The sum­mer’s fires on Sad­dle­worth Moor are the lat­est in a line of dark events to be­fall this wild place. Trail takes a walk amongst it and asks whether a place can ever tran­scend the sins of its past…


His­tory hasn’t been kind to Sad­dle­worth Moor. Never has a rel­a­tively small wild place been the site of such a grim and un­re­lated se­ries of events. This jos­tle of high moor, steep edges and reser­voirs sits above the eastern fringes of Manch­ester with the same prox­im­ity Skid­daw sits over Keswick, but never are you likely to hear Old­ham touted as one of the great out­door towns of Eng­land. The ques­tion is, should you?

First was the lo­cally in­fa­mous ‘Bill O’Jacks’ dou­ble mur­der in 1832 in the re­mote Moor Cock Inn, which stood above the Yeo­man Hey reser­voir, where an 84-year-old man and his son were bru­tally killed over what was be­lieved to be gam­bling. They don’t re­ally know as they never found the killer.

Then there was a plane crash in 1949 at the head of the Chew Val­ley which killed 24 pas­sen­gers and crew. Some wreck­age from the tragedy still re­mains on the moor as a per­ma­nent re­minder – I’ll never un­der­stand why it’s ac­cept­able to just leave this stuff up here. If you look there’s also the fa­tal crash sites of a Mosquito fighter and a Lysander plane, both of which went down in 1944.

Then there were the ‘Moors mur­ders’ of the early 1960s which ev­ery­one knows about, and we won’t be delv­ing into here, much less name the wicked pair who com­mit­ted them. Sad­dle­worth is syn­ony­mous with their crime, be­ing the back­drop and grave for four of their five vic­tims, one of whom is yet to be found. Over fifty years later, with both pro­tag­o­nists dead, in­ves­ti­ga­tors still pe­ri­od­i­cally re­turn to scratch old ground, the moor again chill­ingly cor­doned off with Crime Scene – Do Not En­ter tape feels the foren­sic prod of po­lice.

Then in 2015, aw­ful mem­o­ries were re-ag­i­tated when the body of an un­known man was found be­neath Rob’s Rocks near the up­per Chew Val­ley, with high lev­els of toxic strych­nine in his sys­tem. It was later de­ter­mined that he took his own life. No­body knows why he chose Sad­dle­worth.

To the present – and in an al­most bib­li­cal turn of events – this rel­a­tively small pocket of an­cient peat moor­land was back in the news again when a sus­pected ar­son fire burned through it for al­most the whole of June. Nine-thou­sand-year-old bogs dried out by a heat­wave were turned into a gi­ant, nat­u­ral tin­der­box. For weeks, Sad­dle­worth was a vi­sion of hell. The fire was so big it could be seen from space. So as you may imag­ine, two weeks af­ter the last fire was ex­tin­guished Trail ar­rived in Sad­dle­worth ex­pect­ing to find a chaotic place wreathed in smoke and stink­ing of burn­ing peat – ac­ces­sories on a place that

was al­ready de­press­ing to be­gin with.

Duly, the ap­proach from the east was awe­somely bleak: the A635 seem­ingly hugs the top­most con­tours as it runs across the north­ern brow of the moor, then plunges south. With the ground des­ic­cated by the heat­wave and lay­ered like ocean swells, it was like driv­ing across a brown, Mar­tian sea. You could stand a cock­tail stick up on a hill­top three miles away and it’d be the most ver­ti­cally-in­clined thing for miles. It was as­ton­ish­ing.

Then the road led into the gladey shade of the Dove­stone Reser­voir, the left of the car filled with the bril­liant glint of sun-on-wa­ter through trees, and then out onto the un­mis­tak­able, un­nat­u­ral but not dis­pleas­ing lines of a man-made lake. I ditched the car, paid the £1.30 per day charge to park in the spot­less car park and started to walk. All around, crags looked down. The moor breaks slope around the reser­voir with over­hang­ing edges, and when you walk be­neath them they throw saw­tooth shapes against the sky. The huge shadow of a de­scend­ing Dream­liner en route to Manch­ester Air­port pe­ri­od­i­cally crossed be­hind the bil­lowy cloud, along with a near con­stant jet grum­ble roar, and I noted with in­ter­est that the crags these planes were cruis­ing be­hind were the same that had downed that aero­plane way back in 1949. So far, so brood­ing. But I have to say, of what came next I have lit­tle but sur­prise.

