The GM Ringway is a walkable work in progress that traces a surprisingly varied 300km (186-mile) loop through all 10 Greater Manchester boroughs, dipping in and out of the area’s social and industrial heritage and delivering dramatic panoramas at every turn.
Words by Mark Rowe I Photography by Steve Morgan
Mark heading for Mellor Moor, with Stockport and Manchester in the distance.
In the depths of December, when the mist is down, the wind up, Winter Hill must be well named. But on a sunny day, everything here feels far more welcoming. Rock pipits balance on quivering sprigs of gorse and the russet tones of the bracken and heather – greys, reds, blues and oranges – give the lie to the assumption that moorland is merely bleak and drab. Pausing by a curious double cairn known as Two Lads (the name is said to derive from a local legend about two lads losing their way and dying in a snowstorm), I take in the incredible landscape around me.
Three-quarters of the view is framed, like a reupholstered sofa, by hills and dales, chief among them the lumps and bumps of the Peak District and Pennines. To the west, the land slips towards cranes that line the docks of Liverpool.
In the belly button of this panorama, though still distant, are the high-rises of central Manchester, from where humanity radiates out in all directions, to Stockport away to the south and Bolton, which is right under my nose.
Winter Hill’s moorland pate and antenna masts is a distinctive Lancashire landmark. It’s also one of the highest points of a new walk, the GM Ringway.
Walking up Winter Hill.
The route covers 300km as it laps the city, winding through the countryside and green spaces of all 10 city boroughs. Comprising 20 stages (Winter Hill is in stage 14), each walkable in a day, the route was devised and mapped by Dr Andrew Read with the input and support of local Ramblers.
Andrew has always been a keen walker and a lover of long-distance trails, which, he says ‘offer the chance to walk through a variety of landscapes and places, rather than just doing a short loop in a day’. Finding himself in the centre of Manchester one day, he realised there was a loop to be constructed that could connect from trains or trams in the centre. ‘I started to put a few stages together,’ Andrew recalls. ‘The original idea was just to beaver away at the project, but through connections and talks, I joined the area’s Ramblers.’
By connecting the communities of the entire city region, the trail provides residents and visitors with a low-impact means of accessing and appreciating the environment. The ringway is designed
to enhance public health and reduce the city’s carbon footprint by encouraging active travel.
Andrew is looking to produce professional maps and provide full-scale mapping. For now, the route is not waymarked, but Andrew hopes that the social enterprise nature of the project will attract crowdfunding to help install waymarkers. CPRE Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region have all supported the long-term vision of the project. Downloadable GPX versions are available of every stage, along with guiding notes. Andrew and other Ramblers lead guided walks along stages of the ringway at weekends from March until the autumn – Covid-19 restrictions permitting.
Bridges at Castlefield.
Wide open space
It takes me the best part of three hours to navigate Winter Hill, negotiating ravines, known locally as cloughs, and tough, wind-battered woodlands, following plank lines across boggier stretches. On my descent, I tiptoe around the remains of brick and tile works, and reach a substantial, half-moon slab of limestone, which pays homage to a landmark in the history of campaigning for access. The memorial reads: ‘Will Yo’ Come O’ Sunday Morning?’ and recalls the mass trespass by 10,000 Boltonians, among them mill workers, coal miners and handloom weavers, on 6 September 1896 – 36 years before the more celebrated Kinder Scout events.
One of the few upsides of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the awareness it has stirred of the importance of nature and of having green spaces on our doorsteps that we can easily access. In such a context, the development of the ringway is remarkably well timed.
‘It gets us all looking at parts of the area we don’t really know about or have never visited,’ says Margaret Manning, area chair for Greater Manchester and High Peak Ramblers. ‘It shows people that this isn’t just a city of built-up areas – the boroughs are green and you can find yourself up in the hills. It’s good to have a ringway to walk around the city – that has to be better for you than a motorway or a ring road.’
The beauty of the ringway’s design is that you can either walk the entire 300km in one go, or you can opt for the bite-sized chunk tactic, selecting individual stages that appeal. Each one can be easily accessed by public transport as a standalone day walk from the centre of Manchester.
