Beauty From Ashes: Climbing The Coal rucks, One Post-Industrial Paradise At A Time

An expedition into Bickershaw's rewilding landscape
April 10, 2023

We entered illegally. By my reckoning there were at least five official access points and this was not one of them. Just inside the back door to the coal rucks some young men in hoodies were engaged in a three man scrum. Their foreheads almost touched. Something secret was being said. One of them was carrying a large plastic shopping bag loaded with bounty. Perhaps they were planning to fish here. Or picnic. Or litter pick. Or feed the swans. Or collect…what? What would they collect?

I stuffed the expensive camera into my backpack and clambered hastily through an abandoned trench littered with the wreckage and rubble of short lived household appliances. Adrenaline propelled us out of the other end and up a steep incline. We wandered further uphill through endless shores of silver birch trees. Each delicate white spindle stood right next to its neighbour, the blanched girth, all of three or four inches in diameter, defiantly reaching 20 feet skyward.

The ground at this end of the rucks was gritty, sharp and soggy, like rucks always used to be. The unforgiving surface lay bare and barren. Every few steps the jagged end of a broken clay brick would breach the surface. A splash of red piercing the rich shale grey, laid there long before shale grey became trendy; especially for those who never had their shins shredded by it. On the fringes of these rucks fly tipping and the deep tyre tracks of off-road vehicles served as harsh reminders of the proximity of deprived urban areas. Slow oily streams bled out from gaping wounds and the land wept warm tears of grief. The rucks still remember.

We scrambled up a steep scree and arrived victoriously on the top of a broad plateau. From there it was easy to understand why the Pennines are nick-named the backbone of England. We watched as the weather passed by Winter Hill, the city skyline of Manchester and the Derbyshire Peaks beyond.

Bickershaw Rosehips

This strange barren moonscape seemed alien, unnatural, unfamiliar. More hard walking along a knobbly well worn trail and we entered The Thunderdome; a bleak grey amphitheatre a thousand yards long and a hundred yards wide. Wild patterns were ripped into the ground by a torrent of racing tyres. The burned out skeleton of a rusted motor vehicle seemed to cry out angry expletives at the natural world. But it dared not snitch the secrets of this place. The new secrets. Those less than a lifetime old. A sense of the sinister lingered in the air, like very bad things had happened here, mostly after dark. Things mild-mannered mums would rather not think about. Dozens, no, maybe hundreds of whippy young trees, leaned like thin ghostly spectators cheering and waving on the gentle slopes of the basin perimeter. For one delightful moment I paused to realise I was witnessing the birth of a forest. I was witnessing the birth of a forest!

Tramping deeper into these rucks there were sudden sublime moments where no man-made structures were visible and the sound of moving traffic faded to silence. A vast dome of blue skies edged with distant tree-filled ridges hinted at a sense of being in the wide open countryside, yet typical English countryside this was not. There were no clear markers of a land farmed by people. No patchwork fields, ancient hedgerows or boundary tree lines to shape and sculpt the view. There were no fluffy balls of grazing sheep dotted quaintly on the hillsides. I was utterly surprised to discover three Highland cows munching lazily in a marked off meadow. Their mammothy brown backs inched slowly across the surreal lowland scene as surely as they would in an ancient Scottish glade. I panned around, searching for familiar countryside features. But I could see none of them. Not a single dry stone wall, bothy, barn, bridge, cottage or working farm building. Here was an essentially unfarmed, uninhabited, unloved landscape. People have not grown crops or raised livestock here. The earth I was standing on had never been utilised for the *production of food.

And while I saw no evidence of obvious man-made structures, in truth, I was immersed in an entirely man-made landscape. Everything here had been artificially sculpted over years of industrial activity. These acres of hills, valleys, ridges, lakes, channels and screes were formed many years ago by the dumping of tons and tons of gritty mining ‘spoil’. Dangerous, unstable, uninhabited, this fragile young planet was formed by the almighty powers that were. Decades later, for good or ill, these shadowlands were abandoned to be further contoured by the relentless forces of nature, and a few off-road bikers.

