broadley had remained in Lancashire. I’m sure it made sense to someone at the time.

There was another good reason to visit Healey though. Healey Dell.

Rocks line a path in Healey Gorge
Healey Dell is a gorge, and quite an impressive one at that.

Over thousands and thousands of years, the River Spodden wore away a path for itself through ancient woodlands and rocks, creating a narrow gorge that’s lined with trees. And the GM Ringway takes a path through it. Like something out of a fairy tale, the path weaves its way alongside the river.

Rocks line the path, there’s trees everywhere. Water bounces down over rocks, and waterfalls. It’s almost magical, and exactly the kind of place I’d hoped to discover when I’d first started walking the GM Ringway. There was no way I would ever have come this way had a walking trail not directed me towards it.

The River Spodden in Healey Dell
The River Spodden, flowing through Healey Dell

After a bit, the trail came to a path, and another part of the Dell’s history. For what do you do when you’ve got a natural beauty spot in a gorge next to the river, full? Why, you build mills in it, of course.

The Industrial Revolution saw a huge growth in cotton mills in Manchester and surrounding towns. And where there was cotton, there was money. Lower down in the dell, mills were built. And the area became a hive of industrial activity. This beautiful, enchanting place was once dirty, full of grime. The river polluted.

Ramshackle looking buildings and parked cars in Healey Dell.
The remains of businesses in Healey Dell.

It doesn’t even take much to imagine it, either. Whilst the main mill buildings are long gone, several small buildings survive, and ruined walls are dotted all over the place. Some of the ramshackle buildings suggest they still contain operational businesses. Did they, or didn’t they? It was hard to be certain.

One building though, is thriving. Near the end stands the Healey Dell Heritage Centre and Tea Rooms. The tea rooms are decked out in an Edwardian style, and were blasting out 1930s music. Its extensive menu of afternoon teas and doorstep sandwiches, had attracted the crowds visit. Even on a gloomy Sunday in January, people will head out for good food in a nice environment.

Healey Dell Heritage Centre and Tea Rooms
Healey Dell Heritage Centre and Tea Rooms.

Walking past, I began to climb up Dell Road. The GM Ringway was heading towards a embankment that once carried the Rochdale-Bacup railway. You can’t have a good long distance walk without at least a short section of abandoned railway after all.

The GM Ringway was doing a rather lazy loop in order to see the Dell from on high. On my way down, I’d passed under the eight arch, 32m high viaduct. Now the old railway line was to let me walk over it and get a different perspective of Healey Dell. Although all the best features were hidden by the trees.

Healey Dell Viaduct
The mighty Healey Dell Viaduct.

The GM Ringway left the old railway line at the site of Broadley Railway Station. The first stages of the Rochdale-Bacup line had opened in 1870. Patronage though was poor. Poor enough for passenger services to end in 1947, way before Doctor Beeching arrived on the scene. The line remained open for freight, but twenty years later it was closed for good. The station buildings at Broadley are all long gone. All that remains are the old platforms and a large retaining wall for the road that curves above the station.

It was that narrow road the GM Ringway would now follow. Past farm buildings and the odd house, towards Rooley Moor where the rain began to fall, and cloud filled the sky.

Farms and houses up Knacks Lane
Farms and houses up Knacks Lane.

As if reaching the highest point it wanted to get to, so the GM Ringway headed off the moor near a small car park. And then began its descent to the village of Norden. Down alongside Greenbooth reservoir and along a narrow lane. And then there it all was. Norden was reached, my days walk was done.

I walked down Norden’s main street, past a cluster of shops, hairdressers, and cafes. It was Sunday. Little was open. What I needed was easy to find. A bus stop where, after a short wait, a near empty bus would arrive to whisk me on my way back to my car in Littleborough.

Greenbooth Reservoir
Another GM Ringway reservoir visiting session.

As I sat on the bus, I realised a milestone of sorts had been reached. I had no idea where the middle of the GM Ringway was, but I knew its website defined it as having 20 stages. I’d now completed number 11. I must have reached the half way point in mileage by now.

It had taken three years to get there. Far longer than I’d ever expected. But it was beginning to feel the end may well now be in sight.

It would probably take me another three years to do it all. However this one stage alone had introduced me to a true gem. Nine more stages to go. What else would I find along the way?

The main street in Norden.
Welcome to Norden. Another GM Ringway section completed.

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