GM Ringway Stage 12: Norden to Bury

Published 8 October 2023

Wind turbines on a hill set the background to the ruins of Ashworth Mill.
Ruined mills and wind turbines – all in a days walk on the GM Ringway.

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. But arriving back at Littleborough for another day walking, I could at least take comfort that I was now half way round.

It says something that I could have driven from home, one hundred miles to Ambleside in the same time it took me to do the twenty mile trip to Norden by public transport. One journey would involve going through three counties to the Lake District. The other, going from one side of Manchester to the other.

Now look, public transport is always going to be a bit slower. I know this. It’s the nature of the beast. But it should be so much better.

The state of public transport, and the length of journey times, had been a perennial thorn in my side for the northern sections of the GM Ringway. One that hadn’t been helped by regular train strikes. Nor the fact that the easiest day for me to escape for a walk was on a Sunday. And on Sunday public transport in my home town starts ridiculously late. The earliest I could get to Norden on a Sunday was around noon. After a three hour journey.

The main road in Norden, lined with trees and buildings.
Arriving back in Norden for Stage 12 of the GM Ringway.

In the end I opted to walk the next section of the GM Ringway on the last Bank Holiday in May. Because on Bank Holidays trains start at normal times. Even if there’s no one on them, they run. When I bought my ticket at the station I had to wake the man at the counter up from a snooze. He’d been there since half five, and when I turned up at eight, he’d served a total of zero customers.

One train, one tram, a bus ride walk later, and I was at the edge of Norden. Not in Norden itself. Bank Holiday bus connections didn’t appear to allow that. Nope. The best I was going to get was being dropped off a mile away.

Look, don’t get me started, okay? Anyway, I was there for a walk, and did it matter if my walk was going to be a little bit further than necessary? No, not really. And it didn’t take me long to walk down Norden’s main drag to rejoin the GM Ringway.

A bright blue sky and Greenbooth Reservoir.
Greenbooth Reservoir, Norden.

My first task was to head back to Greenbooth Reservoir. This large expanse of water that had been the grand finale of the previous stage of the walk. And which would, with three feeder reservoirs, dominate proceedings for the first part of the walk.

Lovely as it was – and it was an idyllic spot, popular with the local dog walkers – the main goal was a hill looming over the reservoirs. This was Knowl Hill and you couldn’t miss it. For starters, it was 419m high. But also, it was covered in wind turbines. And the GM Ringway was about to walk through a forest of them.

Knowl Hill with wind turbines in the foreground.
Knowl Hill, providing you with cheap, green electricity.

The turbines on this hill can be seen for miles around. More than few times on the GM Ringway, I’d spied them in the distance. And it seemed only right that the trail would now go right by this graceful giants as they whirred away, generating cheap, clean electricity from the wind. As their huge arms spin in the breeze, the hilltop filled with the sound of their gentle humming noise. I climbed up onto the hill which, along with having a great view of the turbines, also afforded a cracking vantage point from which to survey the local area.

Just don’t ask me what I was looking at. The top of Knowl Hill included a stone plinth. The kind that would hold a plaque telling you what all the viewable landmarks are. But the – presumably metal – viewfinder had been prised off and taken away. No doubt sold for scrap by some toerag who had been rewarded with a few pennies for their effort. And that’s why we can’t have nice things any more.

A plinth missing its information on Knowl Hill
If you want to know what the view is, you’ll need to make your own arrangements.

Coming down from Knowl Moor, the GM Ringway felt like it was about to change. For many miles, I’d been in the company of moorland and the Pennine Hills. Now that appeared to be coming to an end. The hills carried on to the north, but the GM Ringway would be heading to the west. What lay ahead of me looked rather flatter than I’d got used to. I’d loved the Pennine sections of the GM Ringway, and was wondering how the rest of the trail could live up to it.

Coming down to Ashworth Moor Reservoir, and a pub called Owd Betts (renamed from the Hare and Houses in the 1950s in honour of Betty Ashworth who had run the pub for 45 years from 1841), I picked up a path near the north end of the reservoir.

A track leads to Ashworth Moor Reservoir.
Ashworth Moor Reservoir.

I wasn’t expecting to find much. On the map it looked like some fields and the odd lake. Not much more. But maps can be deceptive. For this was to be an area that definitely fitted that overused descriptor of “hidden gem”. A series of vales and valleys, all small, all tucked away and all pretty much nameless. But all lovely all the same. Wild flowers grew everywhere. You’d never know any of this was there. You’d never guess. No signs to welcome you to the area. No interpretation boards to tell you about history or wildlife. Nothing like that. You needed to be in the know.

Some people were. In the shadow of the ruins of an old mill, picnickers had brought food and camp chairs. Children splashed in the streams. Later on, there was even a small cafe by the side of a narrow lane. The queue for its wares was rather long given it was in the middle of nowhere.

The ruins of Ashworth Mill.
Ashworth Mill was built in 1786, but it closed in 1898 due to the building of the Ashworth Moor Reservoir.

