The spell of unusually warm late September weather was giving me itchy feet. So, after putting the Mersey walk on hold for a year while we brought our new allotment under control, I set off again – this time with the objective of walking the Etherow from Longdendale to where it joins the Goyt at Marple.
I left the car at the Longdendale Trail car park just beyond Hadfield railway station. I was walking the Etherow Way which for this first stretch follows the Longdendale Trail, a 14 kilometre track along the bed of the former Manchester to Sheffield railway that continues towards the headwaters of the Etherow near to the abandoned Woodhead Tunnel.
The tunnel was built for the Sheffield, Ashton-Under-Lyne and Manchester Railway in 1845 at a cost of 26 lives, and was one of the world’s longest railway tunnels at a length of over 3 miles. It was in heavy use for nearly 100 years, but had high maintenance costs and were too narrow and unsuitable for electrification so were closed in 1953 when an alternative tunnel was completed.
The source of the Etherow lies in the wonderfully named Featherbed Moss, not far to the south of Woodhead tunnel; the stream initially flows south, forming the Derbyshire – Yorkshire border, before turning westwards into Longdendale where a series of reservoirs were constructed by the Manchester and Salford Waterworks Company between 1848 and 1877.
For about half a mile my route followed the Longdendale Trail before branching off down the hillside to Bottoms Reservoir, the lowest of the chain of five reservoirs formed by the damming of the Etherow. I missed the turn and walked on for several hundred yards before retracing my steps to the point where the Etherow Way (here contiguous with the TransPennine Trail) emerges from a subway beneath the Longdendale Trail. This error was nothing compared to the one I was to make later.
Heading downhill towards the reservoir I overtook an elderly couple carrying shopping bags – a reminder that that these long-distance paths are composites of local paths that have been worn by generations of people walking to market, to work, or from one village to the next. The Trans Pennine Trail is a humdinger, running from Southport to Hornsea on the coast near Hull and linking across the North Sea to Rotterdam where it becomes European Route E8 continuing to Istanbul.
It was hard to believe that it was the last day of September – the sky was clear and blue, and soon the temperature was pushing towards the high seventies fahrenheit. The views of the surrounding fells were stunning. Looking east across the reservoir, the bulk of Bleaklow with its distinctive razor’s edge profile appeared almost benign under the blue sky. Between Bleaklow and its sister moorland plateau, Kinder Scout, runs the Snake Pass, the original winding road to Sheffield opened in 1820.
The water level in the reservoir looked very low, and this was confirmed by a local woman walking her dog along the path. There had been very little rain this year (last year, too) and, additionally, the water company has to periodically release water to maintain levels in the river downstream.
After skirting the reservoir the Etherow Way twists and turns through the outskirts of Tintwhistle and Hollingworth – past small industrial units, allotments, and through a council estate – before emerging to descend to Hollingworth Brook by way of the quiet Woolley Mill Lane. In the 19th century, Hollingworth grew from a small village as industry developed along the Etherow – spinning, weaving dyeing and bleaching. Again and again, as I walked the river, the extent to which the river had triggered the early developments of the industrial revolution was revealed through old mill buildings and other remains.
For another mile or so the path winds away up the valley across fields away from the river before descending to Broadbottom. It was here that I stopped for a picnic lunch on a rocky outcrop with dramatic views across the steep-sided gorge through which the Etherow flows at this point towards Cown Edge.
Just as dramatic was the view of Broadbottom viaduct traversing the Etherow. It was constructed in 1842 when the Manchester-Glossop railway came to town, and is 120 feet-high and 422 feet long. It was originally built of wood but burnt down in 1858, to be replaced by the present structure.
Change came to the village of Broadbottom in the 1790s, when cotton mills were built to take advantage of the Etherow’s fast-flowing waters. In the early 19th century an extensive group of mill buildings were established for cotton spinning and weaving. At its height in the 1860s some 1200 people were employed here – in the mills and in a huge printworks, where cloth was bleached and dyed.
Remarkably, one textile mill still operates in Broadbottom. Lymefield mill stands next to the Etherow and is approached down Lymefield Terrace, which the path follows at this point. The mill is currently occupied by Tiviot Prints Ltd. Beyond the mill, the path enters the Broad Mills Heritage site where the largest of several textile works established in and around Broadbottom from the late 18th century onwards were located. The industry was responsible for transforming a rural landscape into a busy industrial township. The attraction of the location for early entrepreneurs lay in the river Etherow which, when harnessed through the construction of weirs and mill leats, provided the power source for the mill machinery. Broad Mills was a collection of mills, including a calico printing mill, run by the Sidebottom family. In 1840, there were 25,000 spindles and 1,500 looms in operation here.