How lovely to walk by lush green pastures and mirror still waters. I could not, however thirsty, be tempted to drink the liquid within them. The industrial history of this land grinned through the surface here and there. An iridescent rainbow of lard-greased pinks and purples trickled out of a hillside and burbled gently down across a footpath, and off towards a greater body of water. Sometimes rusty red water poured upwards through the long grass, pooling into sour soupy puddles before bubbling back into the ground. It was troubling to know this patch of earth had taken such a sustained battering. It was difficult to put into words the extent of change that had happened here. What was it like before the industrial revolution? How could the magnitude of these events be accurately described?

Before settling on the word battering, I considered using “assault” or even “rape” but eventually decided against them both. I’m not one for using inflammatory language, preferring a more measured approach. Using “assault” or “rape”, in the context of land misuse, would imply intentional harm upon another, illegal activity, and significant suffering on the part of the recipient. Words are the tools of my trade and over stating matters would only serve to undermine the meaning of a word in the long term. So “battering” it was. This little part of the world was properly-battered. Much of the actual hands-on battering would have been carried out by little people simply trying to survive and earn a crust. Some of them were my ancestors. There’s no value in judging them. We are where we are.

Bickershaw Bulrushes

The trail abruptly ended. We passed through a pocket of mature woodland, emerging from the shelter of the latticed canopy, into the mild shock of an urban backwater. A footpath took us alongside the thrum of a busy B road. As ever, I struggled to find any good in the ugly patchwork tarmac. Multiple shades of grey screamed of un-coordinated municipal intrusions. The colours in natural paving materials such as stone or slate are intensified and enhanced by a light downpour, but wet or dry, I found this surface an utterly depressing contributor to that fabled northern grimness which nature was trying to outrun. Some local authorities use more pleasing materials in significant public spaces, and I say hats off to them for turning the tide. But tarmac is both cheap and functional. And so there it was. In the form of a reasonably level footpath. I worked hard to appreciate that it was both firm underfoot and keeping my feet dry, while being simultaneously outraged at the mild offence to my artistic sensibilities.

Tarmac is not an inert, incorruptible material. Along the anterior perimeter of the footpath there was evidence of erosion on this faux granite surface. I surmised, in mock archaeological observation, that this part of the path was the oldest, perhaps even a remnant of the first path ever laid here by a team of shovel-wielding men back in the mists of time. Maybe the 50s or 60s. I was guessing of course, but the tell-tale signs were there. The surface had crumbled. The rain had deposited silty earth, filling each tiny divot with fine fertile soil. And then I noticed. A mini mossy mountain range. Clumping quietly along the path for yards and yards and yards. No more than an inch tall and up to a foot wide in places. The mounds were quite spectacular in a subtle beneath-the-radar, delicate miniature world kind of a way. The lime green tufts glistened in the rain and sun. Fluorescent. Vibrant. A living thing. Surely this colour and texture could compete with that of an elite Japanese moss garden? I stooped to touch the hairy hills and smiled a half smile to myself because I’d finally found evidence of a little beauty and life, even in the tarmac.

We doubled back on ourselves and within a matter of five hundred yards the urban street became incrementally rural in nature, dead-ending at an old farmhouse nestled at the foot of the rucks. I was amused by the classic sight of a soft grey cat curled up on a rustic wall, oblivious to all human endeavours; simply getting on with the business of being a cat. For a moment we'd slipped into a pocket of time before the rucks were formed. Voices whispered from the ancient stonework. Folks were farming the land that was buried beneath this land long before the dawn of the industrial revolution. I now questioned my earlier assertion that this area had never *produced food, but was too chicken to knock on the farmhouse door to get the story. Being wrong, chicken, and a bit lost are not helpful traits for an explorer.

