In the bleak midwinter- hardy walkers trek for winter solstice

CORRESPONDENT editor Tony Bugby joined a group of hardy walkers on a trek to Hartshead Pike for the winter solstice and was given a history lesson about the local landmark.

It conjured a romantic notion of hiking to Hartshead Pike Tower on the winter solstice and looking at the panoramic views, sometimes as far as Snowdonia on a clear day, as the sun rose on the horizon on the shortest day.

The reality was anything but that with a fine drizzle and gloomy conditions making it anything but a pleasant early-morning December stroll.

But the conditions did not deter a group of around 35 hardy souls who put on their walking boots and waterproofs to mark this highly symbolic time of year.

The winter solstice, also known as midwinter, occurs when one of the Earth’s poles has its maximum tilt away from the sun and marks the shortest day.

From December 21, each day gets lighter by two minutes until the summer solstice on June 21 which is celebrated even more – presumably as the weather in kinder – as many cultures have marked it with festivals and rituals for thousands of years.

The winter solstice walk is an annual event run by Tameside Council’s Greenspace team since the millennium while they have also organised a summer one since the mid-1990s.

It was a decidedly early start as the four-mile hike left Park Bridge Heritage Centre at 7.15am which is in the middle of nowhere and not the easiest place to locate in darkness when unfamiliar with the surroundings.

It was days later when I was given a history lesson when visiting Derek Rigby, 90, the former deputy editor of the Ashton Reporter Group of Newspapers when I began my journalistic career more than 40 years ago as a cub reporter.

Derek, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Ashton, was able to relate stories about when it was a vibrant industrial hub with rivets manufactured there that were used for the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

Its importance was such it once had its own station, one of four in Ashton when the railways were in their pomp before the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

It was dull and drizzly as the group gathered in the courtyard outside the heritage centre for an address from John Courtman, Greenspace’s development manager, before departing as the walkers snaked their way by torchlight up Alt Hill Lane.

It was a group of all aged with the youngest eight-year-old Reve Morrissey who was with her parents with the family from Manchester.

It also included mother and son Rachel and Richard Carter, from Dukinfield, and their Weimaraner dog Louis.

There were a number of pooches, all impeccably behaved and also in festive attire.

The route to Hartshead Pike was along roads and tracks, including Alt Hill Lane, Twirl Hill Road and Lily Lanes with various stops when things like a tithe stone were pointed out.

It is only on foot that you realise just how busy Lees New Road is as that was the only major highway to negotiate.

After about an hour we finally made it to the Pike but it was clear there would be no glorious sunrise as the drizzle/rain was horizontal and it was not the most pleasant place to be as it stands exposed at 940 feet (290 metres) above sea level.

John Courtman informed us there had been a monument on the site since pre-Christian times and it was a Saxon meeting place, though the imposing folly was rebuilt in 1863 by John Eaton to mark the wedding of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra of Denmark. The original building had been there since 1751.

The circular, grade II listed tower is constructed of hammer-dressed stone and in the 1930s the tower was open to the public and contained a sweet shop such was its popularity. In the days before cars were owned by the masses, this beauty spot was visited at weekends by hundreds, maybe thousands.

After reaching the tower we were instructed to John to make three circuits of it in an anti-clockwise direction, a sign of good luck.

There were readings on poetry, including the aptly-named Solstice, by John along with Lesley Bardsley, also a member of the Greenspace team.

John also entertained with tunes playing the flute while well-known local man Nigel Dix met us at the tower clad as a Roman centurion.

The last time I had encountered Nigel was at the Remembrance Sunday service in Stalybridge when he was dressed a mounted officer from WWI and sat on a sturdy cob Bilbo Baggins.

While the climb up to the Pike was a leisurely stroll on roads and tracks, the route back to Park Bridge was anything but that.

As it was light it was across rough grazing land and often ankle deep in water and mud, a legacy of a recent wet spell that had saturated the ground.

There were slippery footbridges to negotiate and the going under foot was challenging but everybody made it back in one piece.

And many were already looking forward to the summer solstice event which is at the opposite end of the day as the hike on June 21 will reach the Pike for sunset with the walkers joined by morris men, a spectacle that draws a far larger turnout to the winter solstice that was more for hardy souls.

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