The first sur­prise was, this is the Peak Dis­trict. I never hear peo­ple men­tion Sad­dle­worth Moor as ‘that beau­ti­ful bit of the north western Peaks which is re­ally, re­ally ac­ces­si­ble to mil­lions of peo­ple who live within sight of it’ – again, maybe this is neg­a­tive press at work. But sure enough, the yel­low bound­ary of Bri­tain’s first na­tional park closely but com­pre­hen­sively scoops up the en­tire moor within it. It’s as en­ti­tled to the Peak Dis­trict ti­tle as Stan­age Edge and Kin­der Scout – but it’s the bit no­body ever men­tions, like the sib­ling heir who shaved their head and ran off to join a punk band. More proof? If you bang Sad­dle­worth into OS, it redi­rects to some­where tiny called Pad­dlesworth in Kent.

Se­condly, it’s the friendli­est place I’ve walked in a good long while. As I walked up from the reser­voir ev­ery­one said hello, and smiled. Ev­ery­one. Peo­ple walk­ing by, reser­voir work­ers, peo­ple sat down rest­ing, peo­ple out with their dogs. It was… strange. I felt com­pelled to check a mir­ror to make sure I hadn’t turned into Pro­fes­sor Brian Cox or Sir Alex Ferguson on the way over. It’s sort of sad that I no­ticed this, but it’s a fact that in some places peo­ple don’t say hello, pass the time of day, recog­nise your ex­is­tence or give a mon­key’s whether you were there or not. Peo­ple seemed de­lighted to be there. And as tragic as it is, this gen­uinely put me in a good mood as I took the track up to­wards the Chew Reser­voir.

The next sur­prise was just how nor­mal every­thing was. There were no cor­doned off ar­eas, no fire en­gines, no shell-shocked look­ing fire-fighters sit­ting on walls covered in ash. All the news maps seemed to sug­gest that right now we should be stand­ing on the re­mains of a bar­be­cue. Yet here was as comely a scene as I could imag­ine. “Oh, the fire was over that way. Side of Yap­ley Brow to Wil­lie’s Edge, then as far as Grike’s Pot.” This is not ac­tu­ally what he said but his ac­cent was so thickly Scot­tish – that’s right – I didn’t quite get the specifics, other than that it was clearly well away from where we were so as not to hin­der our day’s ex­plo­rations. This was all go­ing very well.

Above Chew Reser­voir the moor opens out and you en­ter big sky coun­try. Discs of grit­stone – the Peak Dis­trict’s sig­na­ture rock – stood like is­lands in the heather. Near the edges they leaned over pre­car­i­ously, jointed and tilted, like stacked plates. You can take the moor path, and jump out of your skin ev­ery five min­utes as fist­fuls of grouse burst chortling from the


ground, or you can walk along the edges. Af­ter a few in­stances of the for­mer, I plumped for the lat­ter.

There are lots of things about Sad­dle­worth Moor that are in­ter­est­ing but don’t sit quite so high in the na­tional con­scious­ness. Sad­dle­worth has a long his­tory of hu­man ac­tiv­ity. Mesolithic peo­ple set­tled there. An old myth con­cerns two giants named Al­phin and Alder – both im­mor­talised in the names of lo­cal hills – who had a fight over a wa­ter nymph called Rim­mon, who lived in Chew Brook. Rim­mon pre­ferred Al­phin, who was killed in the fight (lots of throw­ing of rocks) and Rim­mon hurled her­self off the crags above Chew Brook to join him.

An in­scrip­tion found on a rock above the Chew Brook reads, in An­cient Greek glyphs, ‘Be­hold the Works of God.’ It is thought to date from 1685 and to be some ref­er­ence to the Ot­tomans, who were try­ing to erad­i­cate the lan­guage at the time. What it’s do­ing there, no­body knows. A huge sub­ter­ranean sys­tem of rock fis­sures lies be­neath the moor, and is given the jingly name ‘Fairy Holes’, de­spite be­ing hugely haz­ardous. It’s en­joyed by par­ties of schoolchil­dren to this day. It was an early cham­pion of the anti-lit­ter move­ment – in 1932 a scare­crow made of dis­carded rub­bish named ‘lit­ter lout’ was burned in the Chew Val­ley in a kind of nox­ious Wicker Man-es­que state­ment against de­spoil­ing the moor. In 1984 Lord John Hunt, the leader of the vic­to­ri­ous 1953 Ever­est ex­pe­di­tion, was pic­tured climb­ing on Al­der­man’s Hill, on the other side of the Dove Stone Reser­voir. Then in 2002 lo­cals got a shock when an Amer­i­can bald ea­gle, which had es­caped from a coun­try show, was spot­ted cruis­ing the wa­ters near Chew Reser­voir. This was fol­lowed by the sight­ing of a pan­ther-type big cat on the very moors I was walk­ing along. All in­ter­est­ing stuff.

