Today, I had arranged to visit an elderly member of my family who lives in one of the more rural parts of town so I decided to combine the visit with a short walk in her locality, an area I know well – or thought I did.
Early lock- down restrictions led to a lot of people exploring their local areas and finding walks and green spaces that had hitherto been unknown to them, or which would previously have been eschewed in favour of more exciting destinations. Unfortunately, options close to my own home are very few so I haven’t been out and about for quite some time. Travelling still has its complications and limitations, especially for users of public transport. Before the pandemic, it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to set off on today’s walk, but an unexpected feeling of nostalgia and a desire to be near to water enticed me quite literally down memory lane.
My walk started at Hey Brook where it runs under the main road at the boundary of the villages of Abram and Bickershaw. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries this was coal mining country, an area of heavy industry, but the pits are long gone, leaving behind what I remember as a wasteland where once had stood giant winding gear, mountains of coal and railway tracks. The sign for a caravan site points not in the direction of a place for holiday-making, but to a notorious travellers’ camp. The road is the start of a short nature trail to Low Hall Park, about a mile and a half away, and not my destination today.
Not many people head that way because of the travelling community’s very aggressive dogs, which roam freely around the site and onto the public footpath. A couple of terrifying childhood encounters on that path, including an incident where a cousin’s clothes were torn by one really vicious hound, left me frightened of dogs for many years. Needless to say, it’s not the fault of the animals, and I love dogs now.
Somewhere along the path is a memorial plaque which marks approximately the place where on 30th April 1945 an entire train – locomotive engine and 13 wagons – disappeared into the New Zealand shaft of Low Hall Colliery. Without warning, a huge chasm opened up where the shaft had been filled in in 1932. The body of the driver, 67 year old Ludovic Berry, was never recovered and remains 150 ft below ground with his beloved train, Dolly, which he had driven for 35 years. I would have liked to seek out the plaque but I confess I’m not courageous enough to risk another encounter with a travelling dog.
Back across the road and through the kissing gate I was on another path which I hadn’t been along for 35 years or more. Behind me, a section of Hey Brook emerged as a trickle beneath the bridge where a large amount of litter had accumulated, and then twisted to the south on its course towards Pennington Flash in nearby Leigh.
My surroundings, lush and green, a plantation of young oak and beech trees and wild vegetation, were nothing like the barren landscape I had walked over with friends and cousins in the 1970s and early ’80s. Known as the ‘rucks’, a local word for the site of a demolished colliery, it stretched out for miles, still littered with bits of mining detritus and the masonry of smashed-up outbuildings. We used to walk that way to get to a small flash – another word from the lexicon of coal mining – a lake created where water had filled an area of mining subsidence. That’s where I was headed.
I hoped I would still be able to find my way there and that the path had not been rerouted.
The transformation from industrial desert to botanical haven was truly wonderful.
Tracks led off in other directions but I had the main path to myself, and it felt a little surreal to be in a place both familiar and unfamiliar.
I felt like I could have been in an art- house film; no sound except bird song and the camera lens focused on flora and fauna.
There were no trees when I was last here, but now there is a woodland in the making.
The path ended in another place that I knew, yet didn’t know. Last time I was here it was open and bare, but instinctively I knew the way.
Polly’s Pond to me, or Kingsdown Flash to give it its proper name, came into view. I remember a friend’s grandma telling me that when she was young it used to be known as Auntie Polly’s. Nobody knew why, or who the mysterious ancient aunt was.
The sky was mostly grey but emerging patches of blue were reflected in the water. Families of ducks swam in formation, approaching fishermen and walkers, clearly used to being offered food.
Back in the day, kids used to launch dinghies and kayaks onto the pond. Staying at the water’s shallow edge, I remember wading in up to my knees and examining tadpoles and frog spawn and trying to avoid leeches, not always with success. Algae on the surface was known as Nanny Green Teeth, the malicious old water spirit who would suck children under if they got out of their depth and gave her the chance. Today, this seems to be the domain of anglers – and their very patient dogs.
I took a stroll on the gravel path. Trees screened the flash from view for the most part, and many openings were occupied by fishermen. Not all though.
I retraced my steps along the green path, encountering a group of beautiful horses along the way, they and their riders more than happy to pose for the camera.
This short and very humble walk gave me immense enjoyment, not only because it was an opportunity to be out in nature again, but because it was a lovely example of environmental improvement and enrichment at a time when so much green space is being lost to development. Here, the trend is very much reversed. I have rediscovered a place from my past as a new place that will be part of my future.