A persistent mooch eventually revealed the beginnings of a slim slutchy trail, no more than a boot wide, banked on both sides by a dense thicket of armpit-high brambles. The trail was brokered, I suspect, by daily dog walkers taking a short cut. A pair of wood pigeons paused their play and looked on as we twisted our way through the angry barbs. I distinctly sensed the scuttling presence of ground level vermin. Knowing my pants were tucked tightly into my socks generated some small measure of security in that regard.

We forged on, left the thin dodgy trail and the far edge of the civilised world behind us, and re-entered the untamed wildness of the rucks. Ant-like, we scrambled up the steep ascent of a life-sized mossy mountain. This physical effort warmed my chilly bits to perfection. The bright green summit felt spongy, squidgy, soggy underfoot. Unnerved by the sensation of walking on a whopping water bed in the sky I wondered if it might be time to retreat to the safety of a nice tea shop. But there weren’t any. We lolloped along the ridge, trying to figure out the way home, but even from higher ground the way back seemed unclear. There were too many trails, too many hills, too much near and too much far.

Bickershaw Moss

Heading downhill through a swathe of silver birch trees seemed like a sensible option. Perhaps this would take us back to where we first came in. Heels striking sideways into the slope of the hill we followed the dim descending trail until it petered out. The proverbial beaten track, was now far behind us. The slippery hillside was draped in long wet hay and our weary limbs objected to the idea of climbing back up. The rucks had drawn us down into the remote silence of a deep wooded dell. This was a low point in more ways than one.

Oh God. What was that? A dead body lay slumped over a thick branch…no, worse, a sleeping bag. Plus a dog collar and lead. Just below it a makeshift shelter was hunkered down behind the fore-drop of a thick copse. Someone was living here. Hiding here. With a dog. And we were on their patch. Who was in there? An outcast? An escaped murderer on the run?

Yellow freaking fear is surprisingly mobilizing. We held our breath and tippy-toed towards the dead end of a barbed wire fence. Suddenly I understood why thrill seekers chase after, well, thrills. Commando like we scrambled over the fence, through several yards of viscous undergrowth, over another barbed wire fence, over a mossy stone wall, before emerging, bloodied and bedraggled, onto a recognisable footpath.

The pointy spire of Bernard and Mary’s church had, in another worrying turn of events, suddenly sunk from view. Earlier its triangular grey tip had squatted low on the horizon. An immovable, comforting landmark, exactly as all church spires ought to be. Talk of “getting our bearings” baffled me. A sense of direction is something which has always eluded me and I get travel sickness on the escalator in Sainsbury’s. It dawned on me that I didn’t actually know how to “get my bearings”. I began to wonder if I’d ever been supplied with bearings in the first place. What might they look like if I did have them? How would I recognise them? In the brain space where other people store maps, and bearings, I had nothing.

Firs Lane Flash

I had, however, witnessed first-hand the way wise men refer to their in-brain maps. Initially their bearings are activated by the rubbing of chin whiskers, in a clock wise direction, three times. Extra chin rubs are required when the person is seriously lost or there is poor visibility and/or fog. (Anti-clockwise chin rubbing, while verbalising the name of a location, appears to facilitate the storing of a map.) Next they blink a bit. I haven't counted exactly how many times they blink as this is quite difficult to do without appearing insane, but the blinking action does seem to summon up their previously stored maps at will. Pronouncing the word “So!” invokes an invisible magnetic force. It descends, swivelling them on their heels, before pointing them in a particular direction and helping them mentally navigate their way to the You-are-here arrow. Upon “arrival” at this known point, all that was previously unknown becomes familiar, and they begin nodding with pleasure and relief at the certainty of their own whereabouts.

This magical recall procedure always drew a blank for me, for there was nothing to recall. I had made considerable efforts to get my bearings. Now and then I’d spot a blade of grass and think: “that looks familiar, yes, I’ve definitely seen that blade of grass before, yes, I think I know where I am now.” Then a robin would appear. “Ah yes, my old friend the robin lives around here, we’re definitely going in the right direction.” And off I’d go into oblivion.