And you know what? It’s re­ally quite pretty. In sum­mer, with the heather vivid and the cot­ton­grass bob­bing, and the pur­ple looses­trife waist-height by the path, it’s very fetch­ing.

It does have a melan­choly feel to it – if you know any­thing about it, it can’t not. When you get up to a place on this scale it seems al­most ridicu­lous that hu­mans and their trou­bles could in any way dent its nat­u­ral power. But then, hu­mans are ev­ery­where here – they built the reser­voirs be­low, they fly the planes over­head, and they live in the city whose sky­scrapers you can see from the grit­stone crags.

I stood on Dean Rocks and looked into Manch­ester, a dark-look­ing bris­tle of high-rises


soft­ened by fumes and dis­tance, at the end of a long val­ley of spurs. It’s hard to know what to make of this – whether Manch­ester is lucky to have this place on its doorstep, or Sad­dle­worth Moor un­lucky to have the city so close. I don’t re­ally know, so don’t ask me.

I just stood there feel­ing very struck by it all.

There was more to see, though, so I didn’t stand there for long. And if you’re the sort of per­son who would never as­so­ciate the Peak Dis­trict with long drops that make your stom­ach try to leap out of your mouth, the next bit of the moor is the place to firmly cor­rect that idea.

Turn west along the edge that runs along Dove Stone Moss and you’ll start to ap­pre­ci­ate this.

The north­ern crags of this es­carp­ment lean over a con­sid­er­able drop over a gorge con­tain­ing the Yeo­man Hey reser­voir. These rocks, which to­gether com­bine into an es­carp­ment called Raven Stones Brow, stack high against the cliff and in some cases, sick­en­ingly over it. We saw climbers ne­go­ti­at­ing one. A few tourists pho­tograph­ing an­other. And then there was the one we’d come to see.

The Trinnacle is a weath­ered, house-sized block of grit­stone lev­ered out from the moor above, well, noth­ing. Be­yond it, the Green­field Reser­voir of­fers a com­mand­ing back­drop, and the heights of the moor spirit-level the hori­zon. The Trinnacle

– top marks to who­ever thought of that name – has as its crown a trio of small horns, a leap be­tween which makes Try­fan’s Adam and Eve look like a tod­dler’s play area. There are pic­tures on­line of some nutter do­ing it, but I was con­tent just to look. Even that was enough to make my guts wriggle un­com­fort­ably. Be­low, the Green­field Brook was a sling­shot de­scent away and soon I was de­scend­ing back down a canyon where the wa­ter ran orange-brown with peat and the rock was red­dened by it. Above, those sky­line crags watched.

This last lo­ca­tion was the one I took home. The best word to de­scribe Sad­dle­worth is not haunt­ing (though it is) or cursed (which it might be) or grim (which it isn’t.) Here’s a word I didn’t ex­pect to use: spec­tac­u­lar. And in all, a place that of­fers a gen­uinely kalei­do­scopic out­door ex­pe­ri­ence right next to the big­gest city of the north. Maybe it is seen as all of these things by many al­ready. The reser­voirs cer­tainly weren’t short of vis­i­tors to­day.

One thing is ab­so­lutely for sure – Sad­dle­worth has a power and an at­mos­phere of rare con­cen­tra­tion, an edge­land with a story, and an at­mos­phere you could kick. It’s good, it’s bad, it’s beau­ti­ful... but it’s there.

There is a line in the Michelle Paver book Dark Mat­ter that goes: “If some­thing hap­pens in a place – some­thing in­tensely emo­tional or vi­o­lent – it im­prints it­self upon the place.” The au­thor calls this idea ‘place mem­ory.’ It’s a strange idea to warm to. But it could hold wa­ter. Who is to say only hu­mans have mem­ory?

But here’s a thing. Of all the peo­ple you might ex­pect to fear it, avoid it, feel dis­turbed or ap­palled by it, Win­nie John­son came here as of­ten as she could. In 1964 her 12-year-old son Keith Bennett didn’t come home. He’s still up here some­where. She never found out where. Of Sad­dle­worth Moor she had this to say, a few years be­fore her death in 2012: “I love it up there. It’s so peace­ful.”


Above:The aban­doned shooter’s hut at Bram­ley’s Lodge, look­ing to Dove Stone Reser­voir.

Be­low: A vi­sion of the sum­mer’s fires on Sad­dle­worth.

Top right: On the high moor.

Above: Climbers spied on Raven Stone rocks.

Right: Ashy de­posits on the paths – ev­i­dence of the re­cent fires that burned nearby.

The Trinnacle looks over Green­field Reser­voir... and a long drop. Be­low: De­scend­ing Green­field Brook.

Above: The heather show­ing plenty of colour.

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