I loved it. This was one of the reasons I’d wanted to do the GM Ringway in the first place. To discover places like this. The places off the beaten track. Away from the crowds. I knew about many of the popular haunts. Some of which the GM Ringway visited. Etherow Park in Compstall. Werneth Low, overlooking Hyde. Dovestones in Saddleworth. They’re nice places, but well known for miles around. But this spot, whatever it was… Well it didn’t even seem to have a name. At least not one that was marked on the map.

I carried on, down lanes, through fields, and feeling happy, to Deeply Vale. There was a lake. If it had a name, I couldn’t find it. But it was a lovely spot to stop for some lunch before carrying on through woodland, past the ruins of more old mills.

A small lake surrounded by trees in Deeply Vale
A good lunch spot in Deeply Vale.

As I walked, I couldn’t help but think this section would turn out to be one of the true highlights of the GM Ringway. The stretch that, if anyone asked me what they really had to do, I’d go “Norden to Bury” without even a pause for thought. But also I wondered if this was the trail leaving the Pennine Hills on a real high. Almost as if confirming this, I came to the top of a hill, where the GM Ringway joined a tarmacked lane. And almost immediately, I left utopia.

The village of Birtle had a very tempting looking pub, and a lot of houses. Some looked like they’d been old mills and industrial buildings, converted to residential use. Others looked far older. The ones who had originally housed the mill workers.

A lane out of Birtle led to a cluster of properties with a certain theme to their names. Old Headmaster’s House. Old School House. Church View. One got the feeling there’d been a school here once. Next to the church. A school once full of children from the local farms. Or whose parents worked in the mills. Now, like the mill buildings, that school’s now housing. The church though, now that remains. Although it’s presumably a bit of a trek for the worshippers.

An overground field where the path goes through, but is completely invisible.
So much grass that I’m not sure where the path actually is.

I carried on up the road until a point near Hercules Farm where the map told me to stride through an overgrown field. There was no footpath sign. No gate. No indication that anyone had ever walked through this field. The very tall grass was distinctly un-trampled.I had to double check with my phone.

Nope, I was actually in the right place. This was indeed the turn-off. It was one of the few times on the GM Ringway where it looked like no one ever came this way. If it hadn’t been for the fact I had the Ordnance Survey Maps app on my phone, I wouldn’t have known there was a right of way here at all.

A concrete bridge carrying the M66 motorway over a dusty road.
Going under the M66!

This, arguably, wasn’t that surprising. The path was going towards the M66 motorway. Hardly a glamorous destination. And other than a small cluster of houses, there was little there at all. The dusty road running under the motorway was deserted, and looked like it was used about once a month. If that.

As for the path I needed to take on the other side of the road, well the route through that was also invisible. Although it could be that that was related to the tractor in it, cutting the grass. I ducked out of the way before the lumbering green mowing machine could find me in its way.

Trees in Clarence Wood.
Well this is nice.

Chesham Woods Nature Reserve was nice enough. A series of well made paths wandering through woodlands. It felt like the kind of place that would be popular. Yet it was very quiet. But then there were that many paths dotted around that the place could have full of people, and you may never have known. Still, that meant no one heard my loud yelp as a metal swing gate swung back very quickly, banging my ankle.

I was now at the edge of Limefield, whose many houses could be seen from the path. The trail did a lazy loop to the north of the village, taking in such sights as the local golf course, an old quarry, and a narrow path near a field that was surrounded by nettles. Ah, bliss.

Houses in the village of Limefield sitting in the shadow of a hill.
Limefield. Home to houses, hills and, err, nettles.

This wandering took me to Bury Country Park, which the GM Ringway did its best to avoid. It did, however, go past a shop selling ice cream. Ice cream, eh? Well it had turned out to be a very warm and sunny day. Ice cream was tempting.

And then I saw the queue which was about two miles long. With a sigh, I decided not to bother and carried on through the car park and down a road. A road where I found a large ice cream cafe! Which had an even longer queue…

Large metal sculpture at the entrance of Burrs Country Park.  the design is based around an old mill wheel, with stylised metal fishes and birds added on.
Once an industrial site, it’s now a site of leisure. This is Burrs Country Park.

Denied ice cream, I pushed on in the sunshine, doing the final mile of walking to Bury town centre. Along the side of the River Irwell, behind some warehouses and past the divisional police headquarters. It wasn’t the fanciest of an ending, but then entrances to large towns rarely are.

And then I was in the town centre, making my way to the tram station, wondering if there was anywhere selling ice cream. Could I find anywhere? Of course not. Not even a branch of McDonalds with a broken McFlurry machine. I headed to the tram stop definitely not refreshed.

The River Irwell, surrounded by trees, on the edge of Bury.
The River Irwell, near Bury.

In an attempt to take my mind off this disappointment, I began to wonder what the next stage of the GM Ringway would be like. It really did feel like the route to Bury had been a section of transition. From the Pennine Moorland to, well, something else.

I was still wondering when the tram turned up to take me back towards home. But the question was not one I could answer. What the next bit of the GM Ringway would be like, well I’d have to wait to find out.

Bury Parish Church, in Bury.
Bury Parish Church – also known as Church of St Mary the Virgin – near the end of this stage of the GM Ringway.

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