This was one of the reasons I didn’t completely trust myself to walk the rucks alone. The other reason was down to fleeting moments of paranoia. For sure, the rucks had a reputation. Up until recently my mostly second-hand impressions of these wastelands were poor. Think Badlands in the Lion King Movie. By noon it was ghostly. Most of the cyclists, joggers and dog walkers had left for work, school or the Probation Office. But then I crossed paths with a mature lady confidently walking her tiny dog alone. She had sensible hair and shoes and so I figured she must not be reckless or impulsive. Obviously a sensible woman walking alone is the key indicator of a safe and secure environment. However, she was also rocking a pair of bold tartan trousers which did not seem very sensible. In fact they were quite reckless. And possibly impulsive.

I struggled to interpret the meaning of this fashion statement in the context of personal safety. What if the trousers meant she’s a tough old bird who had survived World War Two and all manner of difficulties, is hard as nails and doesn’t really give a fig about personal safety? Right on cue, a moment of fleeting paranoia descended. In an instant the previous night’s dream was broken. Grainy monochrome footage replayed in my mind’s eye. In the dream I was being chased through a dark urban landscape by a predatory male figure. He was fast, but I was fired up and much faster. I easily outran him and quickly navigated my way to find safety within the bright lights of a chip shop. Remembering that I’m a very fast runner, with excellent bearings, and chips, was really quite exhilarating. Running while awake, lost and chip-less is a considerably slower, duller, experience, but my brain was already tricked out of threat detection mode, and the paranoia settled.

A faded sign pointed us back to one of the main footpaths and we relaxed enough to enjoy the fresh air. It was Autumn on the coal rucks, unseasonably warm, and the colours were gloriously intense. Blood red rose hips and Hawthorne berries danced like Christmas baubles in the sunlight. Warm red clovers were draped like a garland along the footpath's edge. Tall grass, bleached and scrubby, rustled in the wind, making the sound of sinking into a crisp cotton pillowcase on a summer’s night. Winter loomed large, but for now, the trees were holding onto their dappled display of golds and greens. All the trees seemed to be growing higgledy-piggledy, here, there and anywhere. I paused on the footpath, wanting to understand how they came to be that way. The crunching of my own footsteps ceased. A kestrel hovered silently on high. Something squawked below. A dash of sunshine. A splash of rain. The full bow of a rainbow arced over the random beauty of the rucks.

My heart nearly burst with joy at the sight of so many young oak trees growing freely in this once barren landscape. Along one trail I counted twelve oaks in as many footsteps. They seemed healthy, established and thriving everywhere. Swathes of riven-faced columns, their crowns adorned with acorns, reached well over fifteen feet tall. They stood to attention, like an army of dormant centurions who had risen from the rubble to take back the land. I like to fancy that Mother Nature, or God Himself, take your pick, had summoned them from slumber. Unfolding slo-mo from the ground they had emerged like ancient guardians brooding over this battered patch of earth.

Vengeful and just, their powerful roots gripped tight to the slaughtered spoil; that dreadful raw stuff dredged up from the underworld miles below. Each oak had punched down a system of deep-pile foundations. In turn, each foundation ejected an organic steely mesh of wiry cables, twisting and gripping and bracing the spoil. Condensing loose seams and compressing voids. Down they went, on and on, probing and locking into the bedrock below. Eternally binding the land we could see, back to the land we couldn’t see. Back to the land beneath, back to the land the rucks came from.

One day these mighty oak will tower above me and soar into the sky. When I am but dust they will be an ancient woodland. As my mind rested on this possibility, my hopes soared too. Such potential. Such resilience. Such recovery. I can remember when coal rucks were rightly regarded as “blots on the landscape”. They were ugly, scarred, unwelcoming shale deserts, in some respects a shameful sight, but with the passing of time these wastelands are becoming my Wainwrights, and I love them.

Images: Val Fraser