To this end, I elected for two hilly sections, followed by an easy-going canal segment. After Winter Hill, my second up-down leg lies to the south-east of the city centre, between Strines and Marple (stage six). Puffing uphill from New Mills, an unrelenting incline slowly leaves farmland and fields behind and chisels its way through rougher, higher ground and woodlands, passing a pub, the Fox Inn, that oozes character.
At a dogleg in the footpath, a conspicuous sign, 2m by 2m, points me the right way. I can only assume it was put there by an exasperated homeowner who finally lost patience with the numbers of walkers unintentionally walking up their driveway. The sign has another benefit, for it points me up towards Mellor Moor and a short, sharp track where I emerge above the treeline to drink in one of the loveliest views I’ve enjoyed in many a year.
Walking down from Mellor Moor.
First, there are the pleasing aesthetics of the path to take in, a geometric crescent of sheep-nibbled grass, immured behind a drystone wall on one side and heather and gorse on the other. Away to the south-east, the Dark Peak runs like etched charcoal across the skyline, Kinder Scout’s folds and bulk unmistakable. Adjacent (or so it seems from a distance) is the frowning brow of Stanage Edge. Then I notice the lighter colours of Mam Tor, the ‘Shivering Mountain’, now resembling a pyramid of sand in the sunlight.
Although I cannot pinpoint it, I am also gazing at the Wilderness, a boggy plateau near Oldham which, at 501m, is the highest point of the walk.
As the contours of Mellor Moor finally flatten out, the nuggety plateau offers more exceptional views: the hills of the Clywdian Range fanning out far to the west of the vale of Manchester. Beyond these the skyline features peaks from the Snowdonia range and, across a shimmering sea, the Isle of Man.
The path swoops downs to the village of Mellor, then heaves itself uphill once more, this time to the church of St Thomas. The church contains two remarkable objects – the font is thought to be one of the oldest in the world and is intricately carved with detailed figures on horseback. Experts place the font to at least Norman times, though some believe it may have Viking influences. The pulpit, 700 years old, is just as striking and tilts at an angle similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Modest remains of an Iron Age fort are adjacent to the graveyard.
Downhill I go again, this time into Marple, a small sprawling town with an original village still visible at its heart. Here, a series of 16 locks, originally designed for horse-drawn cargo, descend
a collective 64m.
There are more locks to be found on the last section of the ringway that I walk from Leigh into Wigan (stage 16), which turns out to be flatter than a squashed Eccles cake. More eye-catching than the locks is the return-to-nature spectacle of several former industrial sites known as ‘flashes’. These lakes are sites where colliery waste and ash were dumped, causing the land to subside. Rainwater naturally gathered in them and subsequent reclamation work has transformed them into high-quality wildlife reserves. The most striking is Pennington Flash, where you may see black-headed gulls and spot a heron prowling the riverbank. Were you to walk here at dawn in spring you will hear warblers and, if you strike lucky, the fluting notes of a nightingale.
Progress is quick and easy on this stretch and soon I enter Wigan, along the banks of the canal, ticking off, one by one, the flight of 21 locks. I’m walking in the footsteps of George Orwell, author of The Road to Wigan Pier, which was published in the 1930s. The most striking remaining structure here is the restored Trencherfield Mill, once a cotton-spinning mill powered by a colossal steam engine that today can be viewed by the public.
I wander around the lattice of canals – the last horse-drawn barge only passed through in the 1960s. It’s a gentle reminder that a great walk can be about so much more than stretching your legs. Along the ringway, I have enjoyed unexpected views, panoramas of great drama, explored grittier hinterlands, and constantly felt as though I were walking through social history. For these reasons, the GM Ringway is a fine idea and one that is well executed.
The 300km (186-mile) GM Ringway is divided into 20 stages (ranging from 9km to 12km) and takes up to three weeks to complete. However, each leg can be tackled separately and is connected by public transport from Manchester city centre.
OS OL Explorer 277: Manchester & Salford; 268: Wilmslow, Macclesfield & Congleton; 276: Bolton Central, Wigan & Warrington; 287: West Pennine Moors; OL1: The Peak District – Dark Peak; OL21: South Pennines; Landranger 109: Manchester, Bolton & Warrington.
gmringway.org. And for details of crowdfunding efforts to waymark the route, visit walkingprojects.com