The remains of this industry are preserved in the Broad Mills Heritage site, with informative plaques explaining the original function of the ruins. There is a pond, constructed to feed the waterwheel that drove the cotton mills, and the remains of the system of water channels and wheel chamber that lay in the basement of one of the large cotton mills. Water from the river was diverted and would have rushed through the three archways into the wheel chamber. Regulated by sluice gates in the archways, the water turned a huge waterwheel. From this wheel power was transmitted by a series of gears, shafts and belts to the machinery on the floors above.
Also visible are the stone foundations of the first spinning mill built in the early 19th century by William and George Sidebottom. The mill once stood five storeys high and was over 300 feet long.
Leaving Broadbottom, the Etherow Way follows an unmade lane known as Hodge Lane. This was once part of an old packhorse route used to transport salt from Cheshire over the Pennines into Yorkshire.
Further on, Leylands Farm was once an inn, ‘The Cuckoo on the Nest’, serving the farm labourers of Hodgefold, a settlement of agricultural cottages.
Now the path entered Back Wood, climbing fairly steeply up through the old wildwood, a varied mix of oak, birch, sycamore, rowan and ash. Each time a light breeze stirred the trees, a fusillade of acorns would fall around me. This was delightful – but things were about to go very awry.
I reached the top of the wood and headed uphill across a field to a very muddy farmyard. Along the way, for the most part, the Etherow Way had been coterminous with the Trans Pennine Trail, and the waymarks had been for the Trans Pennine path. I had got sloppy and fallen into following these waymarks, rather than studying the Etherow Way guide I was carrying.
I walked on across a couple of fields following Etherow Way signs. It was mid-afternoon, and very hot out in the open (the last day of September – but one of the hottest days of the year). Following Etherow Way markers, the path descended through a wood – and I found myself back at the entrance to Back Wood, where I had been 25 minutes earlier. I could see now where I had gone wrong – on entering the wood the waymark points straight ahead for the Trans Pennine Trail, but to the left a less visible, unmarked path climbs steeply up steps. This is the Etherow Way, and I had been following it in the wrong direction.
There was nothing for it but to retrace my steps, back up the hillside through the woods. It wasn’t so bad – the wood was cool and peaceful, and after a while the path climbed along a lovely sunken lane before emerging into the open at Werneth Low Country Park.
I was out in the open now, heading towards the War Memorial that stands at the highest point of the Park.
In 1920, Hyde Borough Council purchased land at the Low and erected the Memorial as a lasting tribute to the 710 men who perished in the First World War. Reaching the summit, I wasn’t prepared for the views that opened up: to the west, the towers of Manchester shimmered in the heat haze, while to the east there were spectacular views back along the Etherow valley to Longdendale and the Pennine moors beyond.
From here, it was all downhill to Compstall. There is no path along the river at this point, so the path keeps to higher ground along the valley, affording great views across to the Peak District. After descending through muddy fields, the path emerged on the busy B6104 at Compstall where I downed a much-needed pint at The George Inn.
Restored, I left the Etherow Way and headed up a lane that forks off to the right just past The George to enter Brabyns Park where I would find my objective, the confluence of the Etherow and the Goyt.
The Mersey is formed from three tributaries: the Etherow, the Goyt, and the Tame. Although officially the Merseybegins at the confluence of the rivers Tame and Goyt in central Stockport, some definitions place its start here. For example, the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica states, ‘It is formed by the junction of the Goyt and the Etherow a short distance below Marple in Cheshire’. Good enough for me. I sat awhile, and let my mind drift with the ripples as the currents of the two rivers merged.
I carried on through Brabyns Park, first following the Goyt, then the towpath beside the Peak Forest Canal which rose through a series of locks before emerging onto the busy main road at Marple station. Here I caught the 394 bus to Glossop, and then the train back to Hadfield and the parked car. The drive back to Liverpool was a nightmare – traffic at walking pace through Tintwhistle and Hollingworth, then huge volumes of vehicles thundering along the M67 and M60 around Manchester. I was glad to reach home and sit on the patio in the unusual heat with food and a glass of wine as darkness fell.