I am not particularly into local history (I could be persuaded) but when you cycle on country roads, especially the narrow lanes that meander amongst ancient oaks and crumbling stone barns from years beginning with 16–, it's hard not to imagine how things might have been in times past. Like many parts of England, Lancashire is rich with history, and the lanes, sunken between thick hedgerows and dry stone walls, seem to weave a path through time. Mondays to Fridays these can be very quiet places indeed and it's nice to stop and look around.
My 'regular patch' so to speak, extends northwards from Horwich up to the village of Brindle and, on an east-west axis, roughly between Broadhead Road (east of Darwen) and Chorley, a region that is part of the West Pennine Moors but as the photos demonstrate, by no means all moorland. Some maps of Lancashire from 1829 (provided by Lancashire County Council) show the lanes and tracks as they were 184 years ago in 1829. I've marked a few places 'A' to 'F' both on the old map and a modern map of the same area. A number of reservoirs were built between 1850 to 1857 along with some Tudor-style cottages for waterworks staff. New lanes appeared and old ones diverted around the reservoirs, crossing the various dams etc; and others vanished beneath the water or became redundant.
Key to maps: 'A' is known as Rivington Road. Because it's a pass it existed then and still does now, and is part of the rather pointless Lancashire Cycleway. 'B' is a rough track over Healey Nab (see photo above, + more photos). Known as Heapey Fold Lane, now a public bridleway, it is no longer a public road as such; I don't know whether it ever was. Just south of 'B' is the village of Limbrick and the Black Horse: the second oldest licensed inn in England. 'C' and 'D' are where I took some of these photos the other day. The village of White Coppice is near 'D' but is not named as such on the 1829 map. This pretty name was perhaps thought up since by local people wanting a nice address. 'E' is a ridgeway – the traditional name for a trading route along the top of a range of hills – still a decent road I cycle on regularly. Lane 'F' doesn't seem to exist any more or Chris Bailey and I would have used it instead of pushing our bikes up a cobbled ramp when we cycled the West Pennine Moors and wanted to go from Darwen to Tockholes.
South East of 'E' is a lane that apparently used to run down off Denham Hill past Walmsley Fold and over the Leeds-Liverpool canal then joined a bigger road near Upper Simpson Fold. I have looked and never found this lane. It must not exist now, except perhaps as a public right of way. Other lanes on the old map are not marked in quite the same place as they are today; perhaps this map is inaccurate but they must also have been adjusted as the layout of fields and hamlets has evolved here and there over the years (and also to accommodate the reservoirs). Time passes, things change. Now of course there are motorways to contend with as well: here, the M61 and M65, which intrude audibly but not visually. They are fun to cycle over and (IMO) things of beauty. But not as lovely as these narrow lanes:
Contrary to what one might imagine out in the countryside, the condition of the asphalt is mostly excellent. It is rare to find a pot hole and the surface is free of the weeds and moss that normally invade everything. I have not quite fathomed why. It may be the depth of the asphalt, grown six inches thick with a hundred years of resurfacing without stripping the old surface off, or the low speed and intensity of traffic, or maybe farm tractors as wide as the lanes pulverise all vegetation they roll on, or something else. Whatever the reason, they are in a better state than many urban roads (my only complaint is hedge trimmings left on the floor; when they are thorns you must carry your bike).
I suspect the evolution has now pretty much stopped. Mature oaks are not easy to shift. Hedgerows are protected by planning regulations and Environmental Action Groups watch everything. The Campaign to Protect Rural England has its own Policy Position Statement on Hedgerows – including hedge banks and dry stone walls – which reminds us that England has lost more than half its hedgerows since 1947. That may be true but hedges and dry stone walls tend nowadays to be well maintained by farmers and other landowners, due to their fitness for purpose, practicality and economy as much as their obvious aesthetic and environmental qualities (post and wire fences do not compare). I am not too well-up on the plants that hedges are made of but I know there is hawthorn and beech and at this time of year, bluebells, cow parsley, buttercups and nettles. Biodiversity and stuff. Heritage. All part of what makes England England. And no wind farms. For cycling there is nowhere better.
Added later, for interest:
Belmont Village ('G') didn't exist in 1786, nor did the main road between Bolton and Preston, now the A675 which goes through Belmont (they are both shown on the 1829 map). The old road, redundant and now a farm track ('H'), has become part of the Witton Weavers Way. Which reminds me: historical information about this area, Winter Hill in particular, is to be found in Dave Lane's excellent Winter Hill Scrapbook (199-page PDF).