(photos: 1) Hartshead Pike; 2)The pump house; 3) The pump house; 4) Remains of mill at Park Bridge; 5) Tameside countryside information)
The building with the arched window is what remains of the pump house, part of Rocher New Pit, at Park Bridge, Ashton. I went on an organised walk recently starting at Park Bridge and ending at Hartshead Pike, Oldham. For me, it was a pilgrimage to the past as I used to come to play here during the long hot summers of the 1970s. From the 1700s until 1890 the Park Bridge area was mined for coal. From 1786 the area was developed by the Lees family as a centre for ironworks. Plentiful water and coal, along with demand from local towns, created an ideal location for the industry.
By the time I tumbled down the hill from a nearby estate, the coal mines, iron works, viaduct and railway were long gone. Wooden train sleepers and other remains could still be seen as tantalising evidence of the “ghost town”. We had to walk along the edges of a broken bridge and facing us on the opposite hillside was a derelict terrace of houses with all the wallpaper exposed. I found this rather sinister. Hidden away in the trees was the mill owner’s house, and for me, an avid Adams Family viewer, it was easy to imagine that vampires might live there. It was always hot, and we were always thirsty. The walk was always the same and it always ended with the pump house and the river nearby. There was a notice on the pump house: “Danger, Keep Out!”, but we didn’t. I recollect that we would take turns to lie on the slab you can see in the photograph.
The leader of our walk last Saturday explained to me that it wasn’t vampires and derelict houses that frightened her when she came to the valley to play, back in the 1950s. At that time the valley was dark, the imposing viaduct was still there, and the buildings were full of noise and activity. Though terrified by the iron industry, she was also drawn to it. I rather regretted that I hadn’t seen Park Bridge before it became a ruin.
Back in the late 1970s, Greater Manchester council began to preserve what they could of the industrial heritage of Park Bridge. You can now visit a heritage centre and a small café in the old stables. Our walk continued eight miles to Hartshead Pike (built to commemorate the marriage of Prince of Wales to Princess Alexandra of Denmark), but you could just spend a few hours looking around the Park Bridge area if you preferred.
Yes, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974 they were good years to play in the valley. For George Bowling, the hero of George Orwell’s novel “Coming Up For Air”: “1911, 1912, 1913. I tell you it was a good time to be alive”. Bowling wins £17 and decides to use the money to revisit his childhood village. He is 45, prone to middle-aged spread, and has just picked up his new dentures. Having served in WWI, he is dreading the imminent beginning of WWII.
If for me the pump house and the river are the ultimate symbol of my childhood summers, for George Bowling the most potent image is of a pool he once came across full of giant ancient fish. You would need to read the novel to fully appreciate the various metaphors associated with the theme of fishing. I do recommend the novel to you, because even though it was written in the 1930s it still has much to say about the nature of the human race. I was fortunate to find my significant childhood place virtually unchanged. George searches for his pool but finds it full of tin cans. Not only that, he feels that, “The dustbin that we’re in reaches to the stratosphere”.
Although I haven’t studied this book in detail, I noticed a theme of rubbish tips throughout the novel. Even in Bowling’s boyhood, the ideal time that he yearns for, he describes a quarry that had become a rubbish dump:
“….and we spent nearly an hour and got ourselves filthy, from head to foot routing out iron fence posts, because Harry Barnes swore that the blacksmith in Lower Binfield would pay sixpence a hundredweight for old iron”.
This scene is then followed by a description of the boys carrying out an act of cruelty against a thrush’s chicks. It seems that whilst each decade has its glories and its declines, and even its own colours, rubbish tips and brutality are never far away from “civilisation”. Indeed, it wasn’t far into our walk on Saturday before we came across fly tipped rubbish, rolling down a hill from a nearby estate, and just by the roadside.
Tameside Countryside Service leaflet (“Park Bridge Heritage Trail”)
Cafe currently opens Wed-Sun, 10am-4pm (please check Tameside Countryside website)
Geoge Orwell, Coming Up For Air (Gollancz, 1939, this edn. 1971)
Park Bridge Heritage Centre Car Park, SD939026. Access from A627 at Bardsley “Brew” an follow signs walking towards Hartshead Pike.